This Easter weekend the New York Times has published Eric V. Copage’s “pilgrimage, from Jordan to Jamaica, to find a multiethnic image of Christ.” At the beginning of the week, I finished posting essays my students he written on the depictions of Christ that employ different racial phenotypes here in Birmingham, Alabama, on our website www.MagicCityReligion.org.
One image of Christ that I often think of is that which used to hang over the altar at Saint Stephen the Martyr Catholic Church here in Birmingham. My wife and I attended St. Stephen (along with Trinity United Methodist) weekly for about seven years at the beginning of the century. She served there as a lay eucharistic minister. Not being Roman Catholic, I did not receive communion at St. Stephen’s and so had lots of extra time to pray before that cross.
I’ve always referred to it as the Christ of the Nations cross. I’m not sure if the parish’s founder, Father Frank Muscalino, taught me that name or if I invented it myself. St. Stephen was founded as a campus ministry parish. It is still a campus ministry center though now it is part of the parish of the Cathedral of St. Paul. In its early years the parish had a large number of international students in its membership. This was before the University of Alabama at Birmingham built lots of dorms and developed a large residential undergraduate program. This international identity was reflected in the art and architecture of the church. In the architecture, it was through the absence of kneelers for the congregation (a feature which I remember Fr. Frank explaining by referring to the fact that kneelers were not used in the home countries of many in the congregation). In the art, it was through the crucifix over the altar.
The crucifix was a two dimensional icon with the body of Christ folded forward 45 degrees and the cross folded backwards the same. A spot light was placed above it so that it cast the shadow of a cross running from corner to corner of square altar underneath. This altar still stands in the exact center of the square church. Each side of the two arms of the image of Jesus appeared as a different race. With the corpus angled forward, the cross itself was empty, a symbol of the resurrection.
For me this was always a powerful reminder that Christ’s identity transcends the physical features of the body of Jesus of Nazareth while yet being integrally a part of his life in all of its various stages from birth to death to resurrection to ascension to future coming.
St Stephen opened in 1991 and featured a number of different temporary art installations in its early years. Several were experimental and perhaps this piece is best also seen as experimental. It certainly did not meet any strict definitions of what a crucifix at an altar should be. I expect, is one reason it was removed. But I wish it was still there.
Of the eight or so churches that have played the role of “home church” for me, St. Stephen is the only one whose space focused on an single prominent image of Christ. There is much wisdom in not having a single image as a focal point. I know of more than one congregation that embarrassed by the style or form of a Jesus in their church that they just don’t have the heart or funds to expunge. I can understand why the cross over the altar at St. Stephen was removed. But I liked the Christ of the Nations. I do think of it often. I hope to get students to write a study of it in the future.
Update November 21, 2020: First-year Samford student, Sidney Hearn wrote an essay on the image in fall 2020. You can read it here. I have also learned from Fr. Justin Ward that the image was moved to Birmingham’s Holy Family Christo Rey High School.