Take Up Your Cross

In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and be rejected. That in itself would have been unhappy news to his friends.  But then he adds the kicker: “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 live will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes these words talking about Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and rejection:

Jesus Christ must suffer and be rejected. It is the “must” of God’s own promise, so that scripture might be fulfilled. Suffering and rejection are not the same thing. Jesus could, after all, yet be the celebrated Christ in suffering. The entire sympathy and admiration of the world could, after all, yet be directed toward that suffering. Suffering, as tragic suffering, could yet bear within itself its own value, its own honor, its own dignity. Jesus, however is the Christ who is rejected in suffering. Rejection robs suffering of any dignity or honor. It is to be a suffering devoid of honor. … Death on the cross means to suffer and to die as someone rejected and expelled.

Suffering and rejection. This is what Christ must experience – a suffering devoid of honor.  It is not surprising this is a difficult pill for the disciples to swallow.

Bonhoeffer also speaks of the final portion of the passage, reminding us that “[j]ust as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross.”

So we can enjoy being with Jesus at wedding feasts and dinners at the home of friends. We can share his joy in healing and in feeding those without food. We can wander merrily through grain fields, and take boat rides with Jesus. (And I have no doubt Jesus enjoyed time with his friends – and that they had times when they joked and laughed and maybe even had a little too much wine.) BUT if we would call ourselves disciples, we must also stay wedded to him in Jesus’ suffering and rejection, that is, be “disciples under the cross.”

Silence

One of the books that has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time, but which I finally sat down to read this Lent is Silence, by Shusaku Endo.

Shusaku Endo was one of Japan’s foremost novelists, and he wrote from the perspective of a Japanese Roman Catholic.  Sometimes referred to as  Japan’s Graham Greene, Endo’s novels engage in questions such as how Christians should engage a culture when that culture is foreign.

That he addressed such questions is not surprising; I read in one piece about him that “The Christian faith never did rest easily on Endo’s shoulders. Ever since his baptism at the age of 11 at the behest of his mother, Endo often spoke of a faith as awkward as a forced marriage, as uncomfortable as a Western suit of clothes. ‘This clothing did not suit me,’ he later wrote. ‘The clothes and my body were not made for each other.'”  In the novel, he has a Japanese officer argue to the protagonist that  “A tree which flourishes in one kind of soil may wither if the soil is changed.  As for the tree of Christianity, in a foreign country its leaves may grow thick and the buds may be rich, while in Japan the leaves wither and not bud appears.”  (Later in the book, a former Catholic priest makes the same argument to the protagonist.)

A novel of historical fiction, Silence is the story of a Jesuit missionary who endured persecution in Japan, and most of the book is written in the form of a letter written by him. As many people know, although early efforts to bring Christianity to Japan met with some success, Christianity was outlawed in the early part of the 17th Century, ushering in a period of great persecution of Christians.  The priest is presented (or at least sees himself), particularly in the latter part of the book, as a Christ figure, and Endo gives us a Judas figure in the form of the Japanese man who betrays the priest and other Japanese Christians.

The “silence” of the title is the silence of God in the face of suffering.  God’s silence is remarked on a various times, but becomes almost unbearable when the priest is in prison hearing the sounds of Japanese Christians who are being tortured.  They are being tortured, not so that they will renounce Christianity – they have already done so under the strain of the torture, but so that he will.  If the missionary is willing to step on an image of Christ, they will be released.

In the pain of that situation, the priest prays, “Lord, it is now that you should break the silence.  You must not remain silent.  Prove that you are justice, that you are goodness, that you are love.  You must say something to show the world that you are the august one.”  As his mind remembers others who have died in Japan for their faith, he recalls that then, too, God was silent.  Why, he asks, “Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on?”  As question that has been asked at so many times by so many people who suffer or witness suffering.

In fact, the silence goes on.  God’s silence is not broken until the moment when the priest is led to the image of Christ and encouraged to step on it.  At that point, as he looks at the image, “the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot.  Trample!  It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.  It is to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”  And so the priest placed his foot on the image.

Was his act of apostatsy a sin?  The priest does not believe so, although he knows he will be judged harshly by those that hear of his act.  I suspect Endo himself may not believe so.  Earlier in the book we read, “Sin is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies.  Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

Whatever one’s judgment of the protagonist’s actions, the book will offer much to reflect about – with respect to faith, suffering and the effect to spread Christianity to other cultures.

