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The Shrinking Crucifix

Editor’s Note: 18Doors does not take an editorial position on officiation at interfaith weddings. We welcome interfaith families to the Jewish community and support their journeys. This article is one example of what is happening in interfaith weddings today.

The day was breezy as we pulled up to the church in a small New Hampshire city. As a Floridian, I rejoiced in the beauty of this leafy town, breathing in late summer air just beginning to cool. “You’ll find it warm and inviting,” said the mother of the bride-to-be, “with beautiful stained glass windows that reflect the afternoon light.”

The two of us, accompanied by the bride’s younger sister, pushed open the heavy wooden door to the church. A Mass had just ended and the parish priest stood in the aisle, exchanging words with parishioners on their way out. I glanced straight ahead and gasped. There, affixed to the wall behind the altar, was the largest crucifix I had ever seen.

The gleaming dark brown wood of the cross extended almost the full width of the altar and from floor to ceiling. The figure of Jesus, his head angled toward his right shoulder, appeared full sized, even from the back of the church. Tears welled up and I covered my eyes with one hand. While understanding the centrality of this symbol to Christians, as a Jew I couldn’t envision my son taking his marriage vows in front of it, instead of before the Holy Ark of the Covenant in a synagogue. The bride’s mother put her arm around me. When we left the church, I remained quiet, hoping to conceal the angst that gnawed at me.

Our son and his bride-to-be, who is Catholic, both had strong feelings about their traditions; thus two sets of symbols would be present at the wedding. But the crucifix, with its dark, polished wood, seemed to engulf the small country church, filling the very air with suffering. Overwhelmed and a bit breathless, I thought the chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy and a traditional symbol of a Jewish home, would be completely dwarfed by Jesus on his enormous wooden cross.

I dreamed about the cross for months before the wedding. “It’s huge,” I told my husband, who had not yet seen the church. “I’ve never seen one like it; it almost reaches the ceiling.”

The wedding day arrived, brimming with the remains of an Indian summer. New Englanders convinced us, the visiting Floridians, that we would be celebrating this wedding on the last warm weekend of the year. The trees, which had already experienced enough cool weather to brighten their leaves, paraded their colors boastfully as we pulled up to the church.

Numerous guests had preceded us, and my husband and I hastened up the steps to greet family and friends as they entered the church. Finally, we too entered. Almost immediately I realized something had changed. My husband looked at me quizzically and nudged me to a corner of the vestibule.

“Where is the giant crucifix you were talking about?” he asked. I walked back and glanced at the altar, now decked with leafy plants and lavender blossoms. A large partition, angled at each end, stood between the lecterns and the back wall. On it was a crucifix of light brown wood, appearing about two feet high. The chuppah, erected in front of the partition, seemed larger than I had imagined and partially covered the figure of Jesus, whose legs descended below its canopied top.

“They moved it,” I said to my husband who had followed me toward the altar. “They put up this partition with a smaller crucifix.” I looked carefully at the back wall for signs of a drape of some sort that might have covered the original crucifix, with its rich dark wood and enormous arms. None was in sight.

The ceremony began. Light filtered through the stained glass as the procession moved slowly and surely through its paced walk down the aisle. At last the doors swung open, we rose, and the beaming bride appeared at her father’s side. I could hardly contain my own happiness as she joined our son under the chuppah where the priest and cantor awaited them.

“This ceremony takes place under the chuppah, a temporary structure representing the home this couple will build together,” said the cantor, expanding on the symbolism of the Jewish home. “Its four sides are open in order to welcome family, friends, and community.”

When the last part of the ceremony was about to begin, the cantor placed the wrapped wine glass on the floor and explained: “The breaking of the glass has meant many different things over the years, but for us today it symbolizes shattering the barrier between Jews and Christians that has existed for millenia.”

Our son crushed the glass under his heel to cries of “Mazel Tov” (good luck) from the guests.

When all had left the church, I asked my husband to wait for me outside. I whispered to the bride’s mother: “Wasn’t there a different crucifix here the day you brought me to see the church? A really big one?”

“This is the only one I remember,” she said.

I walked back up to the altar and looked behind the partition. I scanned the back wall for signs of a drop panel. I searched for a larger, different partition that might have been folded up. I found nothing, but it no longer mattered.

Our children plan to create an interfaith family in which Christmas will be celebrated in the home of the bride’s parents, and Hanukkah observed in their own home. We anticipate our future grandchildren spending Passover and the High Holidays with us in Florida, as our children have already done for several years. This year they observed the first Passover seder with us and Easter Sunday with the bride’s family.

Our son and daughter-in-law still have decisions to make regarding raising their children, but they have already committed themselves to a life of love, compassion and compromise, values which should ensure a rich and meaningful family life, passing on the traditions of each heritage.

It is a situation with which I increasingly find myself at peace.

Elaine Markowitz

Elaine K. Markowitz, a former English teacher and current freelance writer, lives in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes at Congregation Rodeph Sholom and is an avid biker.