ESUS TOLD US that if we want to be his disciples we will renounce ourselves, pick up our cross daily and follow him.
There are a couple of things about this that have always profoundly disturbed me. What "cross" is Jesus talking about? We all know where Jesus went with his cross; he went to Calvary to be crucified. If we follow him, is that the deal for us?
Our reconciliation to God was accomplished 2,000 years ago when Jesus died on the cross for our sins. It is not as if the reconciliation itself happens over and over again. It does not. Jesus died once, for all. Our salvation took place long before we were even born. Through the sacramental action of the Church the life of God is made present in our age, and we spend our lives embracing his cross and responding to his grace — the process of ongoing conversion.
Many great saints expressed their love for the cross of Jesus. Saint Paul had such a deep love for the cross of Jesus that he called it the power of God and the wisdom of God. But he cautioned us that if we demand signs or set our hearts on worldly wisdom the cross will seem like madness to us and become a stumbling block. Approaching the cross in faith makes all the difference. God wanted to save those who have faith through the foolishness of the message that we preach.
Cross, what cross?
In his love, Jesus uses the people and circumstances we encounter everyday to offer us the power of his cross in tangible ways. Every situation brings the choice to reject the cross for worldly wisdom or to embrace it through faith and experience the power of God.
One problem, though, is that sin blinds us to the cross of Jesus in our lives. We might see the cross alright, but we cannot see the presence of Jesus on that cross, which is the true essence of the cross. When Jesus presents us with his cross, he is seldom obvious to us at the time; his cross often looks quite different from what we think a proper cross should look like. In fact, I have missed the cross Jesus was offering me so many times, that I now think spiritual maturity is simply the ability to recognize and embrace the cross whenever Jesus presents it to us. Often embracing the cross is no more than remaining rooted in God's love in the face of some evil.
Saint Paul warns us that an unspiritual person is one who does not accept anything of the Spirit of God; he sees it all as nonsense. Because the greatest act in the history of the world is the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, it is precisely at the moment the Holy Spirit brings us to stand before his cross that the enemy works hardest to blind our vision. The enemy wants us to run away from the cross. He wants to rob us of our faith in the cross by obscuring our vision of Jesus on the cross. Interestingly, it has become so normal to dissociate Jesus from the cross that some religions even object to the Catholic tradition of showing the cross with Jesus' body on it. The cross by itself is a symbol of despair. But, the cross of Jesus is the power of God and the wisdom of God!
One key to recognizing Jesus on the cross is accepting that there is a part of each of us which wars against the good that God wishes to do in and through us. Saint Paul calls it the flesh or self-indulgence; and tells us that our flesh opposes the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit also fights against our flesh. He goes on to say, Since the Spirit is our life, let us be directed by the Spirit. We must stop being conceited, provocative and envious.
When we realize that a natural part of us really does oppose God, we become less trustful of our natural desires and normal ways of doing things. We accept our ongoing need for conversion. Strangely, this simplifies our spiritual life. Awareness that a part of us rebels against the cross, actually frees us be open to see the cross in circumstances we never could before. In fact, we even learn to recognize the cross through the very resistance of our flesh to certain situations.
The cross — a gift of grace
A lot of the time we do not even notice when Jesus offers his cross to us. Only God's grace can open our eyes to the gift of the cross and the presence of Jesus on it.
When facing an evil situation, our temptation is often to counter the evil we face with evil of our own. This is the way of the world. If someone hits you, hit them back; if someone robs you, lay charges against them; if you are cut off in traffic by someone who is not even paying the slightest attention to where they are going and then, when they get in front of you, slows down to a crawl, maybe blocking two lanes so you do not even have a chance to get around them, give the offender a resounding honk. (I once honked my horn when I saw a car with a "Honk if you love Jesus" bumper sticker. I have to admit that. I did not expect the guy to give me the finger!)
Jesus taught us a different way. The way of the cross. Jesus told us that he is present with us in all these obscure circumstances. At the beginning of his public life he said: "The kingdom of God is close at hand." He warned us that we will only be faithful in the large things by becoming faithful in the small things. In the part of scripture Pope Paul VI called the heart of the Gospel message, Jesus told us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us and to pray for those who treat us badly.
This is precisely how we pick up our cross to follow Jesus: when we are slapped, we turn the other cheek; when robbed, we do not ask for our property back; when cut off in traffic... well, maybe I still need a little formation on that one! The way of the cross is the way of forgiveness. We counter evil, not with a show of force, but with a show of love. This takes a real, living faith. What we are really doing is proclaiming with our actions that we believe God's love is stronger than evil.
Saint James told us we can fool ourselves pretty easily about what we do or do not believe, but we will never be fooled if we examine our actions. As John Schweisthal put it, "If you want to discover if you truly believe in the virgin birth, take a look and see if you are loving your enemies. If you really do believe in the virgin birth, you will most certainly obey the One who was so born."
Living our faith is so contradictory to the "common sense" of the world that prudence might at first seem like imprudence to us. Saint Paul spoke about the folly of the cross. True prudence can seem like foolhardiness to those whose opinions are formed by the fallen world.
Yet, let's consider the so-called "wisdom" of our society. We are now at the point where having killed off a large percentage of our population through abortion, we are preparing to deal with the demographic problems this has created by killing off the elderly through euthanasia. What a sick way to restore balance! Our society mocks the sacrament of Reconciliation but invests huge amounts on therapists using psychological techniques like psychotherapy which are so ineffective they often leave people worse off than they were when they entered therapy. One study I researched while earning my psychology degree, found that people are statistically more likely to recover from many psychological problems if they do not enter therapy, than they are if they do! On the other hand, the sacrament of Reconciliation always brings us into the full mercy of God and reconciliation with his Church.
Coming to believe
Getting the world's insanity out of our heads is no easy matter. It is, however, pretty simple. We begin with uncomplicated obedience. Let me illustrate with an incident from a letter I wrote to a friend two years ago:
A couple of weeks ago, Christine had her purse snatched while she was loading her car after grocery shopping. Three men, including an off-duty policeman, saw it happen and chased after and caught the fellow. A patrol car happened to be going by, so a couple more policemen were added to the scene. When Chris walked up to them, the three men were holding the guy down, and the off-duty policeman handed Chris her purse. The man who had taken her purse said, "Lady I'm sorry I took your purse." Christine said, "I want you to know that I forgive you." The police asked her to press charges, but Chris said, "How can I press charges? I am a Christian. Besides, I have already forgiven this man." Unfortunately for the fellow, he was wanted on several charges (16 other purse snatches or so) and they threw the book at him. As Chris was teaching at our prayer meeting last Friday, she shared the incident and said, "Imagine how great God's mercy is! Jesus was so determined to have his mercy proclaimed to this man that he waited through 16 snatched purses and had three men hold him down just so he could hear me tell him that I forgave him!" Wonderful.
Many will never understand why Christine would not press charges. Good arguments could be made for putting that guy in jail. Only one good argument can be made for what Christine did. She was doing her best to obey the call of Jesus. The purse-snatcher may or may not have benefited from her actions, but one thing is sure: Christine experienced the power of God's kingdom. And that is the real point. By obeying Jesus we enter into the reality of the kingdom of God, which is always among us.