Lent Reading: Night

I mentioned in my post last week about spiritual reading during Lent that one of the first things I planned to read this Lent was Elie Wiesel’s Night.  I did – in a single sitting; I picked up the book and could not put it down until I was finished.

Night is the first book Weisel wrote (it was written in 1958, although I read a new 2006 translation of it), a book the New York Times described as a “slim volume of terrifying power.”  The book records Weisel’s experience of being expelled from his home and of the hell he endured in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

It is one thing to read about the Holocaust from someone who writes from a distance.  One thing to learn the facts and hear about the atrocities second-hand.  It is quite another to read the first-hand account of this man who was a teenager when he and his family were taken from their home to the concentration camps.  To listen to Weisel describe seeing babies thrown into flames, watching a young boy being hung in the square, hearing the cries of his father as he lay dying and not being able to go to him.

Is it any wonder that Weisel, who had been so devout in his faith before being dragged from his home, reached a point in the camps when prayer became difficult?  He describes a Rosh Hashanah in the camp, a day that previously had dominated his life, a day on which he had pleaded for forgiveness for his sins.  Of that day in the camp he writes

But now, I no longer pleaded for anything.  I was no longer able to lament.  On the contrary, I felt very strong.  I was the accuser, God the accused.  My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man.  Without love or mercy.  I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long.  In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger.

Although he questioned where God was in this suffering, somewhere there, he knew God was there.  On the day he watched three men being hung, someone behind him whispered, “For God’s sake, where is God?”  Weisel writess that “from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is?  This is where – hanging here from this gallows.'”

I read an interview with Weisel that occurred about fifteen years ago. He was asked how he and God are doing these days.  He responded

We still have a few problems! But even in the camps, I never divorced God. After the war, I went on praying to God. I was angry. I protested. I’m still protesting—and occasionally, I’m still angry. But it’s not because of the past, but the present. When I see victims of a tragedy—and especially children—I say to God, “Don’t tell me that you have nothing to do with this. You are everywhere—you are God.”

This is a painful book, but it is a testimony worth reading.

What It Means To Accept Our Crosses

What does it mean to accept our crosses?

A recent issue of America Magazine has an excerpt from Jim Martin’s newest book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. The excerpt shares Martin’s thoughts on what Jesus means when he instructs “take up your cross.”

Martin suggests taking up our crosses is not simply recognizing that suffering is part of everyone’s life and that there are some things we cannot change, as true and important as that is. Rather, he says “Acceptance also means not passing along any bitterness that you feel about your suffering.”

Martin distinguishes between sharing our suffering with others – talking about them, crying about them, perhaps even complaining about them – and letting our suffering rule our behavior. “[I]f you are angry about your boss or school or family, you needn’t pass along that anger to others and magnify their suffering. having a lousy boss is not a reason to be mean to your family. Struggling through a rotten family situation is no excuse for being insensitive to your coworkers. Problems at school do not mean that you can be cruel to your parents. Christ did not lash out at people when he was suffering, even when he was lashed by the whip.”

Sadly, that kind of behavior is all too common and I’ve seen it in myself. You come home from a bad day at work and lash out disproportionately at a spouse or child and say, “You have to excuse me, I had a bad day at work.” I’m sure you can think of equivalent examples.

I think we all have a sense that is not a particularly admirable thing to do – that our “excuses” are not, in fact, sufficient excuses. But there is something in Martin’s tying it to Jesus’ words about taking up our cross that is helpful to me. That, I hope, will keep me mindful of the need to refrain from “passing along” my suffering to others.

Being Willing to Suffer the Loss

I read a reflection the other day by Mother Elviar Petrozzi, foundress of Communita Cenacolo, on our need to develop the capacity to suffer. She writes

We have a saying that’s applicable to the moments of suffering and provocation. It consistes of four main words: “Be silent! Swallow, suffer, and then smile. When someone is corrected and justifies himself, the other young men tell him, “You missed the boat!” They’re talking about the boat of maturity, of self-control, of the capacity to be silent and not answer back, and to suffer with dignity and in silence.

She goes on to give examples of situations we all face: bosses at work who will not admit they are wrong, husbands or wives who do not want to be at fault, children arguing back. In all such situations: someone will have to ‘lose’ so that peace can reign.”

