I began to get impatient as Lizzie meticulously studied each wooden cross. All had been hand-crafted, making them unique in appearance and her examination process made it a time-consuming process.
Lizzie is a young lady who lives on Perth streets; she’s probably no older than 30, but it is difficult to tell.
Her eyes are often bloodshot from sniffing glue and drinking cheap alcohol, she is usually angry, sometimes aggressive, and is regularly sporting cuts and bruises.
Today one of her eyes is swollen shut, but she isn’t looking for sympathy – she never does. She didn’t even want a blanket or a hot coffee on this cold night. She had come with one purpose – to get one of the small crosses she knew I gave out.
Lizzie was looking at the few I had left.
They had been individually crafted by a wonderful man who had recently passed away.
It had been his way of spreading God’s love to those living on the streets. He would lovingly carve, shape and polish each cross, specifically praying for the person who would receive it.
It was the individuality of each cross that made Lizzie’s choice so difficult. My impatience slowly dissipated as I realised she was simply looking for a cross that best reflected the struggle she carried within.
That was the beauty of these crosses – no two were the same – some were bent, some were twisted, none was perfectly shaped.
They mirrored the lives of those who received them – each sculptured by the hurt and suffering that had been inflicted upon them.
But what the crosses did have in common, however, was their message of resurrection and hope.
Finally, after holding each one to the light and muttering to herself, Lizzie’s eyes lit up.
“This is the one,” she whispered.
The experience caused me to reflect on the significance of the cross for a broken humanity. Its presence in Catholic circles has long caused controversy, with outsiders regularly making accusations of idolatry.
Having been raised in a Catholic family, the presence of the cross, whether in the Church, at home or as a gift on sacramental occasions, had become second nature, so I had never really given it much thought.
Watching Lizzie’s drawn out selection process made me ponder a more profound symbolism: It can be easy to lose an appreciation of the intimacy of Jesus’ act of sacrificial love.
From an early age we are introduced to pharses such as, “Christ died for all our sins” and “he suffered for all humanity” and it can be difficult to personally relate to such broad theological aphorisms.
But Lizzie didn’t seem to have that struggle – on the contrary, she appeared to have an intimate connection with Jesus’ suffering.
He was someone who could understand her pain, just as she could understand his, and she was able to cling to the promise that came through it.
A few weeks later I came across Lizzie again. She was looking more dishevelled and agitated than usual. People were scattering in all directions as she screamed out threats and abuse to anyone in her vicinity. My heart skipped a beat as she spotted me and began to stagger over, glue bottle in hand. But her anger suddenly disappeared and her eyes revealed the sadness behind it.
Her shoulders slumped as she stared at the ground. “Do you have any more crosses?” she mumbled.
My immediate response was one of disappointment.
“What happened to the last one?” I asked, envisioning that it had been lost in a fight or forgotten somewhere in a glue-sniffing haze.
Tears began to roll down her cheek. “I put it in my brother’s coffin”, she wept. “He killed himself”.
I was hit with a wave of guilt and sadness. The cross that had meant so much to her was now lying beside her dead brother.
She had left him a most precious gift – uniting his pain and suffering with the promise of new life that she had found in it.
I placed my arm around her as she began to sob. Her body shook as her grief spilled out. Only God knew the lifetime of trauma that lay buried within her.
But for this brief moment the veneer of anger and violence came tumbling down to reveal a glimmer of the agony that lay behind her life of self-destruction.
As Lizzie’s weeping subsided I told her that I didn’t have any crosses with me, but I promised that I would have one for her next time we met.
As I watched her disappear into the night I reflected on the gift that she had left me.
I know it is just a piece of wood. But to Lizzie, as it should be to all of us, it is a symbol of hope – a reminder that no amount of darkness that can be conjured in this world will ever overcome the light and love of the Jesus’ sacrifice.