Essay: Making peace with the crucifix

Editor’s note: In 1983, Gracie Parker Rosenberger fell asleep at the wheel and experienced a horrific car accident that has led to more than six dozen operations, including the amputation of both legs. 

Never noticing St. Thomas Hospital during my brief time as a freshman at Belmont University before the wreck, I knew nothing of the rich history, mission, or theology of the hospital. 

So lying in one of its hospital beds, without the mobility to explore my surroundings, I could only face straight ahead; and all there was to see on the wall before me was a 10-inch crucifix placed there dutifully by the Daughters of Charity. 

Raised Baptist, I took issue with the crucifix. No matter that I was in excruciating pain (the word “excruciating” is a Latin word invented by Roman soldiers to describe the horrific pain of crucifixion), I somehow found the wherewithal to have a theological argument with my new landlords, and implored my father to remove the crucifix. Each time I succeeded in motivating Daddy to remove the crucifix, however, a tiny, ancient nun named Sister Euphemia almost instantly appeared to place it back on the wall. Her demeanor clearly communicated this was a nonnegotiable issue, and she carried a presence about her that would likely cause trained soldiers to defer and back up. 

Focal point

In every waking moment, all I could see was a crucifix … just off to the side of my suspended right leg. That crucifix became the focal point of all my fear, anger, rage and heartache. I suppose the crucifix remaining on the wall represented my inability to change, alter or in any way exert control over my circumstances. I didn’t want it there, I didn’t like it … and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. 

After leaving critical care and transferring to a regular floor, I discovered the nuns of the Daughters of Charity dutifully displayed a crucifix in every hospital room. “Jesus rose from the dead, and is no longer on the cross, so take it down!” I often demanded. 

Sister Euphemia exercised free rein over the entire hospital, and so she took it upon herself to follow me from critical care to the regular floor. Able to do whatever she wished, while I remained stuck in a hospital bed, she chose to ignore the silly demands of a 17-year-old girl, and instead went about her self-appointed task of educating Mary Grace Parker. 

Over time, gazing day after day at the rods piercing my legs, the details of the crucifix grew clearer to my eyes, and my heart was flooded with awareness; He truly understood. 

Healing a black heart

Slowly, I came to view the crucifix differently. I gradually accepted that Jesus endured the cross, and all that suffering and humiliation, on my behalf. I accepted Jesus as my savior years earlier, and although failing to understand His purpose in my suffering, I made the decision in that very hospital room to continue trusting God. But I guess it never registered how much suffering He endured due to my black heart. 

In an abstract way, I knew He died for the sins of the world … understood as those of people like Hitler, but lying in my bed at St. Thomas Hospital, the awful realization crept over me: He chose to die because of me. Me personally; not just all mankind lumped together. As He hung there, He knew my name. 

Pondering that thought, I looked at my pierced, broken and scarred legs hanging from ropes and pulleys lifted in the foreground … almost as if they were lifted up to the crucifix in the background. 

Wiping the tears now rolling down my face onto the hospital gown and sheet; I couldn’t even get to a box of Kleenex. It’s hard to bow your head in a hospital bed, so fumbling with all the tubes and IV lines, I put my hands over my face … and sobbed. All I could do was simply say His name. 

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” 

Gratitude for the cross

Several years passed and finally, after dozens of surgeries and years of struggling, I made peace with the crucifix; thankfulness replaced my misguided anger and indignation. When confronted with the reality of Christ’s sacrifice for me, gratitude floods my heart. Gratitude for the precious gift of salvation that God provided, gratitude for His own profound understanding of suffering, pain, and humiliation … and gratitude for a little nun who pointed me to Him. 

Gracie Rosenberger is co-founder with her husband Peter of Standing with Hope, which helps amputees in developing countries, and is co-author of Gracie(Liberty University Press, $22.95).