He Died on a Cross, So I Take Up Mine

[If I could preach on Sunday, I would say this…]

elgrecochristcross

Take up your cross, and follow Me, says the Lord Jesus. [Spanish]

We all live according to fundamental facts. Like: Where was I born? Where did I grow up? What’s my native language? Who are my parents?

Fundamental facts like these give meaning to our lives. They shape us. Reflecting on these basic facts helps us know who we are.

What about the fundamental facts that we all have in common? Is there a fundamental fact that gives meaning to the existence of the entire human race, considered as a whole? Yes.

Almighty God became one of us. And He suffered unjust condemnation, and died by unjust execution, during the time of the Roman empire, then rose from the dead.

divine-mercyThe Romans had special contempt for certain criminals. They executed those particular criminals by hanging them on wooden crosses, in full view of everyone. Almighty God died this way. He died a human death, as the most honest, most gentle, most kind human being ever to walk the earth. Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross as the divine sacrificial Lamb.

The eternal Word, through Whom all things were made, submitted to this for His own sublime reason. Namely, mercy. God’s death on the cross unfolds for us the full reality of who we are, we human beings. Sinners, upon whom God has showered His mercy. Divine Mercy. He died, because none of us has any “right” to go to heaven, but He wills to give us heaven anyway, as a gift.

The fundamental fact of the life of the human race: God died on a Roman cross to atone for all the wrong we have done, and to open the door for us to a good, holy life. God loves me this much, just as I am, right here and now. He did this—died on a cross—for love of me, to give me holiness and heaven.

corinthromanfountain
Ancient Roman fountain in Corinth

All I have to do is: believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him back.

To grasp this fundamental fact of human life = to receive the Christian faith. I behold God crucified for us, and my heart moves with God’s divine love.

All my failures to love—all the ways I have wronged the God of truth and mercy, Who loves me, plus all the ways I have wronged my fellow redeemed sinners—all those sins on my part: they pain me and weigh on me, when I see them from the point-of-view of Christ crucified. I long to kneel at His feet, and confess them all, so I can make a fresh start. Then all I want to do is: imitate this crucified rabbi.

So I “take up my cross.” I embrace life as a pure gift given to me by Jesus. I must use it well—use my life just as Jesus used His—in order to follow Him to heaven. I greet every day as an opportunity to do penance for my sins and to serve.

“Take up your cross” has become a cliché among Christians. A nice, little gold cross can serve as a lovely adornment on a necklace.

But a resident of the Roman empire would see such a necklace and gasp. We have to let the Lord bring our minds back to the hard first-century facts, related by the New Testament. A resident of the Roman empire would gasp at the sight of a gold cross on a necklace because: That’s how the Roman army tortured and killed the criminals they hated the most.

And: It’s also the way to heaven.

On His cross, Jesus desired one thing: To rest His soul on the bosom of the Father. The crucified rabbi reigns as King of the Universe precisely by having only this one desire. Namely that the Father’s eternal plan of love would come to fulfillment.

To follow that path, behind Him… How totally must we abandon ourselves? How much trust must we have?

St. Paul put it like this: “Neither death nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height nor depth, can separate” us from Him. “Think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Spanish:

English:

Good Morning to the Admirable Atheist

Grunewald the Small Crucifixion

Faith gives us the certainty that God would not permit an evil if He did not cause a good to come from that very evil, by ways that we shall fully know only in eternal life. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 324)

From the grudging respect department. Some people say: How can I believe in God, when I see so much evil?

Two things to respect here:

1. Having the honesty to see evil and call it evil. Doing so is actually an act of faith in the goodness of God. Because to call evil evil requires measuring it against good. If you don’t measure evil against good, evil isn’t evil. It’s just “stuff.”

For instance, Pontius Pilate would not have described the crucifixion of the perfectly innocent divine Lamb as “evil.” The Roman historian Tacitus wrote in AD 64: “Christus, from whom name of the sect has its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius.” Calling evil evil is good. Calling evil by a bureaucratic euphemism is evil.

2. The one who says, “I won’t believe, because I see so much evil,” also deserves credit for this: Taking us believers at our word when we say we believe in God Almighty.

You cannot compromise with the word omnipotent. God is omnipotent. There is nothing at all, except what He wills. He wills good. He wills to permit evil.

If God isn’t omnipotent, He’s not God. We tend to imagine God as a kind of nice pet who soothes our feelings. We want Him to follow the rules of niceness that we follow. Except that He obviously doesn’t.

So we concede the admirable nobility of mind that moves someone to say: I won’t believe, because I see so much evil.

