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Starting Point

Jesus, humble as driftwood


Some friends gave me a driftwood crucifix. It’s beautiful in a spare and abstract way. The cross is made of weathered, broken slats from old lobster traps. The corpus is a y-shaped stick above which is mounted a wooden triangle for a head. Black fishnet makes a crown of thorns.

For two years my spiritual director has been haunting me with the Jesus question.

You know, the “Who is Jesus for you?” question. He is not expecting an answer, for he knows I can’t give one. I accept it like a Zen koan. It’s an invitation to look for what cannot be seen, to stand inside a paradox, to ponder an unsolvable puzzle. When one looks deeply enough into such a question, the mind eventually comes to stillness, and the heart opens.

So I sit with this driftwood crucifix, breathing in the outlined image of this Jesus who is more than breath to me, more than heartbeat. This Jesus is the ultimate unanswerable question because he is too close to see and too vast to comprehend. He is hidden inside every atom, every particle in the universe. He honors our autonomy, treats us gently, refuses to overpower us. And yet he also appears unbidden, just when we are most in need and have forgotten or been afraid to ask. He stands at the center of everything, holds together all opposites, reconciles all things within himself. Here is Jesus the Good Man as well as Jesus the Cosmic Christ. Here is the one who is as ordinary as bread and as surprising as resurrection. Here is the God who suffers and dies with us and yet is not destroyed. He passes through that which is unbearable and takes us with him to the other side.

I like this crucifix because it is so local, springing so naturally from this landscape and culture. In it I can feel the fishermen, the boats, the lobsters, the wind and the waves and the sun. Its substance is soft and worn and faded, as are we who live here, battered by weather, work and poverty and by the intimate, inescapable social exposure of small-town life. Perceiving Jesus in this vague unglamorous driftwood shape, emerging from and hovering over the absolute particularity of this time and place, requires an act of imagination and will that is perhaps the very essence of faith.

It is the same act of faith, the same effort of imagination that I call upon in looking for Jesus in every person, every circumstance, immediate and local as well as global and universal. So I find him here in the hard-working people in this little fishing village. I find him in their patience, humor and their astonishing capacity to endure tragedy and loss. I find him in all our clumsy but sincere attempts to communicate, cooperate and dream together about how to be a community. I find him in our tiny parish as we struggle to rediscover and perhaps redefine what it means to be Catholic. I find him in conversations with distant friends and in the sorrowful stories of the suffering poor throughout the world. I find him in the victims of the violence and greed that saturate the planet now, and in the heroic tales of living saints and martyrs who are offering their lives to serve and stand with the oppressed.

I don’t know who he is, because he won’t be tamed or defined, but I choose to believe -- and sometimes I can see -- that he is here, immersed in the human endeavor, embracing each of our lives, calling and coaxing and dancing us onward. He is here, giving us patience and strength to keep trying to love one another, offering us wisdom, bringing us every day to a new and deeper conversion, inviting us into his infinite life. Humble as driftwood, he moves among us, willing to be the question and waiting for us to become the answer.

Mary Vineyard lives in Lubec, Maine.

National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2002