A massive earthquake struck the town of Ocotlán, Mexico, not too far from Guadalajara on October 2, 1847, the same year Saint Mark’s was founded. The earthquake leveled most buildings in the town and rendered whatever was left standing uninhabitable. The next day, according to the mayor of the town, Juan Antonio Ximénez, “the perfect image of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross was seen [in the sky] between west and north, formed between two clouds and lasting for half an hour, in which time more than 1,500 people who were in the plaza fell to their knees, performing acts of contrition and crying to the Lord to show mercy.”
Many decades later, in 2010, in a church in that same town, a crown of thorns that had been placed by a statue of Jesus began to bloom, showing “several pink, trumpet-like flowers coming out of it and a few other green shoots with leaves….” Mind you, this miracle involved a crown “made out of a thorny desert plant that had been twisted into a circle” by some local pious soul, and not an actual relic of the actual Crown of Thorns that was placed on the head of Jesus, as St. John and two of the other evangelists report.
That Crown of Thorns has been famously featured in the news all week, since the un-rivaled hero of this Holy Week must surely be Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade, who is credited with ensuring the safe recovery from the flames of Notre Dame of the relic of the Crown of the Thorns. That relic is, in fact “a twisted circlet of juncus balticus rushes, to which no thorns are any longer attached. The thorns themselves - maybe as many as 60 or 70 of them - have long ago been disseminated as separate relics: trophies for the faithful (or the victorious) who prize such things. Fr. Fournier also took pains to rescue the Blessed Sacrament from Notre Dame. And the New York Times reports that on his way out of the cathedral, whose roof was in blazes by then, “Father Fournier, alone in the nave, gave a benediction to the cathedral. He said, ‘I thought Jesus could help us a little bit, and work, too,’” in the effort to save that holy place.
The thorns themselves (so long detached from their associated diadem of rushes), that are found in reliquaries such as a famous one at the British Museum, seem to come from another species of plant altogether: ziziphus spina-christi. But this is an un-troubling detail to many, and I don’t see why we should trouble ourselves with it today.
Today the question on our minds might be to wonder what difference the Crown of Thorns could make in the world today. And this is just another way of asking what difference the death of Jesus on the Cross could make to anyone in the world today.
While we are considering legends of the Crown of Thorns, we should include the old legend that tells of a group of swallows that were flitting around the Cross that day so long ago at Calvary. Those birds used their little beaks to remove from Jesus’ flesh, and from the entwined circlet around his head, the thorns that pierced the steady brow of the Crucified Christ. The legend goes on to say that one particularly pious swallow - the first swallow to remove a thorn from Christ’s brow - then took off on a 3600 kilometer flight. This was no great feat for the bird, except that he or she accomplished this flight without ever losing the thorn. The ambitious and athletic swallow is said to have flown to the Sierra de Guadarrama, outside of Madrid, where it sought out a hilltop, and there it died of exhaustion, and was buried beneath the earth, perhaps by the earth itself. And to this day the hilltop is known a El Cerro de la Golondrina: the Hill of the Swallow. Curiously the legend reports no result of the swallow’s efforts, or outcome of its death. No shrub sprang up in the place where it died. No tree blossoms there to mark the holy season of Christ’s death and resurrection. As far as I know, the hilltop does not even provide a regular resting place for swallows on their migratory pilgrimage. But the view is very nice.
If you do a little asking, you will eventually find that the reason the thorns from the Crown that was placed on Jesus’ head at his Crucifixion are so sought after, is that they are counted among that minuscule number of objects still extant in the world today that have been in contact with his Blood. Now, most 21st-century Christians do not spend much time thinking in terms of the shedding of blood in ritual sacrifice, and what such sacrifice could accomplish, and how. But most first-century Jews did think precisely in these terms. And especially on this day: the beginning of Passover, when the blood of the slaughtered lamb was to be smeared on the doorposts and the lintels of their houses in order to protect and save the children of God’s chosen people, when the angel of death came past on his way to begin the process of their salvation. The Passover lamb was no scapegoat: it was the supplier of blood, as well as the food for the meal that would send them on their way to freedom. But first and foremost it was the supplier of blood, which everybody knew was also the stuff of life. And which God had told Moses would ensure life for his people, whose lives had become a misery for the benefit of their political and economic masters. And that’s why tonight will be different from every other night.