It is very challenging be silent…swallow… suffer…and smile in such situations. It is so easy for us to want to be right. To want to defend ourselves. To want to win.

But sometimes the better course is to be willing to “lose” for the sake of peace.

Are you willing to suffer the loss? Perhaps the better question is: What do you need from God to be able to do so?

Massacre of the Holy Innocents

Three days after Christmas, while we are still rejoicing in the birth of the Savior, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents. Today’s feast focuses our attention on two things.

First, it reminds us of the world into which Jesus was born – a world of suffering and sin – a world desperately in need of the peace Jesus offers. Innocent young children shot to death in their school. Drone attacks in which civilians are killed. The examples of suffering are endless. (I was delayed in writing my post this morning because of news that the apartment building in which one of my students lives burned down – fortunately he got out.) In the words of Henri Nouwen:

We live in a world groaning under its losses: the merciless wars destroying people and their countries, the hunger and starvation decimating whole populations, crime and violence holding millions of men, women and children in fear. Cancer and AIDS, cholera, malaria, and many other diseases devastating the bodies of countless people;…it’s the story of everyday life filing the newspapers and television screens. It is a world of endless losses.

That is the world into which Christ is born – and the world in which we are invited to be Christ. Even now – so many years after the birth, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – the question remains for each of us: Will you help help infuse the world with Christ’s presence? We don’t answer those questions merely by singing beautiful carols around the creche. The feast we celebrate today reminds us that the world needs more from us.

Second, our remembrances of the massacre of the Holy Innocents – the young male children put to death by King Herod in his effort to destory the Christ child – confronts us head-on with the reality that the Incarnation of God as human is inextricably linked with the rejection, suffering and, ultimately, death the Savior will undergo.

Christmas fills us with beautiful images of a child in a manger, surrounded by adoring shephards and Maji and gloroius angels singing of God’s glory. But, in the words of Francios Mauriac, “the gentle Child shivers with cold on the edge of a criminal world while angels promise peace to men of good will – a peace that can be discovered only after a full measure of suffering; but in the shadows of his birthplace Herod’s soldiers sharpen their knives for a slaughter of innocents.” The world into which Christ was born is populated by many who will reject Him and, like Herod, try to destroy Him.

Today’s feast reminds us both that the world needs us – that we are meant to meet the suffering of the world as Christ did – and that in so doing we may face the same rejection as he did. It is a sober reminder in the midst of our holiday cheer.

Where Was God Yesterday?

Yesterday’s violence in Connecticut was horrific. Was anyone not in tears as the news poured in that so many young children had been shot? It was almost too difficult to imagine – a young man walking into a school building and opening fire on children between the ages of five and ten.

People ask a lot of questions when events like this occur. Some of them have to do with our country’s refusal to limit the kinds of guns people can buy. Others have to do with our failure to provide adequate mental health treatment to so many in our society. (And both of those are important issues that should be discussed)

And at some point, the question gets asked, as it does in any tragedy, Where was God? What kind of God allows young children to be massacred? As one of my friends puts it every time an event like this happens: If God is omniscient and omnipotent, how could God foresee this and do nothing to prevent it?

The problem of evil in the world has been discussed by theologians across the centuries, and I’m certainly not the best person to provide any church’s “official” teaching on the matter. So all I can offer are some (not particularly sophisticated) thoughts that reflect how I answer questions such as those posed above for myself.

I’ve come to believe that free will is one of the greatest gifts God gave us as humans. (I say “come to believe” because this is an issue I struggled mightily with when I did the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.) We are created by God to live in perfect union with God, in loving relationship with God. That is the very reason for our existence.

But God does not force us to accept the end for which we were created. Instead, God gives us the choice whether to live as we were intended. We get to say yes or no. Yes, I accept who I am, who I was created to be. Or no, I choose to assign a different meaning to my existence. God wants our yes, but will never force it.

Giving us free will is not costless. It means that there will be some who say no to life with God. Some who will choice evil over good, the infliction of pain over love. That means people will do horrendous things to others, without God stepping in to prevent it. But the alternative would be meaningless – a forced love is no love at all.

The existence of free will means there will be suffering. But I am also convinced that we do not face those sufferings alone; that God is there in that suffering. The suffering and death of Jesus are a reminder to us that there is no suffering we face that God does not face along with us.

And Jesus’ resurrection tells us that the suffering is not the end of the story. That after suffering and death comes resurrection.

