Here in this Catholic hospital, there are crucifixes everywhere. In patient rooms, on the wall opposite the bed, at a height a little higher than the clock and a little lower than the TV, it is the crucified Jesus, hands and feet spiked to the wood, side pierced, skimpy cloth tied around his waist, thorns around his brow, eyes closed, thorax bulging, abdomen gaunt with the strain of hanging there.
The room gets chilly, and the first day or two, I distractedly thought he looked cold. I imagined tucking a washcloth-sized piece of fleece around him like a tiny Snuggie, or draping him with a paper towel from the dispenser beside the sink where everyone is supposed to wash hands when entering and leaving the room.
The crucifixes in more public areas — beside bulletin boards, in the family lounge at the end of the hall, at each nurses’ station — depict a more hopeful and also more distant risen Christ, still affixed to the cross, but lightly. He’s wearing a robe and cloak fastened like a cape, small wounds already healing on his palms and feet, arms raised, ascending. Transcending. He has an Amish-type beard, clean-shaven over the lip. The expression in his eyes is hard to read. It could be peace-filled, or wise, or patient, or just tired.
From the time I first read it, I have always loved one of the compline collects, or short prayers for the last service of the night, in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer:
“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”
That first Friday, I’m not sure whether it was concern for his modesty or my own discomfort at the shock of seeing him that made me want to cover Jesus up. A week later, it seems right that the one on patients’ walls is the one more like a patient: barely dressed, acquainted with suffering, in a place where the generalities of that prayer become acutely specific.