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One Crucifixion (553)
Emily Dickinson

One Crucifixion is recorded – only –
How many be
Is not affirmed of Mathematics—
Or History—
One Calvary—exhibited to Stranger—
As many be
As persons – or Peninsulas –
Gethsemane –
Is but a Province – in the Being’s Centre –
Judea –
For Journey – or Crusade’s Achieving –
Too near –
Our Lord – indeed – made Compound Witness –
And yet –
There’s newer – nearer Crucifixion
Than That –
In this Holy Week edition, we’re reading Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson is probably the most famous recluse in American literature—who knows, maybe in world literature!  For most of her life, she never left the boundaries of her family home and garden. And yet her diction—her word choices—would suggest just the opposite. Dickinson’s poems are full of distance and space. She loves to use words and images from geography, like circumference, firmament, peninsula, globe; and from astronomy - universe, worlds, stars. Her poems are full of the names of places she never visited but clearly spent time imagining: Tunis, Haworth, Turkey, Geneva, Gibraltar, and dozens of others.
In this poem, Dickinson reflects on the crucifixion and on places associated with the life and death of Jesus. The 19th-century Protestant world in which Dickinson lived had a great fascination with the Holy Land. While they found Catholic ideas of touching relics and making pilgrimages quite suspect, they had a deep desire to discover the historical Jesus—where he lived, what he saw, heard, and felt. The paintings of Biblical landscapes and scenes by Holman Hunt, and Lew Wallace’s famous novel Ben-Hur, both of which shared an obsession with depicting the world of Jesus in accurate detail, are two examples of this movement. Dickinson herself would surely have encountered people who had made the journey to the Holy Land in an effort to ‘bring the Bible to life.’
But, as always, Dickinson has a unique perspective. “One Crucifixion is recorded – only –  / How many be / Is not affirmed of Mathematics— / Or History.” We only speak of one Crucifixion, that of Jesus. But there were many others, not counted by “mathematics” or recorded in “history.”
Dickinson extends this reflection in the second stanza. Just one Calvary is “exhibited to Stranger.” There is one place that is shown to pious visitors to Jerusalem—but there are more Calvarys than that. In fact, she says, there are as many Calvarys as there are “persons” or “peninsulas.” The place of crucifixion is everyone, and everywhere. And Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus prayed in agony before his arrest, is not simply a geographical place. “Gethsemane - / Is but a Province – in the Being’s Centre.” To find Gethsemane, we need to look not without but within. Judea, the land where Jesus lived, is “too near” for a journey, too close at hand for a crusade.
Dickinson began her poem with the “One Crucifixion,” that of Jesus, and she comes back to that idea in the last stanza. “Our Lord – indeed – made Compound Witness.” The saving death of Jesus on the cross, once for all, has “Compound Witness”—it overflows in grace for all of humanity. But, Dickinson writes, “There’s newer – nearer Crucifixion / Than That –.” Every person carries their own cross, their own suffering and pain, their own Calvary.
Dickinson’s poem reminds me of the words of Jesus when he spoke of his approaching passion to his disciples: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) .To participate in the life of Jesus, to have a share in his saving work, does not mean we will be spared the cross. Quite the reverse. Jesus promises that each of us will carry their own cross. For Dickinson, the whole life of Jesus—from Judea to Gethsemane to Calvary—is not far away, but within us—in our suffering.
I think this poem is an appropriate one to reflect on as we enter into the Triduum. Holy Week is not a “virtual pilgrimage” to the Holy Land, a sort of poor substitute for going to Jerusalem. In Holy Week, the mysteries we celebrate are not far away or in the past, but, in the words of Dickinson, “new” and “near.” On Holy Thursday, as at every Mass, we do what Jesus did—take bread and break it—but we know by faith that this is not a dramatic reenactment of the Last Supper. Jesus is as present to us, here and now, as he was to his disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem long ago. On Good Friday, when we venerate the cross, the liturgy does not say, “Behold an image of the crucifixion,” but “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world.” We stand not before a cross, but before the cross, because the Paschal Mystery of Christ is not bound by time or space. And at the Easter Vigil, the Church says again and again, “this is the night.” Jesus rose, yes; but Jesus is risen.
In Holy Week, the Church confidently asserts that Jerusalem is not a far-away place. It is, in the words of Emily Dickinson, “a Province / In the Being’s Centre.”




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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