Where was God yesterday? Weeping along with the rest of us. Where was God yesterday? Holding fast to those children and adults who were killed? Holding them close to God’s heart.

The Power to Serve

At Mass yesterday, we listened to the passage from St. Mark’s Gospel in which James and John ask Jesus to “grant that in your glory we may sit at your right and the other at your left.”

Positions of power and glory to be sure. High seats, where everyone may see the brothers, knowing they are great men. Positions form which they presumably may wield authority over others. Ambitious men, these two. The same can probably be said for the other followers of Jesus. We are told that the other apostles “became indignant” at James and John for their request; I’ve always thought their reaction was more about being upset they didn’t think to ask the question before James and John did than anything else.

In reply Jesus asks them, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

In his homily, Fr. Dale described the cup Jesus drinks as the cup of service and suffering. For there is suffering in living a life modeled on Christ’s – in putting the needs of others over the desires of the self. But, he reminded us, there is also tremendous joy in doing so.

Ambition is a very human thing. But today’s Gospel reminds us that discipleship in Christ is not about power and glory in the worldly understanding of those terms. The power of Christ in us is not about sitting up on high chairs where everyone can see us, giving us kudos and respect, kissing our rings and kneeling before us.

In Fr. Dale’s words near the end of his homily: The power of discipleship is the power to serve.

During the offertory at Mass, we sang the beautiful Servant Song:

What Do We Want to Experience with Jesus

In yesterday’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus makes his third prediction of his passion, telling his disciples that they are on their way to Jerusalem where the Son of Man will be handed over to those who will condemn him to death.

At the Mass I attended yesterday, the priest observed that Jesus predicts his passion for the third time because the first two times didn’t get the point across to his disciples. They didn’t get it.

And they don’t get it this time either. Immediately following Jesus’ third prediction of his passion, Jesus is asked for the sons of Zebedee to get seats at his right and left hand. Mind you, the request is not that they share in his suffering, only that they share in his glory. It is not a piece of the cross they wish to carry, only seats in the kingdom they wish to sit at. The disciples’ mother, who makes the request on their behalf, skips right past the passion to what comes afterward.

I think it is too easy for us to listen to this Gospel passage and make fun of the disciples and thier mother for their request. But aren’t we much the same? Incredibly anxious to share in the joys of the kingdom with Jesus….and not quite so anxious to share in the cross.

But as for Jesus, so too for us. There is no resurrection without the crucifixion. No sharing in the glory of the kingdom without paricipating in the suffering of Christ.

Consoling and Being Consoled

Yesterday’s Gospel was Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, a reading paired with a passage from The Book of Job.

There were many things in Fr. Dale’s sermon at Christ the King that were compelling, particularly his suggestion that the the appropriate response to the existence of suffering is not “why” (a question debated from the beginning of time) but “what can I do to alleviate the suffering or console the sufferer.”

But it was the framing of the body of his sermon that had the most impact on me, and quite a powerful one at that.

Fr. Dale began his sermon by observing that there are two kinds of people in a faith community – those who suffer and those who console – and that on any given day, we are each one or the other. He end his sermon by repeating that there are two kinds of people in a faith community – those who suffer and those who console – adding the question: which are you today?

What blasted in my mind when Fr. Dale asked that final question was the realization that being part of a faith community (and perhaps other communities as well) means accepting consolation in one’s own suffering as well as consoling others.

For many of us, consoling others is a whole lot easier than accepting consolation. We are comfortable being with others in their suffering, supporting with our words or presence, doing things to take care of others. But for many of us, letting others into our suffering, being willing to put ourselves into the hands of another, letting them take care of us, is much less comfortable. Oh, most of us can do that with one or two of our closest friends, but accepting it from others beyond that seems to make us more vulnerable than we quite like.

It is hard for me to explain this realization other than in conclusory terms, but Fr. Dale’s question helped me to clearly see that if I view myself only in the role of consoler, I’m not fully part of the faith community. Not being willing to accept the consolation of others in my suffering keeps me removed, withholds a part of myself and places me, apart from and, in a sense, above those whom I console. If I am apart from and above, I’m not fully with, not totally in the community.

In a sense, then, the question with which Fr. Dale ended his sermon – “which are you today?” – impliedly also asks: Are you willing to really be part of this faith community?

I know the answer to that question.