The image of Jesus Christ crucified is so important for our liturgical life that the Church requires that a crucifix must be on or close to the altar at every Mass. In some parishes, however, the image of the Risen Christ now occupies the central and focal position where there used to be a crucifix. This trend reflects what seems to be a growing aversion to the crucifix. People say things like, “We are a resurrected Church and not a crucified Church.” The danger in this way of thinking is that we can lose the sense of what constitutes Christianity as a way of life. Happily, all three of today’s Scripture readings, with their emphasis on suffering and sacrifice, help us regain a proper appreciation of the Crucified Christ and of the place of the Cross in our Christian life.
Jesus Christ proves to us how much God loves us by suffering and dying on the Cross that we may have eternal life (cf. Rm 5:8). The greatest expression of Christ’s love is the laying down of his life on the Cross (cf. Jn 15:13). The very center of his mission is his death and Resurrection for the life of the world. We can recall that St. Paul declared, “may I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world!” (Gal 6:14).
Today’s Gospel begins with this topic: Jesus’ prediction of his approaching suffering and death. Peter’s immediate reaction to it, like our own natural reaction, is to reject the very idea. “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” To better understand what prompted this conversation, we can go back to what preceded it. It began in the passage we read last Sunday, where Peter boldly declared that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and Jesus declared that Peter is the rock on which he will build his Church. After that, Jesus “strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” This was a surprise: Jesus affirmed Peter’s insight, but then he told them not to tell anyone. The reason for this apparent contradiction comes out in today’s reading: Jesus is a suffering Messiah. Because almost no one could understand this concept, there was no value in talking about it yet.
The challenge was not the idea that a Messiah was coming; all the Jews were expecting him. The challenge was the idea that suffering is actually part of God’s plan. This idea is so foreign to our nature that we still find it very hard to accept. When we hear about people suffering, we feel sorry for them. When they die, we take consolation that at least their suffering has come to an end. When we ourselves suffer, we long for it to end. So we can readily understand Peter’s reaction. This is always how we react when we “think as human beings do.” Jesus reveals that there is another way to think about suffering, that is, as God does.
Just as Peter’s realization that Jesus is the Messiah came as a revelation from the Father, so too our understanding of the real meaning of suffering must come from the Father, through his Son, the suffering Messiah. When we accept what God has revealed – even though our flesh will continue to resist it – we come to see the glory of the Cross of Jesus Christ, as well as how we are blessed to share in it. Jesus makes it very clear that taking up our cross is an essential part of being a disciple: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” We can strive to “save our lives” by avoiding all suffering, but even if we succeed in doing so, what will we gain? Even if we gain the whole world, it is of no lasting profit for us if we lose the rich reward Jesus gives to his faithful followers.
The prophet Jeremiah often wrestled with the contradictory experience of following the will of God. In today’s first reading, he complains that he has obeyed the Lord and spoken in his name, and the result is that now he is an object of laughter. The people, instead of heeding the prophet’s message, mock and reject him. Jeremiah is doing what is right, yet he is suffering more because of his faithfulness. This is why he protests to the Lord, “You duped me!” Jeremiah is tempted to give up his preaching mission. He could save himself a lot of trouble if he simply remained silent. This superficially appealing option fails, however, because, in order to “save his life,” he would have to destroy himself interiorly. The word of God, he says, “becomes like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones.” This is the prophet’s personal experience of what Jesus means by saying, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it.” When we “think as human beings do” and reject suffering, we actually ruin ourselves. When we “think as God does” and make an offering of our life for others, we find a much greater life.
Suffering, then, is not an end in itself; it is a pathway to glory. Jesus has taken on the full weight of human suffering and transformed it, giving it life-giving value. This is why we willingly display the crucifix instead of rejecting it. While we try to alleviate suffering through legitimate means, at the same time we strive to see it from God’s perspective, to find its deeper meaning. When we look at a crucifix, we are reminded that God does not see suffering as something to be avoided at all costs. He knows how to bring good out of suffering.
St. Paul understands that the way of the Cross is the way of glory. He has experienced it himself. This is why he can so strongly encourage us to embrace this way: “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Paul knows that the idea of sacrifice – which is voluntary suffering – does not fit the world’s way of thinking. We are no longer to think as the world does, or to judge by the world’s standards. Rather, we are called to “be transformed by the renewal of our minds” so that we “may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” To be able to do this, we need to fix our gaze on Christ Crucified (cf. Heb 12:2). He is risen but his Cross, his Passion, is our strength. “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis [self-discipline] and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes” (CCC 2015). Living by God’s will, no matter what form the Cross may take in our lives, is what leads to our glory with him.
Do I see suffering, not as an end, but as a pathway to glory? Is mortification and self-discipline, which is death to self, a part of my spiritual life? Do I take time to ponder the crucifix as the sign of God’s mercy in the midst of suffering?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 16, no. 6. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.