Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct. Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:24-28)
For the last decade, I have been drawn to meditate on the cross of Christ. The vision impressed upon our soul of Jesus hanging on the cross out of love for us is extraordinarily powerful. That said, recently, I have heard two homilies on the cross which have struck a cord and has not been far from my thoughts at any given moment. Both homilies, from two different priests, made the same points:
1) There is no salvation without the cross; both Christ’s and our own.
2) Each of us has a cross to carry.
In the Bible verses above, Jesus gives us the conditions of discipleship. Clearly, the first command is to take up our cross. The earthly result of our Christian faith should be to imitate Christ in all aspects of our life. An intimate part of our imitation of Christ is to follow His direction and pick up our own cross to follow Him.
A condition of our concupiscence is to reject or be repulsed by our own cross. The modern world also rejects any form of suffering to the point of ignoring when it sees it. Much of the western world now embraces the hedonistic, modern and false “gospel of prosperity.” The “gospel of prosperity” rejects the redemptive suffering of our own cross and in doing so rejects Jesus’ own suffering on the cross for each of us. When we reject the cross we do so at the peril of our own soul.
Throughout history the Church has taught the redemptive nature of suffering. If we are to face our Lord in judgement and hear the joyous words, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” We must strive to understand our own cross in union with Christ, His suffering on the cross and we must do this out of our love for Christ.
The Catechism of the Council of Trent in Question XLVIII states:
Meanwhile, however, the present life, full of misery though it be, is not without its pleasures and its joys; for to us, who, by baptism, are already engrafted as branches on Christ, what can he more pleasant, what more desirable, than, having taken the cross upon our shoulders, to follow him as our Leader, fatigued by no labors, retarded by no dangers from earnestly pressing on to the rewards of our high vocation; some to receive from the Lord the laurel of virginity, others the crown of doctrine and preaching, some the palm of martyrdom, others the honors appropriated to their respective virtues? These splendid insignia of praise none should receive, had we not first contended in the racecourse of this calamitous life, and stood our ground unconquered in the battle-fight.
We could spend a lifetime unpacking the beauty and profundity of these words. In them we can see the reality of our crosses. However difficult they may be, our crosses are the path to union with Christ.
Through prayer, a deepening love of God and properly understood in the context of redemption, as we follow our Savior’s holy will, the cross is our heavy and sometimes burdensome gift which God gave us for our own salvation. There is a quote attributed to Catherine of Sienna, a Saint and Doctor of the Church, that encapsulates this thought well:
Whatever God gives and permits: temptation, being tried by people, hurt or abuse, or any sort of trouble, he gives and permits it for our good, either to cleanse us of our sins or for our growth in perfection and grace.
What is our cross? As Fr. Gallagher stated in his homily, it is most often the thing about ourselves that we struggle with the most. It is something that has become a part of ourselves in a way that we alone cannot change and need to learn how to rely on others or God alone for help. It may be a physical handicap, a mental incapacity, a disordered sexual appetite, homeliness, extraordinary beauty or any number of individual struggles. In short, everyone has something with which they battle. We are not alone as we carry our cross. To understand this struggle is to have joy and is a magnificent source of Hope as we look toward eternity.
Pope Benedict the XVI reminds us in his encyclical letter, SPE SALVI:
To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself.
This carrying of our cross, suffering for others and “offering it up,” as most of us were taught when we were children, is at the center of our humanity and thus a brick in the foundation on which our faith is built. Without this brick our foundation will fail and our faith with it.
JMJ, pray for us
In the Deep South the summer tends to drag on and on in time. This summer is no different than summers past. The heat of late summer has exhausted most of the older members of the parish as they rest in the cool air before Mass. The man has exited the quiet of the confessional to hear in the distance the roll of thunder and a clash of lightening even as the sun bursts through the clouds and past the stained glass windows into the Church. The smell of rain seeps inside the sanctuary each time another member of the parish enters through an opened door.
