"If any of you wants to be a disciple of mine, you must be willing to take up your cross every day, and follow me." (Mt. 16:24). "And whoever does not take up his cross and come after me is not worthy of me. He who cares only for his own life will lose it; he who loses his life for my sake will find it." (Mt. 10:38-39).
At this stage we enter into one of the most sublime, central, and most misunderstood part of the Christian message, and the least attractive part of the Christian journey. This is both understandable and sad. Understandable, because suffering, of itself, is never attractive. Sad, because, when properly understood, it is the most joyful and life-giving element of Christian living.
Our human instinct for self-perpetuation is so strong that it is true to say, in general, that nobody likes to die. Some people can be so sick or so old, that they long for the release of death, but, under normal circumstances, it is quite natural to want to cling to life as long as possible. I think we must begin by clarifying what exactly we mean by the word and the idea of 'death'.
Death is an end of life as we know it. It is the end of a journey, and probably the END. And then Jesus comes along, and changes everything! Because of what he has done, death has been transformed utterly, and is not what it was when it entered as weed into the good wheat of our creation. Satan brought death, just as deceits and lies mediate death to those around us. Only the truth can set us, and others, free. When Jesus took on our human nature, he took it on completely. That meant that he had to see it right through, out to the very end. The 'final enemy' was death, and, if he had stopped short of that, we would not be free.
"If Jesus had not risen from the dead", says Paul, "our faith is in vain." (1 Cor. 15:17). Jesus would change the whole scenario of death for all time. Death was nailed to the cross with him on Calvary, and lay in utter defeat as he appeared triumphant on Easter morning. The CROSS is the sign of victory over death.
What does it mean when we are asked to take up our cross and follow him? It does not mean that we, too, will end up on Calvary, although, for many of his followers it has meant that they paid for their discipleship with their lives. For the rest of us, though, our cross is not so dramatic, or so obvious. It is seldom a once-off, major news-worthy event, but consists of the splinters of everyday living. It is as if my cross is made up of splinters strewn along the road of life; all those little trials, tests, and temptations that require the generous response of a Christian heart.
It involves dying to self for the sake of another, by putting other people's welfare ahead of my own. Selfishness and self-preoccupation is very insidious, cunning, baffling, and very very patient. We have to be continually on our guard against it, because, most of the time, we will completely fail to notice it. It is only the Spirit of Truth who can alert us to the reality, and only then can/will we be set free.
"Then the mother of James and John came to Jesus with her sons, and she knelt down to ask a favour. Jesus said to her 'What do you want?' And she answered, 'Here are my two sons. Grant that they may sit, one at your right hand, and the other at your left hand, when you are in your Kingdom'. Jesus said to the brothers, 'You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I have to drink?' They answered, 'We can'. Jesus replied 'You will indeed drink my cup…'" (Mt. 20:20-23).
One of the most intriguing parts of the whole economy of salvation is that, while it involves pure free gift, yet we are allowed to play our part, to be involved, and to carry some of the burden, and come into full possession of all of the triumph. "You know that when we go to Christ through Baptism we are all baptised and plunged into his death. By this baptism, this death, we were buried with Christ, and as Christ was raised from among the dead by the Glory of the Father, so we must walk in new life. We have been buried with him to share in his death, in a symbolic way; and so we also share in his resurrection." (Rom. 6:3-5). Christ became identified with us when he took on our humanity. We are asked to become fully identified with him in his death and resurrection.
Let's have a look at Calvary for a few minutes. It was there that the final battle with evil was fought and won. Some people stayed, while others ran away. From a human perspective, it represented total and abject failure. That is the extraordinary paradox of suffering. "It is in dying that we're born to eternal life." If I had actually been on Calvary on Good Friday, I wouldn't bet on it that I would have remained there with Mary. Of course, if I did stay near enough to her, I would hear what I hear today about the Church "Stay as you are, where you are, because Easter is only around the corner." Mary 'heard the word of God, and kept it' (Lk. 11:28).
"All these things happened to you, because you believed that the promises of the Lord would be fulfilled" was Elizabeth's greeting to her. (Lk. 1:45). The extraordinary and wonderful good news about Calvary is that I can actually be there for every moment of every day, if I choose. I am not at all speaking of constant suffering here, as with Saint Pio, and many other chosen souls. Calvary was Jesus saying YES to the Father, and I can add my yes to Jesus, to his YES to the Father, any time of the day I choose. I do this every time I place a drop of water in the chalice at the Offertory of the Mass. The chalice represents the death of Jesus.