Back in Mexico, no one remembers anymore just what the vision of the crucified Christ that appeared in the sky looked like. Was it an image of a Velasquez painting? Was it a 3-D sort-of hologram? Was it more like Virtual Reality? Or was it a configuration of clouds that suggested to one and all who gazed upward, the form of the Son of God with his arms stretched out on the Cross, as he uttered his words of resignation or accomplishment: “It is finished”? Maybe it was a mass-hallucination, made all the more plausible as people talked with one another and convinced themselves that they had seen something that they could not possibly have seen… the way people do.
But in truth, it hardly matters. Remember, this vision appeared on the day after a devastating earthquake, when death and destruction surrounded them, and when the daily realities of their very existence had been thrown into chaos and disarray. They were frightened and worried. They were injured and mourning. They were hungry and thirsty. They were anxious and uncertain about the most essential things. Mayor Ximénez reports that “there was terror and fright everywhere, especially when rocks broke away from the hill and the wild animals were terrified.” But then they saw an image of Jesus in the clouds. And on [his] face was an expression combining love and reassurance.” And the effect of the vision (mass-hallucination or not) was to bring calm and hope to those whose lives had been shattered just the day before. I think I’d settle for a mass-hallucination like that.
We tell ourselves that we no longer believe in such legends because we know better, because everything we have learned about the world has taught is that such stories cannot be true, and because we are sophisticated people who will not be manipulated by tales that the church uses to get us to do as we are told. We no longer buy into such foolishness. All of this is true.
But it might also be true that we no longer pay attention to such legends, or to the legend of the swallows, or put much stock in the Crown of Thorns because we have stopped believing that the Death of Jesus on the Cross has much impact on our lives. We have lost track of the meaning of the Crucifixion. And we have given up on the idea that that there is any power in the Blood of the Lamb, as the old spiritual used to promise. All of which suggests that we have also given up on the idea that God could protect and save his people; that he is leading us to salvation; and that the supplier of blood is of inestimable value to those who hope for anything like freedom, anything like life; and who hope that tomorrow will be different from all our yesterdays.
Fr. Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, must know a thing or two about people who have given up. He was on the scene when a terrorist took the lives of journalists in Paris in 2015. And he was with those who responded to the terror attack that killed 90 people later that year in the same city. And he served with French forces in the endless war in Afghanistan, and was nearby when an ambush left ten of his soldiers dead. I am sure he has seen a few people give up on hope.
I would think, that like you and like me, Fr. Fournier is not expecting a vision of Jesus in the clouds. I would think that he does not expect a migration of swallows to perform a miracle for the world. But I am struck by the image of this man, making his way through the cavernous cathedral, while its roof burns above him… where he stopped, having accomplished his aim of rescuing the Crown of Thorns and the Blessed Sacrament of the Body of the One whose head once wore that Crown. He stopped to give a blessing, there beneath the flames, which is to say he offered a prayer there for God’s help in time of trouble.
Fr. Fournier, despite all he has seen, has not given up on the One whose Blood was poured out on hill beyond the city wall, all those years ago. And I believe that he has provided us with an indispensable motto for our times… for those of us who still hold on to hope, and who can see how it is that God might be at work in the world, and who know that it is for us and for our salvation that there is still power to be found in the Blood of the Lamb. There, in Notre Dame, as the roof was succumbing to the flames, having directed the firefighters in the rescue of the Crown of Thorns, Fr. Fournier stopped to pray. There remained, of course, much work to be done, a great deal more to try to save. Fr. Fournier explained why he stopped to pray. He said, “I thought Jesus could help us a little bit, and work, too….”
I think so too. And if I could, I would fly to the top of the Cross and I would remove one of the thorns from Jesus’ bleeding brow, to relieve his suffering just a little, and to bring hope to those who have lost it. And I would carry that thorn with me wherever I go, until my dying day.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Good Friday 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
*Details of the letter of Juan Antonio Ximénez on 3 October 1847, and of the various miracles of Ocotlán are all from Robert Bitto in “Jesus in the Sky and the Flowering Crown of Thorns,” www. mexicounexlpained.com
**Details of Fr. Fournier’s rescue of the relic and the Blessed Sacrament and other details about Fr. Fournier are from The Chaplain, the Cathedral Fire and the Race to Rescue Notre Dame’s Relics, by Elian Peltier in the New York Times, 17 April 2019