The Weight of the Holy Cross
In a sunny town of Andalusia, Spain, preparations for war were underway. Don Mancio, the lord of the castle, led his men out to fight the Moors. That winding train of Spanish warriors going forth to battle for the Christian cause was a scene to behold: helmets reflecting the sun, plumes tossing in the air, magnificent Arabian steeds reeling in anticipation of battle.
Don Mancio’s home could still be seen through the trees and olive groves. As he rode, the knight thought of the wife and child he left behind. It was four years since he had brought his noble bride to that home, and his son was now three years old. But the hour of pain, the hour of trial, had sounded, and how fairly both had stood the test.
The medieval portico at the castle gate framed the scene in his mind’s eye: Don Mancio’s wife stood in the opening, young, fair, and full of dignity, her pale face showing signs of her profound grief. She held her son’s hand amid the folds of her dress while the child looked up at his mother and father with the big, wide, and steady eyes of innocence, which see all and understand much. He knew that something very important was happening.
Don Mancio, clad in chain mail, hugged his wife and son one last time. Then off to fight the infidel Moor for his Lord Jesus Christ and his beloved Spain!
“‘Tis well:” his young wife had said, holding back her tears. “My knight goes forth to battle for the Cross, and for no earthly prince’s paltry strife. God bless you, Mancio; may He keep you safe. And if you fall in His good cause, Jesus, Your will be done.”
And so Don Mancio had set out for battle, and such was the picture that remained with him
“Alas:” he thought, “it may be I shall never see them again! Good God and Lord:” he prayed, “keep them in Your care!”
The day finally dawned upon the battlefield and Don Mancio’s Spanish blood seethed in his veins at the sight of the waving crescent. His red cross burned upon his chest, and his sword, raised in the air, was ready to meet the scimitar. And then the great clash came, Christian and Moor in bloody strife.
The fighting was fierce, and by nightfall many a Christian warrior had met the God of battles face to face. Many others, Don Mancio among them, had been taken prisoner by the ruthless Moors. The captives escaped death only to meet the cruel torments of prison.
As the slave ship carried them away to the deserts of Africa, Don Mancio watched the disappearing coast of Spain and thought of that last scene under his castle’s gate, wondering what would become of his wife and child.
Captivity and a Divine Friend
In Africa, Don Mancio toiled day after day under the burning sun and the merciless Moor. But he bore his lot manfully, and patiently. It was only then that he came to know that mysterious joy that only a few men know: the joy that patient suffering can bring forth. Few know its taste because few bear its agonizing pain with a willing heart for Him who died to show the way to joy through the thorny paths of woe.
For ten years Don Mancio suffered under the lash and the weight of chains. And during all those years not a single word came from home.
The daily toil, the stripes, the lash, the scanty food, and everything else, were far easier to bear than this total silence from home. This slow starvation of the heart, this burning need to hear at least a word about his loved ones… but, nothing. Were they alive, were they in Spain, or had they moved away? Did they think him dead? Had they learned of his fate? These burning questions racked his brain.
Alone in his captivity, he found only one kind Friend, and he learned to love Him in suffering as he had never done in comfort. That Friend he saw every day as he passed out of the city gate to the fields of toil. Hanging above the city gate was a life-size crucifix of our Sweet Lord that had been stolen by the Moors from some beautiful Spanish church they had ruined. There it hung in scorn for the purpose of receiving the foul spittle, the stones, and the insults of all the heathen passers-by.
Don Mancio’s blood boiled in his veins.
“Oh,” he thought, “if only my hands were not in chains and my sword were hanging by my side! How I would avenge my Savior’s honor!”
But, alas! There was nothing he could do.
In his heart he vowed a solemn promise:
If by God’s will he gained his freedom, never would he rest until he had rescued that crucifix and set it in a shrine where love and honor would wipe out the shame of all those years of insult and scorn.
This was his dream by night, his thought by day, while those sad features of the Crucified grew into his heart, imprinting themselves as they had once before on the veil of Veronica.
Thus passed the dark night of his terrible imprisonment. Ten full years now. Little did he know that the dawn was near.
Nevertheless, his darkest hour was still to come, his test of fire before he could see the light.
At times, from across the sea came Spanish missionaries, men of courage and zeal to minister to the poor captives, braving death and danger.
Some brought gold sent by the prisoners’ families to redeem them from the Moorish chains. But gold or no gold, the missionaries always brought the comfort of the Faith in the form of absolution and, O joy, the balm of the Holy Eucharist to those starving souls.
So, once in a while, when word spread through the camps that a missionary was in their midst, Don Mancio felt glimmers of hope kindling within him. Perhaps, perhaps his wife had found the means to rescue him. Don Mancio watched and waited, but in vain.
To him no rescue came. Only the questions came: Was he forgotten? Was his young wife dead? Year after year had gone by, and not a word from her. He knew the ransom was large, he knew. But at any cost, for any sacrifice, she would raise it. Ah! She must be dead! Or, perhaps she didn’t even know the place of his captivity, for none of the ransomers that had come had known Don Mancio or his family. None had come from his region of Andalusia.
But at last, one day his name was mentioned! A ransomer had arrived asking for Don Mancio. And this is the story he told: Until now his wife had learned no tidings of his fate. At times she had thought him surely dead on the battlefield. But on and on she had toiled and investigated and, above all, had suffered and denied herself and her son almost the very means of life so as to raise a ransom for him in case he was ever found. And, lo! chance had revealed his dungeon, and now the ransom was here.
