The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
(Jer 20:7-9, Rom 12:1-2, Mt 16:21-27)
Above my bed on the wall hang two crucifixes and a Sacred Heart plaque. The two crucifixes came from my brother Nick. One is carved from a solid piece of olive wood and he brought it back for me from the Holy Land. The other is solid silver and used to belong to his father-in-law. When Sally’s father died, they wanted me to have it. They’re both about 8 inches long. The plaque came from my parents’ home when we were cleaning things out after my mother’s death. It always hung on the mantle in the family room beneath a crucifix. That’s where we would light a candle and say the rosary every night. My dad would kiss this Sacred Heart plaque before going to bed.
Crucifixes on the wall used to be more common in Catholic institutions like schools and hospitals. There are still plenty of them in Trappist monasteries. The one above the door to the office in our farm shop is kind of gory and realistic. I think the Spanish crucifixes tended to go in that direction.
It’s kind of amazing when you stop and think that the cross has come to be the main symbol of Christianity. Thinking merely humanly, it should have been a symbol of defeat and disgrace. But God has a way of turning things on their head. When Peter tried to divert Jesus from his cross, he was told, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
How was God able to turn something so negative into something so positive? I think the answer is love. The cross is such a powerful symbol because it shows the extreme means Jesus was willing to go to to gain our salvation. We will never be able to plumb the depths of his love for us. At the same time, it is a symbol of the love of Jesus for his Father, that he would go to such extremes to carry out his will. You may wonder, though, what kind of a monster does that make the Father, that he would will such suffering for his Son? The answer, again, is love – the Father’s love for us. He went to such extremes as to watch his Son suffer so that we could be happy with him forever in eternity. As St. Paul wrote, “God, in Christ, was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). Any parent will tell you how hard it is to stand by and watch their child suffer. Because of their love, it would be easier to be going through that suffering themselves. Like Abraham, God the Father made the supreme sacrifice – and there was no angel to stop the knife.
Let’s say, instead, that God obtained our redemption with a pot of gold coins. How effective would that symbol have been in the centuries that followed? Could you see an image of a pot of gold hanging above my bed, or wearing it around my neck as a sign that I’m a Christian? No way! The Cross shows God wasn’t all words – he had skin in the game. How many of the Saints died with their hands clinging to a crucifix? To them, it was a soothing symbol of hope and God’s tremendous love.
But this same paradox holds true in our own lives. I asked earlier, “How was God able to turn something so negative into something so positive?” And we saw that the key that unlocks the riddle is love. Whether we like it or not, the cross will always be a part of our lives. There will always be bodily ailments, disappointments, failures, humiliations, injustices. The degree to which we accept them will be the difference between them becoming a pot of gold or a pot of lead. If we think as God does, and not as human beings do, we will see the hand of a loving Father in them, and accept them as a demonstration of our love of God, as Jesus did. Love will make his “yoke easy and his burden light” (Mt 11:30). Love will transform our bitterness and resentment at this misfortune into joy. We will rise above our human condition and see things in the light of eternity.
In a private revelation to Sister Mary of the Holy Trinity, Jesus further explained this connection between love, suffering, and joy.
Some call the way that leads to My Heart ‘Love,’ others call it ‘suffering.’ Love without suffering does not lead to My Heart. Love and suffering are inseparable – inseparable in their growth, inseparable in their demands – indissolubly united; but there is a fruit which they infallibly produce, and which men often forget to name when they speak of the way that leads to Me. I will tell it to you, My little daughter, it is Joy. Keep in your heart this threefold name of the way that leads to My Heart: Love – Suffering – Joy! (#622)
So as our second reading exhorted us, let us “offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, our spiritual worship.” For as Jesus said so clearly in today’s gospel, “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.”