We respond:

Amen. We don’t believe in Mr. Nice Happy Pet God, either. We fearlessly gaze at the evil you see, and we give it its proper name. We don’t believe in Mr. Everything is Lovely Everything is Great God.

But you have not grasped Who we believe in. You think we believe in a god who engages in some kind of on-going competition with Satan, as if the two were on the same plane.

No. We believe in the one and only true, omnipotent God: Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the eternal Father. Jesus Christ crucified and risen. There is no God but He.

From His point-of-view, and from His point-of-view alone: it all makes sense. He knows all the good that comes even from the gravest evil. He knows the all-conquering power of divine love. On the cross, we see that He knows it.

We do not claim to know it. We only claim to believe in Him.

Holy-Cross-Day Miscellany

In these parts, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross arrived today with a chilly, chilly morning.

Fittingly so: For the contemplative sons and daughters of the Church, the year has two poles, like the globe. Easter means the beginning of the bright days when we touch the mysteries of heaven. September 14 means the beginning of pre-Lent, when we shoulder our crosses and march with Christian confidence towards the dark door of death, through which our Captain passed on Good Friday…

A sandhill crane
A sandhill crane

…President-elect Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington on February 23, 1861. (In those days, we inaugurated our presidents on March 4.) Congressman Sherrard Clemens, of Virginia, laid eyes on Lincoln and wrote to a friend, “Abe looks like a cross between a sandhill crane and an Andalusian jackass.”

Andalusian donkey
Andalusian donkey

For the better part of my life, whenever I have caught a glimpse of myself before my morning shave, I have wondered, What epithet would most lyrically describe this specimen of humanity that I see before me? That mystery has now been solved.

…I am sorry that I have not had the leisure to write about some recent adventures I have had on the Appalachian Trail. One of them involved a bona fide, long-house-dwelling, tomahawk-toting Mohawk–a latter-day St. John the Baptist who lives solely on the meanest of trail rations, water filtered through a sock, and preternatural zeal for the Gospel of Christ. Perhaps time will permit me to discourse more about him at some later opportunity.

For now, I would simply like to communicate an Annie-Dillard-esque experience I had while descending Fullhart Knob this afternoon.

First, consider all the creatures that lie within striking distance of a hiker at any given moment. Then retain for consideration only those that might like to take a bite of human flesh.

It occurred to me that, if all those creatures acted together in a concerted attack, I would never make it to the bottom of the hill. The worms and insects immediately beneath me in the dirt would spring upon my legs; the squirrels would maul me about the arms and shoulders; the hawks and vultures, and all other assorted nearby fowl, would peck me about the head. If I were beset in this manner, I would be done for, even before the nearest black bear arrived to gore me.

But this did not happen. All these creatures could have had all they wanted to eat for at least a fortnight; they could have had two weeks off from their usual chickenscratch efforts at survival. But they did not take the opportunity, and I made it home fine.

Now, what did this potential army of the forest lack? Not the physical wherewithal for victory, to be sure. I would have been more or less defenseless against them. I could have flailed and batted and run, but, in the end, they would have had the better of me.

No, what they lacked was: the creative intellectual capacity to conceive of the attack (which I, alone among them, could imagine), the deliberative capacity to enact a decision, and the capacity to communicate the idea among themselves.

Intellect, will, communication skills.

I bring this up solely to illustrate the following. If someone asks, Why is there something, rather than nothing? (And who doesn’t ask that?) If someone asks this question, answers like The Great Turtle or The Big Bang simply will not do. The only real answer is: The Person. The impenetrably grand Person, of whom we human persons–with our intellects, and our wills, and our communication skills–offer only a pale reflection.

We Christians cannot, of course, prove that this Person has an equally impenetrably grand Father and Spirit, which He revealed by speaking through prophets and then becoming man Himself. But we can say: the only reasonable answer to Why is there something rather than nothing? is: God.

_____________________

Bibliography

1. The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton. One of the most wonderful books I have ever read.

2. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Read the book instead of seeing the movie! The movie stinks. The book has occasional bad words, but they hardly distract you from one of the most delightful tales ever told about through-hikers who never quite made it.

God’s Obscure Burial

Today a solemn procession carrying the relic of the Cross of Christ entered the newly dedicated Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, almost seventeen centuries ago.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The site of our Lord’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection had been covered over by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who hated Judaism and Christianity. He had built a pagan shrine on the site.

But the Cross, as well as the tomb of Christ, remained buried underground for almost two hundred years. The Christians of Jerusalem knew precisely where the holy sites were located. We can safely say that, from the first Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday on, not a single day passed without a Christian going to pray at these locations.