"Father, if it's possible, let this chalice pass from me…" (Lk. 22:42). The drop of water that I place in the chalice is a symbolic return, one drop at a time, of the waters of my Baptism. I am living out my Baptism every day, through the many ways I am called upon to die to self, for the sake of others. These are the splinters, because it's only very special souls that have been entrusted with the cross. In the gospel story we are told that Jesus died on Friday, and rose to new life on Sunday, but that need not be our experience. I have a friend in hospital. I am tired, and the last thing I want to do is to battle city traffic as I cross town to visit him. For his sake I make the sacrifice.
Without exception, I have found in such a situation, that I am already experiencing Easter as I'm coming back out of the ward. Whatever dying it required, it led to immediate new life, for me, and, hopefully, for my friend. I think it must be obvious, to those who wish to see, that I cannot really love another without being prepared to take on the dying that it is sure to include. No matter how much a mother loves her new-born baby, she isn't exactly over the moon when the baby cries all night, or pukes all over her, just as she was about to put the baby down for the night. OK, there are many ways of dying, and some of them are easier, and come more naturally than others.
Jesus speaks about loving our enemies, but it's often quite a test to be able to love our friends! The Christian life is no Don Quixote mission. The Kingdom of God is built up in two ways: By tiny acts of goodness, and most of them are hidden, and unknown to others. Any one of us can be really involved in the building and promoting of the Kingdom, if, of course, we are prepared to die quietly in the process. The secret of Pentecost is to be able to die quietly! I'm not asked to be a John Wayne walking down the main street at high noon, ready to show the world just how brave and fearless I am. It's not easy to die, but, the irony of it is that such people are among the happiest people in the world. Following Jesus can sound very romantic and glamorous, but it is in the everyday, day-in day-out, humdrum experience of living and dying that the bond is forged with him, and we begin to experience new life within, and the presence of the Spirit in all that we do and say. "The greatest in my Kingdom are those who serve." (Lk. 22:27).
Holiness is not something I do or cause; rather is it something that happens to me. It is like the drip-drip of water on a stone, or the chip-chip of the sculptor's chisel on the marble that begins to transform, to smooth out the edges, and allow a whole new image to emerge. In our case, that image is Jesus Christ. We are like uncut diamonds in the hands of a master craftsman. Only he can see the possibilities. I am absolutely certain that if I could be given a glimpse of what the Spirit sees as he looks at any one of us, I would be totally gob-smacked. Oh, yes, he would see us as we are, something that we ourselves could never really hope to see.
But he would see much more than that. He would see what we can become, if we allow him work in us, through us, and with us. That is certainly something that far exceeds our most vivid imaginations. This process of dying, of being reborn, of beginning again each new day, all of this is the journey, which, believe it or not, is an end in itself. There was a time in my life when I thought of this life as something to be endured, while the real life would begin after we die. In a way, that is true, but not literally true. The road to heaven is heaven, and, for those who share in Calvary now, is given the wonderful privilege of sharing in Easter now. I do not have to wait till I die to begin to enjoy eternal life. The life that the Spirit gives us is eternal, and it is now.
"Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John, and led them apart up a high mountain. Jesus' appearance was changed before them; his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. ……. Peter spoke, and said to Jesus, 'Master, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.'" (Mt. 17:1-4). It is easy to understand why Peter felt the way he did. This was magnificent, it was glorious, it was profoundly impressive. However, Jesus knew and saw differently. They had to come down off that mountain, because there was still much more to be done. There was another mountain (Calvary) that had to be faced, and what the apostles witnessed on the mount of transfiguration was but a glimpse of how things would be after Jesus had completed his mission. It could easily be tempting to stay on that mount, but Jesus came with a mission, and 'how can I be at peace until it is accomplished?' (Lk. 12:50).
Just before he died on Calvary we are told "Jesus took the vinegar, and said 'It is accomplished'. Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (Jn. 19:30). At last, the struggle is over, the victory is won, and it very soon will be time to proclaim that victory. It is part of our vocation, right down to this day, to continue proclaiming that victory. "Since we have died with Christ, we will also rise with him." (Rom. 6:8).
I want to finish off this chapter by probably stressing the obvious: Dying is what a Christian is asked to do during life. Death is like a pile of sand at the end of my life, which I can take a little each day and sprinkle along the road as I travel, so that, when I reach the end, my dying will have already happened, and I will enter straight into the fullness of life. I like to think that, once we arrive at the gates of the Garden, we would be invited to come in right away. "Father, since you have given them to me, I want them to be with me where I am, and see the Glory you gave me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I know you, and these have known that you have sent me. As I revealed your name to them, so will I continue to reveal it, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I also may be in them."(Jn. 17:24-26).
"I'm gonna leave this burden down" will be a song for our return to the Garden. The cross is now replaced by a crown. All along the way we were told again and again that this is how our journey would end, and we trust the Spirit to keep that promise clearly before our minds. I say once again something I have said in an earlier chapter: The only real sin I can commit, as a Christian, is not to have hope.