In the Greco-Roman world, the cross was an instrument of torture and oppression. Romans used the cross to punish their enemies, but also to spread fear in the hearts of those who might oppose them. Jesus, by His own cross and Resurrection, redeemed the world and turned a tool of terror into the most powerful source of hope of love the world as known. In Matthew’s Gospel, which we hear this Labor Day weekend, we are confronted with the call of Jesus to embrace what it means to truly follow Him:
“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” (Mt 16:24-26).
If we truly seek to follow the Lord, we must bear the burden of our own cross. To say that this is counter-cultural to our 21st century ears is an understatement indeed. Our world is constructed in many ways to escape from pain and suffering. Hyper-busyness, self-medication of all stripes, technology, entertainment, and the attainment of sensual pleasure all provide ways to escape from the suffering of the world. Comfort and security are what we seek. And yet Jesus expects us to embrace weakness, risk, uncertainty and to trust in Him in a radical way.
If this call of Jesus sounds foreign to us today, imagine how His disciples reacted. After all, many of them likely would have witnessed the cruel torture of the cross visited upon the Jewish people by their Roman occupiers. Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to bring a great deliverance to the people of Israel? Earlier in the passage, Peter expressed what most of us would want: to prevent Jesus from suffering. Isn’t this something any good friend would do? Can we not identify with Peter in this moment of wanting to protect a friend from harm? Despite Peter’s best intentions, however, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that if he stands in the way of His salvific mission, Peter is doing the work of Satan.
Jesus was on a mission to save us, reveal who God is, and reveal the very meaning and purpose of our lives. On the cross, Jesus reveals that God is a gift of self-emptying love. If we are to be who God made us to be, we must be willing to do the same. In whatever way we are called, we must be willing to make a gift of ourselves. Will this bring suffering to our lives? Yes. But it is the suffering that ultimately leads us to eternal life and happiness.
Just as our gifts are unique to each of us, so too are the crosses we bear. For some, their cross may be living with risk and uncertainty, and truly trusting in God’s Providence. For others, slowing down, being silent and really listening to God may be their cross to bear. For many, it may be the social stigma and isolation attached to being a follower of Jesus Christ and the moral demands that this choice entails. When we make a choice to follow Jesus and His commandments, we realize how we must change, and what we must give up, as a consequence.
While each person has his or her own cross to bear in life, this does not mean that we or others are meant to suffer in silence and isolation. Accepting our own cross should correlate to a growth in compassion for the suffering of others. The more we trust in Jesus and embrace our own cross, the more sensitive we should become to the challenges of others. Whether that suffering be physical, emotional, spiritual or material, we are called to alleviate the suffering of others while carrying a cross of our own.
Bearing our cross and having compassion for the crosses of others are also critical to our relationships. If I don’t accept that suffering, weakness and vulnerability are necessary to my relationship with God, will I be inclined to accept or understand these things in others? Is the rejection of the cross the reason why loneliness and anxiety are so prevalent in our world today? These are questions worth pondering.
Of course, we can not understand the injustice and suffering of the cross without the triumph and joy of the Resurrection. Our disposition as Christians should always be joyful and hopeful, not dour or depressed. And yet, we should also never empty the cross of Jesus Christ of its awesome power to transform our lives and relationships.
Anchor columnist Peter Shaughnessy is a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier parish in Acushnet.