By Judith Costello
For The Catholic Messenger
The students in our first-grade class at All Saints Catholic School in Davenport were a bit rowdy one day this Lent, maybe eager for spring and excited about the lifting of pandemic protocols. As we began talking about the Passion of Jesus, I asked the little ones to do an experiment. They had to stand and put their arms straight out to the side, like Jesus when he was on the cross. At first, it seemed like what we did when we were “distancing,” measuring the proper space apart.
But the Cross Challenge means trying to keep your arms in that position for a full three minutes without easing them. It certainly doesn’t sound hard. But it is! We imagined what it was like for Jesus, hanging on the cross for a full three hours, with the full weight of his body sagging from his hands and arms.
The children giggled doing the exercise. Some gave up and sat down. Many eased their arms. One boy, who had been Jesus in a little skit before this, was determined to hang on. You can find the other part of this exercise in Exodus 17:8-16. Moses pre-figures the cross position. God instructed him to hold out his arms in the Orans prayer position of the priest. As long as Moses extended his arms, Joshua made progress in the battle against the Amalekites. As long as Moses had his arms in this position, his people received God’s help against the evil of that day. But as Moses grew weak, the battle went the other way.
When Jesus hung on the tree, he did so as an act of the greatest love. He didn’t want that agony. But he accepted the cross so that he could bear our sins. In the Exodus story, Moses, a very old man, could not possibly bear the agony he felt in his arms. He was not strong enough. But he could do it with help. His brother Aaron and their companion Hur gave him a rock to sit on. Then they held up his arms. We need to help each other on the way of the cross. We need to support each other in order to endure the crosses of life on the journey to resurrection and new life.
This Lent we also heard the story of three men thrown into a blazing furnace (Daniel 3:19-90). The school children were intrigued by this story. In the story (shown in my drawing), three young people know they will be killed unless they worship the king as a god. They refuse. Imagine the fear that could overtake their minds as they faced the hottest fire imaginable! Yet, they trusted. They held up each other’s arms. They focused on the resurrection that would come after their faithful witness. Suddenly, a cooling light surrounded the three. A fourth figure appeared in the fire, an angel of God, who saved them.
When I was in New Mexico, I had three altar servers pose for me as the three young people — Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. One put his hands out as if he was pushing the fire away and maybe pushing away fear as well. The other lifted up his arms as if to praise God and the third prayed with his hands at his chest. The image is of faith, hope and love.
No matter what crosses we face in life, no matter how terrible the storms that swirl around us, we have help — in the Church, in angels and saints, in the beauty of the cross and Jesus’ love. And in the readiness of children to trust and carry on.