The symbol of our faith is not a smiley face. It is not a heart with LOL next to it. It is a crucifix. Ever thought about that more than a few seconds?
If you look at pictures of Jesus, he is often pointing to his heart, which is often crowned with thorns and bleeding. Of course, the symbol of our faith is a crucifix, which has hanging on it a God that has been crucified. If you were not raised as a Christian and particularly a Catholic, some people have made comments on how morbid these images are—how much they are focused on pain, suffering, and even torture. What are we to make of these charges? Is there any truth to them? How can we understand them? Have you ever really even thought about it? If you are Buddhist, there are no such images. Muslims do not have a crucified Muhammed that they worship. So what is the deal with this?
The cross began to be used as a primary Christian symbol fairly regularly as early as the middle of the second century. And do we absolutely have to look at the cross as our primary symbol? Is that some sort of rule of our church? Well, not exactly. But just because we might not like it, we can’t cast it aside, either.
Some people view the sacred heart of Jesus as perhaps a better symbol for our faith. Pope Pius XII once wrote in an official encyclical, “the Heart of the Incarnate Word is deservedly and rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that threefold love with which the divine Redeemer unceasingly loves His eternal Father and all mankind.” That’s a pretty high authority. It’s simply something to consider.
But the problem might be how we view the cross. Historically speaking, was it an instrument of torture? Yes it was? But have we forgotten why Jesus hung there? It was all because of love. In our first reading Zechariah actually prophesies of the day when the savior will be pierced, and gives us a reason for it:
“On that day there shall be open to the house of David
and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.”
It is to purify us from our sin. Someone had to pay for it, and it seems that we were incapable of doing so anymore. So God did it for us. That makes the cross seem infinitely more beautiful, doesn’t it?
I remember one time I visited a woman who had a special needs child. She was constantly attending to his needs 24/7. It seemed like such a tragedy that he had to live that way—trapped in his own body almost—and that she had to go through such effort to take care of him. My heart went out to them both. And I mentioned to her how much of a tragedy it seemed to me. She quietly replied, “I once looked at it that way, Father. But now I look at caring for my child as the most wonderful opportunity for me to show possible
I stood corrected.
Suffering need not be ugly. The cross need not be morbid.
But the cross is still the cross. The savior still bled and died on it. It’s still hard to take. We humans don’t really like looking at sin and death, do we? We have hospitals and nursing homes where we hide our sick and elderly, taking it far from the sight of everyday life. And the people that work in those places do very wonderful work, but it used to be that our sick and elderly were daily in our homes and we couldn’t help but see how frail the human condition is. And what about sin? Our world doesn’t even believe in sin anymore. Everybody is ok and everything is ok, and just about everything but the most obvious crimes seems to be permissible. The cross reminds us that there is an ugliness to sin and death. The cross reminds us that there is a price to pay for that ugliness, and that is not something that this world wants to be reminded of. Can we emphasize the sin and the suffering too much? Absolutely we can. And there have been times in our church when we have done this. What is more important is the unsurpassable love of Christ, his peace, his joy, and his redemption. But we cannot forget the cross.
I would like to focus specifically on what Jesus says in the gospel today so that we might understand it better. I wanted to focus on it so that I would understand it better. Jesus says,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
The first thing that I want to make note of is that in the first part of the gospel, Jesus is addressing only the apostles. But then the line right before the one I just read you says, “Then Jesus said to everybody…” This is not just an exhortation to priests and apostles, this is a rule for everyone who calls himself or herself a Christian.
First of all, Jesus says whoever does not pick up his cross DAILY will not find him. Now what is our cross? I guess our cross is that mission that we have been given by God, which sometimes causes us to suffer in order to prove our love for him and for those around us. This is not a mission that we chose ourselves, but something that has been given to us. What is that? That is your cross.
Then Jesus says that in our to follow him, we must deny ourselves. Now I like to be precise when I figure out these sayings of Jesus. The Greek word for deny is ARNASASTHO from the Greek word arnaomai. It literally means “to say no to,” or “to deny.” So Jesus is literally saying, “Unless you say no to yourself” you cannot follow him. How does someone say “no” to himself? This is intimately tied with picking up your cross. There are many paths that we might follow in this life, most of them selfish. Most of them so that we can avoid pain, feel pleasure, win money or fame or comfort. Well, Jesus is asking us to say “no” to those paths in order to follow the one that leads to him—to eternal life—we can’t forget heaven, people. Here is a test question: Can I look in the mirror at the end of the day and say that I said “no” to doing and thinking some things because I wanted to say “yes” to following Jesus? If not, there might be a problem.
The final saying follows from the first two: Jesus actually says that the one who loses or destroys his own soul for his sake will actually save it. Very strong words. Ultimately, Jesus is talking about the concept of SURRENDER here. Isn’t that what happens when we lose a battle? We surrender to the stronger person or entity, hoping that the terms they set down will actually save us—if we didn’t think the victor would save us, we would fight to the death rather than surrender, wouldn’t we? This is what we do in the spiritual life. There is a great battle, and it’s right in the middle of our hearts between our true self that serves God and others and our false self that serves only itself. In order to save ourselves, we surrender to the stronger party—God. And he has given us his terms—the commandments, the sermon on the mount, the sacraments. And if we obey his terms, he will have mercy and WE WILL BE SAVED. Do we think we can save ourselves? Do we think we can break down heaven’s gates when we die? Let’s try to admit that there has been a great spiritual battle and WE LOST. Jesus gives us merciful terms of surrender
Pope Francis recently said in a homily, “But a Church that denies its martyrs, because it does not know that martyrs are needed for Churches’ the journey towards the Cross. A Church that only thinks about triumphs, successes, does not know that rule of Jesus: the rule of triumph through failure, human failure, the failure of the Cross. And this is a temptation that we all have.” He tells us to beware of a Christianity without the cross. Even Ghandi, who wasn’t even a Christian, declared that one of the deadly sins is “the idea of worship without suffering.” And why? Because suffering one of the most real proofs of love—suffering is the proof that when the going gets tough, we won’t get going.
Of course, at a certain point, the question is NOT whether we like all this business about the cross, or denying ourselves—sometimes we act as if this is the case. Sometimes we act as if religion is like a big buffet and we pick out what we like and throw aside what we don’t like. At a certain point, the question that we need to wrestle with is simply “Is it TRUE or not?” If we keep the image of a buffet, I can recall that Jesus said something about that. I think he said about at least four times in different ways, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you?” The thorny question is not whether we like this or don’t like it, but whether it is true or not true.
And if it’s true, then we had better do it. And if it’s not, then WHY ARE YOU HERE? Jesus asks the disciples today in the gospel, “Who do you say that I am?” So who DO we say that he is? If he is God, have we forgotten the terms of surrender? To deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Him.