So we can keep today’s feast as an occasion to rejoice in the genuinely amazing faithfulness of the Christian faithful through all the tumults of history. And our forefathers and foremothers in faith have been faithful not necessarily because they had so much virtue—though many of them certainly have had great virtue. The main reason, though, is that it’s all true. All of it has been remembered faithfully and handed down to us because it’s true.

Let’s look at it this way. A man regarded by the authorities as a delusional political nuisance was executed as a common criminal on the outskirts of a ramshackle city which the Romans thought of as an outpost in Barbaria. If CNN had been reporting world events at the time, the chances of this execution getting mentioned by Wolf Blitzer was zero.

The executed man was buried nearby, in a tomb that did not belong to his family, His family being altogether too poor to own any tombs. The chances that the location of this grave would have been recorded in any written form: zero.

In other words, it is hard to imagine anything more obscure and forgettable than the death and burial of this man.

Except for one thing: He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit.

Two Temptations

Today the Church commemorates two occasions when the devil came to tempt somebody.

In the first, Satan came to tempt two people, Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden. They had everything they could ever have wanted without having to work for it. They never got sick. They were destined to live forever and go to heaven without dying. Perhaps most unimaginable for us, Adam and Eve were married to each other, and yet there was nothing that would cause them to have any difficulties in getting along: no bad habits, neither of them were messy, or crabby, or lazy.

In the second instance, the devil came to tempt the Lord Jesus. The situation was completely different. The Lord was not in a garden; He was in the desert. He did not have everything He wanted to eat and drink; He had nothing to eat and drink. The Lord Jesus was not in a state of leisure and ease. Rather, He was desperately hungry, struggling physically in every way, because He had been fasting for forty days. And our Lord did not have a human companion. He was completely alone.

The devil came into both of these two very different situations in order to lure his victims into disobedience.

In the garden of Eden, God had expressed His will very clearly. He told Adam and Eve: Do not eat from this particular tree. There were countless other trees, heavy with delicious fruit. Just don’t eat from this one. The devil came to trick them into eating it from it anyway.

When Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation, it was not a matter of human weakness. Before the Fall, human nature was not weak. When they sinned, it was not because their weak flesh faltered. They just willfully disobeyed.

What happened? How did Satan pull it off? The devil suggested to Adam and Eve that God is not to be trusted. God had demanded obedience to one simple law. The Devil put the idea into our First Parents’ minds that this was an infringement on their proper rights. God was making them His slaves. Previously they thought that they had everything. The Devil then tricked them into thinking that they would not have everything until they had total independence and got out from under the law of God.

Christ also lived under a law. The Father had not openly spoken a law to His incarnate Son. But in the depths of His human mind, Christ knew the will of the Father. We know this because Christ had said early on: “The Son of man must be rejected, and suffer, and die, and on the third day rise again.”

In the desert, the Lord Jesus was hungry and He was lonely, but the devil did not temp Him to gluttony or vanity. If Jesus had eaten some bread, it would not have been gluttony. If He had gone to Jerusalem and let Himself be admired and served by everyone there, that would not have been vanity: He is the King of kings and Lord of lords Whom everyone is bound to admire and serve.

Perhaps the difference between the two episodes of temptation—the garden and the desert; our First Parents and Christ—the difference lies in understanding what obedience to God is. Adam and Eve had everything, but they let themselves be deceived into thinking that they didn’t have everything since they had to obey God. On the other hand, the Lord Jesus had nothing—nothing except what He called “the food that sustains me:” namely, doing the will of the Father. The Lord Jesus knew that if He had this food of obedience, He in fact had everything. He didn’t need anything else at all—not food, not glory, not even His bodily life.

Satan is very intelligent and very wily, but Christ turned the tables on him. Long ago the devil had reduced the human race to slavery, so he naturally thought that he had come to tempt one of his slaves. But in fact, the devil came to tempt the new, incorruptible Adam, who was filled with the infinite strength of the Holy Spirit. Satan did not find a slave in the desert. He found the omnipotent One Who is absolutely free.

This is the special grace of Lent: Christ gives us a share in His immeasurable strength and His perfect freedom. He beckons us out for forty days in the desert with Him. In the desert, He teaches us the joy of His obedience.

Scripture sings of the sequel to these days of training:

Who is coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?
Under the apple tree I awakened you.
There your mother was in travail with you.
There she who bore you was in travail.
(Song of Solomon 8:5)

Christ’s Holy Cross takes us back to the Garden of Eden. Beneath the Tree of Life, where our human nature fell into weakness and suffering because of disobedience, we find our obedient Beloved. We can lean on Him forever.

