A Piece of the True Cross

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I hadn’t seen him coming as I perched on the unfinished wood table outside of the shelter and waited for my friend Cam to show up. Cam is usually late to meet me for things, but never egregiously so and I had emails to catch up with on my phone anyway. I had forgotten about the little cut-through on the side of the building and now I could hear footsteps approaching and then stopping as if the person was also surprised at my presence. Looking up, I noticed it wasn’t Cam but instead someone I didn’t recognize.

“Hey,” I offered over my shoulder in a weak attempt to break the tension of startling each other.

“Hey,” he answered sheepishly before continuing, “are you the director of the shelter?”

“Oh, no,” I responded with a chuckle at the likelihood that our conversation was back on more familiar footing and I had confidence that I then knew what was going on. This gentleman was looking for the director of the House of Hope but didn’t know him, he carried a too new duffel bag in his off hand, and there was no car in sight. I assumed he must be wondering about finding a place to stay. Turning my head but not my body to speak to the man, I said, “I’m just here to meet a friend,” by way of explanation before continuing, “I think the director is out on some business.”

“Looking for a friend?” he queried with something like laughter at the edges of his voice, “I can be your friend.”

It was an odd thing to say, though perhaps just innocuous and extroverted, so I turned my body and more of my attention to him. I wasn’t worried, but ten years of our life and work has taught me to pay attention to odd phrases and curious sentiments. While getting a good look at the man, I introduced myself and gestured toward a large cross he wore on a piece of twine hung around his neck and said, “I like your cross.” Honestly, it was mostly small talk to give me time to get a good look at him and change the trajectory of our conversation. It was a little larger than the size of a playing card and it appeared to be metallic. I don’t usually wear a cross, but this one wouldn’t be my style even if I did—it was ornate in its filigree and it looked heavy by the way the twine pressed into the sides of the man’s neck.

“Oh, this?” the man questioned as if he was somehow unaware of its obvious presence, “It’s actually a reliquary. It has a piece of the true cross inside of it.”

I smiled politely and responded, “Oh yeah?” but I won’t say I came even remotely close to believing him. “Pieces of the true cross” have a fascinating history within the Church going all the way back to Constantine in the early 4th century at the least. But, as others have remarked over the years, there are certainly enough pieces distributed through the world to make for many, many crosses and Jesus only ever carried one.

Standing directly in front of me and holding out his metal cross, he continued, “Oh, yeah, when they gave it to me I made a promise that I’d offer a blessing to anyone who commented on it.” I knew what was coming but hurried in my thoughts to imagine what I might say to this man who I had just met and whose name I still didn’t know. “So, do you want a blessing?” he asked with a strange waggling of his eyebrows.

Uncertain of what to say, I looked to see if maybe Cam was walking up but he wasn’t. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Michael,” he said, “like the angel but not really.”

“Alright,” I began before I really knew what I was getting ready to say, “yes, Michael, you can bless me.”

So much joy bloomed in his smile in that moment that my uncertainty nearly withered away. I got the impression that not a lot of folks took Michael up on his offer and that he was pleased to be able to do it. He was pleased to be able to live into this calling. It’s very likely that he could sense my uncertainty and mixed feelings, but he didn’t let on in the slightest as he opened the pectoral cross to show me the tiny fragment of wood resting therein. Placing his hand on my shoulder, he smiled and called out in a loud voice, “Father, bless this man,” before sliding his hand from my shoulder to the top of my head with his growing confidence. His blessing continued in what felt like an extemporaneous way before ending abruptly with a loud “amen.”

With a deep and contented sigh, Michael sat down on the bench and leaned back, saying, “I think I’ll wait here a bit and see if the director shows up.”

“Cool,” I replied to replace my stunned silence. I didn’t think it was a piece of a true cross or anything like it inside of that cross, but there was still something holy about it. His blessing would never be recorded in a prayer book for others to offer or emulate, but there was still something holy about it. He was just a near-stranger with a duffel bag who stumbled across me when he wasn’t expecting to, but there was still something holy about him. While the wood resting inside of Michael’s cross was likely just some speck of gnarled wood, the image that rested inside of Michael himself was that of the God whose breath held together the dust of both me and Michael.

I could see Cam coming up the street, so I patted Michael on the shoulder and thanked him for his time. “Go with God,” he said as he realized I was headed out to meet my friend.

“I appreciate the blessing,” I said with a sincerity that surprised me a little. I’m not sure what exactly happened in the parking lot of the shelter beneath the building’s overhang but I know it was a good thing. I’ve not seen him since, but Michael blessed me with what was almost certainly just an innocuous splinter of wood. He hasn’t seen me since, but I blessed Michael by believing him for a bit and giving him room to live into a calling that may well have been self-selected. God blessed us both by intruding into the ordinary of our day and meeting us in each other.

 

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