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You, too, take up your cross

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Gospel Commentary Aug. 30, Mt 16:21-27 

 

It’s a shocking scene. Peter, just having heard Jesus foretell his coming suffering, death and resurrection for the first time, takes Jesus and rebukes him. “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” It seems like a loving concern the disciple has for his Master. But Peter is thinking as men do, not as God does. He does not realize the true nature of Jesus’ mission and that it involves suffering, dying and rising again.

 

Peter is standing —  spiritually, and even physically —  in the wrong place. Hence Our Lord’s response: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me.” Peter does not belong in front of Jesus, standing as an obstacle in the way of his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. He belongs behind him, following as a disciple. Each of us is probably ready and willing to learn from St. Peter’s mistake and say, “Lord, I never want to get in your way. Help me always to step aside, not to prevent you from doing what you need to do.”

 

But wait, there’s more. Jesus says to Peter and the other apostles, and indeed to anyone of any time who wishes to be his disciple: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” It’s not enough to get out of his way, standing to the side to let him do what he needs to do. It is not passive. You too must take up your cross and follow him. Jesus’ “doing what he needs to do” involves his doing that work within each of us, not just for us from a distance.

 

The way Jesus speaks of the cross here makes clear it isn’t optional. We need it. It has a saving effect for us. Even though we have been washed of the guilt of original sin by the waters of baptism and thus restored to friendship with God, the “poisonous roots of sin remain deeply planted in human nature,” writes the author Father Edward Leen. “Man, even when he has been readmitted to the divine presence, retains a fatal tendency to tear himself away from God, his true happiness, and turn toward creatures that lure him by a mirage of bliss.” Our nature was not destroyed by sin, but it was deeply wounded. We want to love, and yet there is a selfishness in us that can take hold of that love and derail it. The cross is God’s remedy for this.

 

The cross comes in many forms. We may have romanticized imaginings of it and how heroic we will look carrying it. But the real cross might be so dull and uninteresting that we don’t recognize it when it comes. It may seem stupid and pointless that we have to endure it. It may be so brutally unfair that we want to recoil and run away. Often, the cross that comes is not what we would have chosen. We don’t design the path to holiness for ourselves. This is part of what it means to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Christ. The cross means self-denial, and that is never pleasant.

 

Having to endure suffering, especially when it’s not the kind of suffering that we want to endure, purifies our love. At least, it can have that effect. Alternatively, it can make us bitter and cold. It’s one thing to suffer, and that is something we all do. There’s no escaping it. It’s another thing to suffer well.

 

Either our hearts grow more callous as we resent our situation, or we soften and become more open to God’s work within us. Either we close up out of an instinct to preserve ourselves from all suffering and discomfort —  and as Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it” —  or we look outside of ourselves to love God and others —  “but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

 

Suffering, obviously, really hurts. But in a way, it carves out something inside of us. It creates room for God to fill us with love, so long as we don’t collapse in on ourselves. Suffering can, if we let it, break through the hardness of our selfishness and make us more docile to being formed and fashioned by God.

 

Fr. Oetjen is parochial vicar of St. James Church in Falls Church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020