Thursday, June 20, 2013

Without the Cross, we are not Disciples

Twelfth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Last week’s gospel is a fitting prelude to the event recorded in this week’s passage. There we encountered the sinful woman who knelt at the feet of Jesus and anointed them with her tears and ointment. The woman’s actions do not merely display humble contrition and extravagant love. What she has done was also a prophetic and revelatory. Already in the actions of this woman, we discern the faith of the Church announcing and revealing to us the identity and mission of Jesus, the one whom we call Christ, the Anointed One. This week’s gospel articulates clearly what the woman had wished to express through her actions – she anointed the one who is the Anointed One of God, Christos. She shed tears of both grief and joy for the one who would shed his blood on the cross for our redemption.

Luke, unlike Matthew and Mark, gives us no indication of the place of this event but tells us that Jesus had been spending time in private prayer and that it was in this privacy that the question of His identity was put to the disciples. Prayer is the ordinary context in Luke’s gospel; for disclosures of Jesus’ identity. After having questioned his disciples on popular notions of who he is, he then directs his questioning to his disciples. They now become the focus on the issue of identity because the prerequisite of being a disciple of Jesus would be a comprehension of who Jesus is. The crowds were way off the mark; let’s see whether the disciples get it right. Luke’s version of Peter’s reply expands on Mark’s version which has Peter merely say, “You are the Christ,” in other words, you are the Anointed one. But this begs the question, ‘who’ had anointed Jesus? Luke provides the answer which the early Christians already knew and professed – He is the “Christ of God,” the Anointed One of God.

Peter’s confession is monumental. It is the watershed of the gospels. But this profession, though accurate, would be incomplete. It was a partial, imperfect, and even tentative confession of our Lord’s identity. The categories by which Peter used to make this personal confession were not unlike that of his contemporaries. His views were consistent with the expectation of the Jews of his day. They were expecting a human messiah, a religious leader, albeit a political liberator, who will deliver his people from oppression. The confession was also faulty on a second account: not only was Peter’s “messiah” not divine, but he was surely not a suffering messiah. It is in the accounts of Matthew and Mark that Peter’s violent reaction to the Lord’s disclosure of His imminent rejection, suffering and death are recorded. The very same person who rejoiced in Christ’s identity as Messiah, rejected the possibility of Him being a suffering Saviour. Peter’s “messiah” was therefore a distorted “messiah,” a messiah of his own hopes and aspirations. His narrow vision of the messianic mission would betray his own limited understanding of the kind of discipleship that was required of him.

Jesus’ response to the “great confession” of Peter must have caught the disciples off guard. Jesus said two things which would have been very perplexing to them. First Jesus’ charged his disciples not speak of his identity, to avoid perpetuating the already widespread misconception about his mission. The reason for this strange-sounding command is to be found in our Lord’s second statement. As God’s Messiah, He must be rejected by the leaders of the nation, be crucified, and then rise from the dead three days later. In other words, a more complete revelation of his identity must necessarily involve the cross. The disciples needed to affirm that the Christ of God is also the Son of Man who must suffer, be rejected and killed and on the third day be raised.

Having told the disciples of His cross, He immediately goes on to tell them that they will have a cross as well, if they follow Him. If the cross was a necessity in Christ’s life and his mission of salvation, the same necessity defines the life of those who would be Christ’s followers. But the disciple’s cross entails more than just external persecution, and occasionally martyrdom—it entails death to self-will, self-interest, and self-seeking. It’s a call to absolute surrender and complete abandonment. In the words of Jesus, it requires denying self. The “way of the cross” is the way of death to our own interests. As our Lord set aside His glory and prerogatives as God in order to come to earth and “bear His cross,” so the disciple of Christ must do likewise. Denying self requires us to give up anything that we would want or seek that would hinder our doing the will of God. Christianity is not an add-on to our already full, self-directed way of life. Discipleship means deliberately choosing to follow another person's way rather than making our own way.

This action of abandonment to the will of the Father is not just an isolated incident, a momentary inconvenience in an otherwise problem free life. Luke’s gospel adds a certain intensity to the demand of discipleship expected of those who wish to follow Christ. The disciple is not only expected to take up his cross once in his lifetime, but the cross is to be taken up ‘daily.’ The cross is thus lived in the every-day of on-going history.

I’ve heard people describe our crosses as burdens we have to bear in our lives—the chronically ill relative, the alcoholic or unfaithful husband, the demanding boss, a short temper, recurring health problems. So taking up your cross means putting up with these things, enduring them and soldiering on. We basically have no choice in the matter. With self-pitying pride, they say, “That’s my cross I have to carry.” Such an interpretation is not what Jesus meant. The cross was never meant to be a mere accident, an unwanted burden. Grudging reluctance to bear the cross daily can only lead to resentment – to see life as a curse, rather than a blessing even in the midst of our daily crosses. What made the cross salvific was precisely the freedom and deliberateness by which Christ chose to embrace and die on it.

Commitment to Christ means taking up your cross daily, giving up your hopes, dreams, possessions, even your very life if need be for the cause of Christ. And this must be done with utmost freedom and love, rather than to assume that it is an unfortunate lot that has fallen upon us, one which we cannot avoid. The cross becomes our salvation only because we can choose to accept it and deny it. Thus discipleship becomes an act of freedom, of choosing to lose everything for the sake of the kingdom. For those who freely choose the cross, it is no longer a symbol of misfortune, a curse or an unwanted burden. The beauty of the cross only becomes apparent when we embrace it for love of Christ. Thus, we can echo the words of that medieval mystic, Thomas à Kempis, when he unabashedly confessed that “in the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is excellence of virtue; in the Cross is perfection of holiness. There is no salvation of soul, nor hope of eternal life, save in the Cross.”
It is only in recognising the necessity of the cross in our Christian lives, that we can choose to resist the temptation of fleeing from it. Our two Popes have given us a potent reminder of the pervasive necessity of the cross. In his last address to an emotional crowd, Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded the Church that his resignation did not mean coming down from the cross. He must have been prophetic as proof of this is found in his continuing crucifixion by critics of the Church and pseudo-fans of Pope Francis. The latter extol the simplicity of the new Pope at the cost of tarnishing the character of the old one. They equate the Pope Emeritus with their own poor notion of the Middle Ages—dark, backward and decadent—and speak as if the saintliness of the new Pontiff is an anomaly among the Successors of Saint Peter. Pope Emeritus Benedict continues to bear the cross, not just as a misunderstood figure, a victim of a relentlessly aggressive media, but he chooses to bear the cross for the whole Church. His decision to live a monastic life of prayer within the confines of the Vatican, hidden from the world, is his free and deliberate decision to bear his cross for the Church and the World. It is a sign of courage, not a sign of cowardice; it is an act proclaiming the victory of cross, rather than resigning oneself to defeat.

It is indeed providential, that as one Pope concluded his pontificate with reference to the cross, a new Pontiff would begin his reign by speaking of the necessity of same object. The path of the Church always entails difficulties, Pope Francis said in his first homily after his election to the pontificate, and Church leaders should be prepared to embrace them. He explained that “when we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess a Christ without the Cross… we aren't disciples of the Lord.” The Pontiff therefore reminds us once again, that without the cross “we are worldly. We are bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, (and I would add lay and religious) but not disciples of the Lord.”

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