A falling crucifix and a crisis of faith

To hear of a man crushed by a giant crucifix, it should rightly give us pause. Years ago I heard of a man who prayed before a statue of Christ on the cross every day, asking God’s mercy for the man’s wife who was battling cancer. His wife made it through, and after enduring the pain and emotional exhaustion of that fight, the man wanted to clean the statue in appreciation. Except, the statue fell on him, leading to his leg being amputated. The church raised money and donations for the man, but he ended up suing.

I’ve carried this story with me for so long not just because of the many twists and turns in it, but also because of some clumsy writing in the news story about it, and what genuine theological issues we might consider from it. We’ll explore some of them in this short episode of Faith Full.

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Before we get too deep into this wild story, I want to express sympathy for the people involved. To battle cancer, to believe prayers have been answered, to lose a leg in an accident with a falling crucifix—it’s all a bit much and demands some thoughtfulness.

The story from 2012 originally came from local TV station CBS 2 in New York, about David Jimenez…

Jimenez’s lawyer reiterates that his client believed his devotion to the crucifix was responsible for his wife being cured. That’s why he asked permission to clean the crucifix since it was seen as having been neglected.

The 600-pound statue was supported only by one screw in its base, the lawyer says. The church gathered donations of goods and money, but Jimenez filed suit to try to expedite a settlement from the archdiocese’s insurance company, looking for 3-million-dollars.

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A deeper meaning, or not so much?

It’s a wild story that not surprisingly attracted naysayers in the comments. Some say it was clearly a message or a bad omen. For me, it sparked a number of questions. Is it accurate to say the man prayed to the crucifix, and that he felt the object had power? Does it mean something if a crucifix falls down? What is this story saying, or not, about faith, and about God?

CLIP: Jimenez, who believes in the power of prayer, is now praying for a judgment, not from a higher authority, but from a civil court.

This is tacky writing in my opinion. It also seems to feed a faith-skeptic view as seen in the video’s comments. The headline proclaims Mr. Jimenez as “Deeply religious;” his devotion to the cross is mentioned throughout. Those faith-skeptics might proclaim: Ahh, see what good faith is? See what praying leads to? It did not help you? Where was God?

I do not share those skeptical views of faith. But I did, briefly, go down a rabbit hole.

Screenshot of the news story about Mr. Jimenez.

First, this supposed devotion to the crucifix. While a crucifix is a holy symbol, it is not to be prayed to directly, similar to statues and icons. The crucifix is an object to remind the believer, or focus the believer’s attention on God. By praying to an object, as the awkward syntax in the news story presents, the crucifix has itself become an idol. There’s also a difference between showing reverence to an image of Christ, for example, and praying to an object. The reverence is shown in respect to Christ, and not because it’s a thing.

The cynical Christian might say, “Well, so the man prayed to an object, and thus was taught a lesson by God.” Despite graphic episodes in the Old Testament, I tend to think God’s new covenant makes clear he is not in the smiting business. He is a loving God. In the view of Christianity, it is through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection that man is saved, and provided the Holy Spirit to discern manifestations of God within us and others. Catholics and Protestants can disagree on the role of the crucifix or a bare cross and how they are interpreted, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Superstition and religious imagery

There is a fair bit of superstition around religious symbols. Certain cultures or popular media may see a crucifix falling as a sign of something ominous. Or sometimes in horror films a crucifix may turn upside down as a sign something spooky is happening. The Church has established norms for discerning whether something—good or not—is of supernatural origin. In May 2024, the Vatican updated the norms for figuring out what is supernatural, and what are not.

On the issue of a crucifix in particular: some anti-Christians have tried to co-opt an upside down cross, though that is actually Christian as well. The Petrine cross is a symbol of Peter, who didn’t deem himself worthy of dying in the same manner as Christ, so he was crucified upside down. While the Holy Rosary, Holy Water, a crucifix, can be instruments of the faith through prayer, God’s power is beyond an object.

“Crucifixion of St. Peter” by Caravaggio (public domain)

The problem of pain

That cynic may then ask, “Then why would a God allow this to happen to this man? One who showed devotion? One who is very religious? Why would God cure a man’s wife, only to take his leg? How does that prove God is loving, if he would allow such pain?”

Sometimes things fall down. A crucifix or a picture falling off the wall might mean nothing more than..it fell off the wall. But the issue of pain, and suffering, is one often invoked in considerations of the existence or purpose of God. C.S. Lewis, of course, expounded upon the issue in “The Problem of Pain.” I do not believe this episode with the crucifix is the same issue as the broader question of why pain exists, however.

Man-made atrocities are the product and consequence of free-will. Because we were given free-will, the consequence is the existence of evil in the world, and the possibility of sin. Natural disasters are not the consequence of free-will, of course, but are occurrences we have to manage.

How can someone dying from a hurricane prove God’s love? It doesn’t. We all die. We all are afforded a certain amount of time on Earth. Our end is predetermined. The fact our end will come, and is known by God, does not contradict the idea of free-will because we still choose how to live in the time afforded us. We choose while we can. And we know not the day, nor the hour, when our time will be done.

Why would a leg be crushed?

So, back to Mr. Jimenez. If we take the news story at face value, that Mr. Jimenez is a ‘deeply religious’ man, and he has chosen to be devoted to God, then why is his leg crushed?

It may not be satisfying, but no one on this side of Heaven can know why this happened as it did. We do not know fully where we are going in life, the lessons we must learn, the spiritual growth we must experience. We do not know if opportunities for charity are at first blurred by pain and what we see as tragedy. And this goes for anyone, facing anything in life.

Do I find it good that this man has lost his leg? No, of course not.

But we cannot know why this happened. It is through faith we seek the strength to believe in the plan set long before we came into existence. And it is in faith that we seek strength to stay the course when met with epic sadness, or seemingly insurmountable pain.

At times, I don’t think we know how much we can handle, or how much more we must grow or experience. We do not know everything. Jesus recognized the difficulty of our having true faith in what cannot be known, referencing the power afforded by faith only as big as a mustard seed.

It is in those darkest of nights, in the face of the most daunting tasks, that even the slightest bit of faith can give us the strength to push farther than our minds, hearts and souls believed to be possible.

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