Take Up Your Cross

 

 

 

Since Archbishop Wuerl wrote to us priests and asked us to make his points about Church teaching on abortion in our homilies this morning, I never got to give the homily I had prepared for today.  So here it is—a “web exclusive.”

 

 

You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped;
you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.
  Jeremiah 20:7

 

The prophet Jeremiah cries out his complaint to the Lord, and then resigns himself to his fate.  At the time when Jeremiah was called to prophesy, the people of the kingdom of Judah had fallen so far into paganism that they had taken up the practice of sacrificing children to Baal.  The Lord ordered Jeremiah to speak out and condemn this.  Jeremiah was to prophesy that the people’s apostasy and evil would cause them to lose their homeland and be taken away in exile.

 

Jeremiah made his resigned complaint after the High Priest of the Temple struck him and ordered him put in the stocks because the prophet declared that doom would befall Jerusalem.

 

Jeremiah was not naturally inclined to make trouble; he was no grandstander.  He would have preferred a quiet life.  But the Lord compelled him to speak the truth and warn the people about the coming wrath.  Even though obeying the divine summons cost him abuse, imprisonment, and exile, Jeremiah wistfully acknowledged to the Lord that he could not help but obey Him.  There is nothing sweeter, in fact, than to suffer for the Lord by bearing unflinching witness to the divine truth of Revelation.

 

Then Jesus said to his disciples,“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.”
  Matthew 16:24

 

This verse comes shortly after the verses we read at Holy Mass last week ( https://frmarkdwhite.wordpress.com/2008/08/21/caesarea-philippi/ ).  When the Lord told them to take up their crosses, His disciples were still with Him at the foot of Mt. Hermon.  As we recall, St. Peter had just declared the truth about Christ for the first time:  You are the Son of God.  You are divine.  This is what has been revealed to us:  Jesus of Nazareth is the eternal truth. He is the Lord of heaven Who compelled the prophets to speak.  Christ is the Holy One of Israel for Whom Jeremiah freely chose to suffer.

 

So St. Peter had declared the Catholic faith for the first time ever.  You might think the Lord Jesus would have patted him on the back, and then they might have spent some time basking in the moment.

 

Instead, Christ declared:  I, the Almighty Master of all things, I will bend my neck beneath the yoke of suffering and give myself over into the hands of my enemies.  I, the immortal One, will suffer and die.  This is my destiny; this is my mission.  And it is not to end in disaster, but in the triumph of life over death.

 

Let us try to put ourselves in the place of the disciples who first heard Christ tell them that in order to follow Him, they must take up their crosses.  Now, two millennia later, we know that the cross is the symbol of the perfect sacrifice of atonement offered by the Son of God.  We know that it is the symbol of our Redemption and eternal life.

 

For the original disciples, however, the cross was only a perverse instrument of torture used by their foreign overlords to make a public example of anyone who dared try to stand up against them.  No fate could be worse, in the mind of any Jew, than to be condemned to crucifixion and be driven by Roman centurions through the streets with whips, dragging your hundred-twenty-five-pound cross along with you pathetically on your shoulder.  Then you would spend two or three agonizing days hanging by your arms, with birds picking at you.

 

This is the metaphor that God incarnate used to describe what it was like to be His disciple.  Even the prophet Jeremiah might have quailed at this.

 

The crucial phrase in the Lord Jesus’ words, however, is:  “and follow me.”  God Himself has walked the way of the cross ahead of us, and He has risen again from the dead.  From heaven, He pours out His graces on us so that we can accept His invitation and become His disciples.

 

What are the crosses we have to take up in order to follow the Lord?  Each of us has his or her own.  Our crosses are formed by two beams.  The one beam is reality and the truth:  the law of God, the duties we have.  The other beam is our own smallness, selfishness, weakness, and fear.

 

It would be easy to imitate the virtues of Christ if we weren’t sinners; it would be easy to be humble, gentle, kind, chaste, courageous, and unswervingly faithful and honest.  Our crosses would be weightless if we weren’t so miserably inclined to run away from reality and the mission the Lord has given each of us to accomplish.

 

Let us resign ourselves like Jeremiah.  Living in the truth is an agony of self-purification and self-denial.  The truth makes demands of us.  But what else are we going to do?  God is God.  His grace is sufficient; His grace will be our strength.  If we lose our lives for His sake, we will find life.  And when He comes again in glory, we will shine like the stars in the sky.