In August of 2003, the Church of the Holy Cross in New York City was broken into twice. In the first event, thieves made away with a metal moneybox. Three weeks later, vandals escaped with something much more puzzling. Being a Catholic church, there was a large crucifix in the church. The thieves had unbolted the 4-foot long, 200-pound plaster Jesus from the crucifix, but left behind the wooden cross to which it was attached.
The church caretaker confessed his bewilderment at this: “They just decided to leave the cross and take Jesus. We don’t know why they took just him. We figure if you want the crucifix, you take the whole crucifix.” 1
We probably know why. We want Jesus; but we’re uncertain about taking up his cross. Many people would like to have Jesus and leave his cross behind. They want Jesus because Jesus offers forgiveness and grace. Jesus accepts us as we are; he hears our prayers and helps us in times of need. His cross, however, means suffering, sacrifices, self-discipline, self-denial and self-giving. The cross tells us to turn our attention away from ourselves onto others who are in need of our care.
The Readings for this Sunday explain the vision of Christian life that Jesus expects of His followers. Immediately after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Jesus blesses him and tells his disciples about his own suffering, death and resurrection. He informs them that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly and be killed and on the third day be raised. It is necessary for him to do all these for our salvation. And he is willingly to do it because he loves us. He loves humanity. He sacrifices so that we can be saved. He suffers so that we have joy. He dies so that we can live.
Peter has a hard time accepting this cost of discipleship. He is able to grasp part of God’s mind when he responds to Jesus, “You are the Christ, Son of the Living God.” But he is unable to accept a further aspect of God’s will. He tries to stop Jesus and encourage Him not to go that direction. For Peter, the cross is not the right choice. Death on the cross should be avoided. Peter expresses his opinion, “May you be spared, Master. God forbid that any such thing ever happen to you!”
The worldly values are within Peter and cause him to reject Jesus’ vision and mission. This is no less a problem for us. At least to some degree, we are conforming to the values of the world; and we cannot be transformed in God without a struggle. This age, this time and place in which we live are not entirely in harmony with God. People think differently, believe differently, and act differently. Many people do not want to sacrifice. When was the last time you sacrificed anything for anybody? When was the last time you used it or thought about it in terms of your own life? Some are reluctantly making some sacrifices for others. Others do not see the meaning in their sacrifices. Pro-choice advocates and abortions are anti-sacrifice. They are saying no to the unborn, because the unborn make their life inconvenient. Sacrifice is not a word we use much these days. Many people do not have a second thought when they want to have a divorce because they do not want to sacrifice anymore. People are having affairs, sexual relations outside marriage, abortions, contraception, drugs, and cheatings are giving up on the spirit of sacrifice!
I am not a baseball fan. But I admire the spirit of this sport. In the game, you can almost hear the sport commentator announcing over the radio, “And there it goes, a long fly ball to left; easy out, but the man on third tags up and trots home. Sacrifice fly.” What a great idea -- you’re out, but you helped someone else score a run. Baseball is one of the few sports where you lose but the team still gains. In football you kill! In baseball you “sacrifice…”2
If we are not willing to sacrifice, we can hear Jesus’ same words to Peter, “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are trying to make me trip and fall. You are not judging by God’s standards, but by human ones.” When we disagree with Jesus, and avoid sacrifices, we are with Satan. When we are not following Jesus’ ways, we are cooperating with Satan. St. Paul appeals to us in the second reading, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed and conformed to the will of God, to what is good and pleasing to God and perfect.” Conforming to the will of God means we think like Jesus; we speak like Jesus, and we act like Jesus. And Jesus is telling us that “If we wish to follow Him, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.” Can we sacrifice? Yes we can! What are your sacrifices?
Last week, one evening, I returned to the rectory and found a note stuck on a jar with monies in it. “Father John, this donation is from Brook for the Orphans in Vietnam.” Brook has just received her first Holy Communion a few months ago. She has sacrificed some of her allowance to help the orphans. A $34 donation from a 7 years old girl is a lot of money. If a 7 years old girl can make sacrifice, all of us can. Yes, we can make sacrifices. You are doing sacrifices every day. You get up early every day to go to work. You get up early to go to school. You take care of the needs of your spouses, your children or your elderly parents every day. You take your children to CCE every week. You respond to the request of your relatives or friend at times when it is not convenient to you. You bite your tongue, hold your temper, and control your frustration and anger to keep peace. We do all kinds of sacrifices daily. But do you find meaning, joy and fulfilment in those sacrifices?
We are taking up our many crosses every day. Jesus however, is telling us not only to take up our crosses, but to take up our crosses and follow him. Taking up our crosses without following Jesus will lead us to frustration, anger and bitterness. It is important to remember that we are taking our crosses to follow Jesus.
I love the reflection on the meaning of the cross from the classic book “The Imitation of Christ”:
“Jesus has many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few cross-bears. Many desire His consolation, but few His tribulation. Many will sit down with Him at table, but few will share His fast. All desire to rejoice with Him, but few will suffer for Him.
Many will follow Him to the breaking of the bread, but few will drink the bitter cup of His Passion. Many revere His miracles, but few follow the shame of His cross. Many love Jesus when all goes well with them, and praise Him when He does them a favour; but if Jesus conceals Himself and leaves them for a little while, they fall to complaining or become depressed.
Those who love Jesus purely for Himself and not for their own sake bless Him in all trouble and anguish as well as in time of consolation. Even if He never sent them consolation, they would still praise Him and give thanks.” 3