“Time to get focused on my penance.” He thinks to himself. The priest was a small, kind man with snow white hair, retired and in his early nineties. Most of the man’s confession surrounded his personal cross and the struggles related to it. The gentle priest gives him an unusual penance to “let old bones lay where old bones have fallen” and to meditate in front of the cross for fifteen minutes. This is the first time any priest has suggested this meditation for a penance.
Kneeling quietly in the second row, he looks up at the crucifix. Jesus seems to be a bit cleaned up in his opinion. After the hours of torture He underwent there is no way Jesus looked cleaned up like this. No blood, no pierced side and no sign of the scourging. Jesus almost looks like He is resting gently. He thinks, “Ok Lord, I am here. I have begged for years to lift my cross from me and no sign of that happening. What do you want?” Thunder rolls again and the man can hear the beginnings of a rain storm clatter against the stained glass. Slowly the sun becomes blocked out and the church turns dark as the man closes his eyes to pray and meditate on the cross, his cross.
The darkness of his closed eyes is illuminated by a single point of light in the distance. Again, the man hears what sounds like thunder in a far off place or is it? Focusing on the single point of light, the man prays again, “Father, please lift it.”
The light in the distance flashes and he sees Jesus, his Savior, the One he has professed to love, in the Garden of Gethsemane. The man hears a His words in a raspy whisper, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” (Matthew 26:42)
Impressed upon the man’s soul he hears his Father’s word, “He did it for you? Can you not carry your cross for Him?” His words stun the man into silence.
Looking off toward a place unknown to the man, the pinpoint of light is has grown bigger now and draws the man forward. Again, the sound of thunder pounds like a drum in the man’s head. The light is now growing and pulsing like the beating of a heart as he notices a two beautiful women huddled together crying.
The older and more beautiful of the two women looks at him with radiating blue green eyes and utters two words, “My son.”
The man asks with his heart, “Who me?”
She nods humbly in agreement and the man is filled with an overwhelming sense of peace that calms his quickening heart. The beautiful woman resumes her mourning as she looks away toward a horrific sight. There laying on the ground being stretched by ropes is her Son and Lord. The sound of thunder he has been hearing is the sound of a hammer hitting flesh and metal spikes as they are driven brutally into the feet and hands of their tortured Savior.
As his on body flinches responding to each thunderclap as it impacts, the man utters from the depth of his soul, “But why Father? Why?”
His answer places the man on his heels, “His cross is your cross. He carries it with you. You cannot carry it alone, but with Him you can.”
The man responds, “I AM yours.”
With that the man looks up in time to see his Lord and Savior’s cross lifted and forced into a hole in the ground. The impact of the Cross as it makes contact with the earth causes the ground to tremble and millions of small particles of his Savior’s Precious Blood to scatter through the air covering the two beautiful woman, the young man now standing with them and a centurion caught unaware.
In the air one small particle of blood slowly jettisons from Christ and catapults toward the man as if were slung from a slingshot. The blood crystallizes into a ruby red shard as it travels though the air and toward its destination. The man’s soul is frozen in time and he knows he must not move. His soul feels a warm embrace of love from his new mother.
The shard strikes with the impact of a bullet to the heart. Piercing the man’s entire being like a charge of electricity. His bones become rigid to the point of shattering and his soul explodes with joy from the impact. Confused, the man can feel the penetrating touch of the Holy Spirit as He envelopes his soul. Fear melts away and becomes resolve. In an instant he sees all the pain he has caused, how Jesus has forgiven and forgotten his sins and the joy the man will experience. He sees the reason for his cross and why he must accept the suffering as an act of love. Father, Son and Holy Spirit have now placed a yearning in his heart for that eternal union that only comes through the cross.
His own tears of blood filling the recesses of his soul, the man looks deeply into the eyes of his Savior and finds infinite burning love. A merciful love, he knows, if he seeks it, will carry him into eternity.
God has cleansed his soul and shown him the way, the truth and the light. This is his gift of grace from God the Father. He vows to never complain about his cross again. God is good.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Matthew 11:28-30