So, just one more night in chains and tomorrow he would be on his way home to Spain!
That night Don Mancio laid his head on his hard cot and felt nothing of its hardness. A few more hours, he thought, a few more hours and his ransom would be laid on the scale and his way home assured! Tomorrow the slave-master will receive his price in gold! Don Mancio’s heart beats fast, his eyes brightened, he saw his wife, his son, heard their words of welcome, felt their arms around him. Was it a dream? How many times have such dreams mocked his loneliness with visions of home? But this time it was no mocking dream, he had seen the Franciscan friar who brought his ransom. Yes, tomorrow, tomorrow he would be free!
Suddenly, a thought crossesed his mind like a lightning bolt. The crucifix! In his imagination he sees that sacred form hanging from the iron cross above that infamous gate. He sees that sacred countenance looking down on him, that face which had grown into his heart to the point that it had been engraved there. It had been dimmed for a moment by his new-found bliss, but it was still the Master and Ruler there. He seemed to hear an infinitely majestic and sweet voice: “Mancio, will you forget Me in your joy? Will you go back and leave Me?”
“O my God! what can I do? I have no money — none! When I go, my heart’s first sacred business will be Your ransom.”
“‘When I go.’ But can you go and leave Me?”
Then before him flashed a thought that quivered in his heart like the thrust of a sword.
“My ransom money! That would buy the Cross!”
But could he face that fearful life in prison again and rob his wife and child of happiness?
“Oh, my God! You cannot ask this sacrifice!”
But again that voice asked, “Will you go and leave Me?”
Don Mancio knew no sleep that night. A fearful battle raged in his soul. Two loves met face to face, the love of home and kin and the love of Jesus crucified. “O Lord,” he sobbed, “I am not willing, save me from myself by Your own bitter Passion, by Your Cross, have pity on me. Let this chalice pass.”
But that voice–that awful pleading voice-yet repeated in the depth of his soul, “Will you go and leave Me here alone?”
Within his heart a louder voice answered: “Can you remain and send in your stead that crucifix, that heavy iron cross, to crush the heart that awaits you, that counts the days and hours? Think of her lonely widowhood, of the days and nights she has spent weeping. Will you revive them all? Ah, pity her, if not yourself!”
Yet again that other voice, weaker and fainter now, but still distinct: “He that loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me!”
“O God:” Mancio cried, “have pity! Spare me! Let this chalice pass!”
Then, in that dread hour his anguished soul beheld a lonely garden and in that garden a God-Man sweating blood. He, too, had known the cost, the bitter cost of bringing grief on all who loved Him. He, too, had endured this heartache and had shrunk before the pain. Slowly, Mancio’s grief grew tranquil in the light of that mysterious agony of God
“My God, my God! I cannot, I will not go and leave You in Your shame.”
As dawn broke, he rose up invigorated, the battle was over. The dawn of that day he should have been free. Today the ransom money would be paid, but not for him. He would still be a slave, yet he was not sad. He was strangely peaceful. Did not Our Lord say that His cross brings forth joy? It is the joy known only to brave souls like Mancio’s:
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel shall save it” Mark 8:35–sometimes ever here below.
The marketplace was crowded. The busy murmur of voices filled the air. Moor and Christian, master and slave, thronged to witness a strange scene. The news had spread that one of those whose ransom had arrived from Spain just yesterday had given up his hoped-for freedom and exchanged himself for that old crucifix that for so long had hung in scorn above the gate.
He must surely be mad, this Christian nobleman, to send his wife a worthless piece of iron in his place while he remains a captive till his death! It is said that the Moor demands for that huge iron cross its weight in silver ducats and that he will take no less. The massive cross is all wrought in iron and life-size!
Lo! They come to weigh it now! Christians and Moors crowd round to see; the Moors with jeers, the Christians with astonishment, edification, and prayers. What sort of man is this who would thus sacrifice himself to share the heavenly folly of the Cross?!
“Think well, my son,” says the Franciscan father, as strong men slowly lower the heavy cross on the scales. “Think well, my son; the ample store of money I have brought to ransom you will scarcely meet the weight of that large crucifix. Your wife has spent long years in gathering it, and it may be more long years, if ever, before she can send a similar sum again. Have you measured the full cost?”
For one brief moment a thick mist formed up before Don Mancio’s eyes, but quietly yet firmly he answered, “My Father, I have measured the cost and I am ready.”
“Be it so, my son.”
On the scales the heavy cross was laid, and one by one the silver coins fell. Men held their breath, counting the ducats as they rang against each other in the silent air, but still the heavy cross lay motionless. “One, two, three, twelve, twenty, the Father counted, praying all the while that these would be enough to outweigh the cross.
But when, when has it ever been known that our dear Lord and Master did not pay back a hundred-fold every act of love? Just thirty silver pieces had fallen on the scale when, lo! The scale that held the crucifix rose high in the air as the other scale went down. O miracle! The cross had been out-weighed by just thirty silver ducats! He who long ago had been sold for thirty pieces of silver, today wished to be ransomed for the same sum to set His servant free.
Mancio, too, is ransomed, for there still remains an ample number of coins to satisfy the Moor. Mancio’s Lord, his only Friend during his years of captivity, will not go and leave him here a slave.
Both the Ransomed and the ransomer are free.