By Bishop Oscar Cantú
The Valley Catholic – April 9, 2020
Today, we are seeing extensive suffering. And in these stories of suffering, we are witnessing faith and hope and love that sustain sacrifices. From those who were confined to their sleeping quarters aboard ships to those who have lost loved ones to the deadly Coronavirus, to the courageous and heroic medical professionals who risk their lives to care for others – people are suffering. Each of us is making sacrifices. Some make great sacrifices, like our medical personnel, who because of their exposure in caring for the ill, don’t get to go home to be with family. Others, like most of us, make the daily sacrifice of staying at and working from home. And an unprecedented number of people are losing jobs, income, a sense of security, and more.
As we begin our Easter celebration, I invite us to reflect on the mosaic of the “Tree of Life” at the Basilica of St. Clement in Rome. It presents a profound understanding of the meaning of redemptive suffering, stemming from the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.
The mosaic depicts Jesus on the Cross, with Mary and St. John at the foot of the Cross. From the base of the Cross springs a large vine with extensive branches which fill the rest of the mosaic, reminiscent of Jesus’ description of himself as the Vine (cf. Jn 15:5). Just below the root of the vine is a spring of water flowing outward (cf. Jn 4:7-15; 7:37-39 Jesus gives “living water”). Deer are depicted drinking from the stream. Sheep and other animals are refreshed by the flowing waters, as well (cf. Ps. 23:2)
Thus the Cross is presented as the new “Tree of Life,” as it brings life to all who are connected to it through the branches of the vine. The various figures depicted along the branches are people from various walks of life: clerks, scholars, farmers, and shepherds. In spite of their different states in life, their wealth or poverty, education or skill, they are all connected to life through the vine. They derive their life and meaning from the Cross of Jesus.
As we now celebrate the Paschal Mystery (the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus), we contemplate the key turning point in human history, when Jesus transformed the meaning of suffering. He made it redemptive. With Jesus, suffering became sacrificial (literally, “to make sacred”). Sacrifice can be deeply meaningful, when offered with faith, hope, and love.
In spite of the sacrifices, great and small, we are witnessing in these days, and perhaps because of these sacrifices, there seems to be in the air a sense of solidarity. As Pope Francis recently noted, “we’re all in the same boat.” At Eastertime, and in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, Christians are reminded of the one, Jesus Christ, who made suffering not only meaningful, but redemptive, contributing to the good and eternal salvation of our souls.
In the Tree of Life mosaic at St. Clement, while life flourishes and swirls around the branches of the vine, they all are connected to the source of their life and meaning – Jesus victorious on the Cross.
Now more than ever in these trying times, we are invited to quench our spiritual thirst from the living waters, Jesus himself. Perhaps the psalmist best described the yearning of our hearts, “As the deer longs for running streams, so my soul longs for you, my God” (Ps. 42:1).
It is in this context of faith and hope that I wish you all a Blessed Easter.
Bishop Oscar Cantú
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