March 4, 2012
The Second Sunday in LentMost of us think we know what it means to say that someone has a cross to carry or bear in life. But do we really understand that phrase based upon Jesus’ command that we must take up our cross and follow him?
Jesus's disciples and followers were used to danger. It was a perilous time; anyone growing up in Galilee Just then knew about the revolutions, about people hoping God would act to deliver them, and ending up getting crucified by the Romans instead. Sometimes any new leader, prophet, or teacher with something fresh to say, might very well end up crucified. Anyone who chose to follow Jesus at that time period must have been aware of the risks. The death of John the Baptist surely must confirm that. But this was different. This was something new.
Often we think of the cross someone bears as a burden inflicted by nature or circumstance. Harriet was born without the gift of eyesight; some think that is her cross. John lost his job because of a factory closing and is too close to retirement to find new employment; some say that is his cross to bear. Such circumstances as physical disability or poverty are indeed very heavy human burdens which should elicit both compassion and assistance. But these are not the kinds of things the gospel for today is talking about.
The cross Jesus calls us to take up is modeled upon his own cross. The cross of the Savior has notable characteristics to be considered. First, he took it up willfully. Second, it was taken up in sacrificial devotion to others.
The cross of which Jesus speaks is something we voluntarily decide to do. It is not something inflicted upon us without our consent; nor is it some unfortunate difficulty that befalls us because of our carelessness or neglect. Jesus does not tell us merely to bear the cross, but to take it up. Life is full of burdens we have to bear because we can't escape them. But the cross can be evaded. This is the meaning of Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane. Jesus has the power to avoid crucifixion; but he will accept it in order to fulfill God's intention. We remember Jesus saying, “If possible, let this pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” That is his prayer and ours if we take up the cross with him.
As mentioned earlier, we often think of those who take up their cross as those who are suffering in some fashion. Yet a more accurate depiction of taking up our cross would be those who are in the armed forces; those are firemen; those who are policemen. These people have willingly taken up a cross that puts them in harm way each and every day. They willingly do this because it is what they want to do. They do this for the help and protection of other people who predominantly they never know or will know. This is the type of cross Jesus asks us to take up. The cross Jesus asks us to take up is one in service to others and to God.
The cross we are called to take up is there for the sake of others. It is not some suffering we accept so that people will pity us, or praise us for our endurance. It is not some act of penance we engage in, hoping for personal spiritual growth because of it. The cross is suffering we take up in order to help others, even as Jesus went to Calvary on behalf of the world.
Thus to be afflicted with cancer or some other deadly disease is not the cross of which Jesus speaks, torturous as those diseases may be. Rather the cross is carried by those who willingly minister to these cancer victims, when they could avoid it. The cross is carried by those who show compassion to persons dying of contagious diseases that they may suffer from due to their inappropriate lifestyles or things they've done in their life that have caused them to have this disease. In times past, and to some small degree even today, people who suffer from AIDS would be a prime example. Some would say those afflicted with AIDS deserves the disease they now have.
To be poverty-stricken due to circumstances of birth or loss of employment is not the cross which Jesus speaks, unfortunate as such deprivation is. Instead, the cross is borne by those who do not need to work in soup kitchens or shelters for the homeless, but choose to do so. The cross is borne by those who call for higher taxes or reduction of spending on armaments and thus who favors social services. The cross is born by those who will fight for those some in society think should not be fought for, such as the gay and lesbian community and their desire to be allowed to be married. The cross is borne by those who continue to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, known as the unborn; even against those who feel as a United States citizen they deserve the right to an abortion. Those who take such stands will be maligned by friends who want taxes lowered or military spending increased. The criticism such advocates accept is their cross. They assume this cross voluntarily, for the sake of others.
To have a son on drugs or an unwed daughter who is pregnant is not to take up the cross. Rather taking up the cross may mean loving our children when we might instead kick them out of the house, telling them to suffer the consequences of their own actions without any sympathy from us.
To take up the cross is no easy thing. Thus when Jesus spoke to his disciples of his own impending crucifixion, St. Peter rebuked him, trying to argue him out of it. Jesus, in turn, spoke the most stinging word ever reported of him: “Get behind me, Satan! For you, Peter, are not on the side of God.”
So important is this message that opposition to the plan, wherever it comes from, must be seen as Satanic, from the accuser. Even Peter, Jesus's right-hand man, is capable of thinking like a mere mortal, not looking at things from God's point of view. This is a challenge to all of us, as a church in every generation struggles not only to think, but to live from God's point of view in a world where such a thing is madness. This is the point at which God's kingdom, coming on Earth as it is in heaven, will challenge and overturn all normal human assumptions about power and glory, about what is really important in life and in the world.
You might as well have a football team captain tell the team that he was intending to let the opposition score ten goals right away. This was what Peter and the rest had in mind. They may not have thought of Jesus as a military leader, but they certainly didn't think of him going straight to death either.
When Peter speaks his rebuke of Jesus, we read the Jesus turns and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter. The very fact that Jesus looked at all the disciples implies that his review of Peter was intended for all of them, not just Peter. It is only Peter's thought, not him personally, that Jesus rejects as Satanic. Peter does not recognize that the messianic ruler of God's eternal kingdom has come to die for his sins, but he soon will recognize it.
Jesus instructs in discipleship all those who come after him should have a goal of self-denial. Taking up one's cross is not a pathological self-abasement or martyr complex but that of being free to follow the Messiah. Self-denial means letting go of self-determination and replacing it with obedience to and dependence upon God.
We are not inclined to take up the cross, or even to watch someone else do it, without arguing or impugning motives. But this is the call of the Lord, pressed upon us especially during Lent. This is the true Lenten penance; not giving up of some pleasure for the sake of our own souls, but taking up of some difficult work for the sake of others.
What crosses are you capable of assuming this holy season? What can you do, without thought of personal reward or even satisfaction, but also without regard for the criticism or misunderstanding that may be generated among your family, friends, and even fellow church members? Therein may lie the cross you are called to carry.
But the power to carry it comes from the crucified one, who by his body and blood given us in the sacrament strengthens us. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s, will save it.” That is Jesus’ paradoxical statement. It demands two different senses of the word “life”. Whoever lives a self-centered life focused on this present world will not find eternal life with God. Whoever gives up his self-centered life of rebellion against God for the sake of Christ and the gospel will find everlasting communion with God.
Let me leave you with a prayer that I have said daily for years and speaks about this. It is called “Learning Christ”.
Teach me, my Lord, to be sweet and gentle. In all the events of life - in disappointments, in the thoughtlessness of others, in the insincerity of those I trusted, in the unfaithfulness of those on whom I relied. Let me put myself aside, to think of the happiness of others, to hide my little pains and heartaches, so I may be the only one to suffer from them. Teach me to profit by the suffering that comes across my path. Let me so use it that it may mellow me, not harden nor embitter me; that it may make me patient, not irritable, that it may make me broad in my forgiveness, not narrow, haughty and overbearing. May no one be less good for having come within my influence. No one less pure, less true, less kind, less noble for having been a fellow traveler in our journey toward eternal life. As I go my rounds from one distraction to another, let me whisper from time to time, a word of love to Thee. May my life be lived in the supernatural, full of power for good, and strong in its purpose of sanctity. Amen.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.