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This Sunday, the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year B, Jesus reveals who he is and what his mission is, and, with him, what ours is. He is the everlasting king and we share his mission to suffer for the world.
It’s a hard pill to take, and Peter, for one, won’t swallow it.
This is the moment of Peter’s greatest victory and must shameful defeat — which, as we will see, is what the cross will represent for every one of us, starting with Jesus.
Jesus asks his apostles, “Who do people say that I am?” then shifts disconcertingly to, “But who do you say that I am?”
This is the center-point of Mark’s Gospel, the climax of the story that everything before has been leading up to and everything after will be leading away from. This is the big reveal of Jesus’s true identity and deepest mission.
At first, Peter shines in the moment, saying, “You are the Christ,” a word full of meaning. It means he is the son of David who is also a Son of God; it means he is the king whose kingdom will last forever.
Mark was Peter’s secretary, and his Gospel is often considered to be “Peter’s Gospel,” taken from Peter’s preaching. Thus, it humbly leaves out the important thing that happens at this moment, when Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”
Mark skips that to the other grand announcement Jesus makes at this climactic moment: He “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected … and be killed, and rise after three days.”
Peter, perhaps feeling like this is the first test of his new job, takes Jesus aside and “began to rebuke him,” says Mark. He tells him that this is too much. It’s unnecessary. Jesus should triumph, not suffer. Nothing so terrible should happen to someone as great as Jesus.
Jesus’s response is harsh, and recalls the time Satan tried to get Jesus to simply claim the kingdoms of the world without suffering: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
“The son of man must suffer greatly,” he says, and “Get behind me, Satan.” The meaning is clear: It is godlike to embrace suffering and it is Satanic to avoid it.
The fact of suffering is at the center of our understanding of ourselves and the world.
Buddhists and Hindus see suffering and respond with detachment and denial; materialists see suffering and say Carpe diem, “seize the day.” Atheists see suffering and say, as Richard Dawkins did, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
But when Christians encounter suffering we see the Cross.
Pope Benedict XVI points out that the cross is at the very center of the created universe — starting, analogically, in God himself.
What does it mean that “God is love?” Pope Benedict wrote. “Here we find ourselves before the most dazzling revelation of the source of love, the mystery of the Trinity: in God, one and triune, there is an everlasting exchange of love between the persons of the Father and the Son, and this love is not an energy or a sentiment, but it is a person; it is the Holy Spirit.”
If love is self-giving in the Trinity itself, “How is God-love revealed to us?” he asks, and answers: “The cross of Christ fully reveals the love of God.”
After all, as we say each Sunday, we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ who “for our sake” was “crucified under Pontius Pilate” and at the same time is “consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.”
God’s love made man is Christ on the cross. And our way to participate in God’s love is to take up our own cross and follow him. As he put it in his interview God and the World (and elsewhere, as Matthew Ramage points out in his treatment of the cross and creation here):
“Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love [Liebe] without suffering [Leiden], because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice.”
In other words, you can’t love in your thoughts alone. You can only love by sacrificing yourself in the real world.
St. James makes that clear in the Second Reading for Sunday. “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?’” he asks.
You have to actually help people to love them. You have to sacrifice something. And that hurts.
The crucifix is our lesson in love from when Adam and Eve learned that they can bring forth children and feed them only through suffering, to each of our lives today. The crucifix Jesus shows us how we should love, it shows us who we should love, and explains in whom we should love. If being married 29 years and having nine children has taught me nothing else, it’s that the cross is at the center of married love, and at the heart of family life.
It hurts to love your neighbor. It hurts to love the poor. It even hurts to love God. As the suffering servant, the prophetic image of Christ, puts it in the first reading in Isaiah: “My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”
You think, “This is a hard message. How can someone embrace renunciation and pain?” But then another thought occurs: “How can anyone not?”
The cross will come, like it or not. So all that remains to be decided is how we will accept it, and who we will turn to when it comes.
In the Psalm, we prayed: “The cords of death encompassed me; the snares of the netherworld seized upon me … and I called upon the name of the Lord.”
It is only in the crucible of suffering that we find the pierced hand of Jesus Christ, reaching out to us and calling us higher.
How can we find the motivation to suffer?
One way is to look at it the way some marathon runners put it: “It feels so good to stop.” This was St. Augustine’s advice to a friend feeling overwhelmed by life: “I felt that you were being carried and dragged along by your cross rather than you carrying it,” he said. He advised carrying the cross with enthusiasm by remembering, “We suffer momentarily until death is swallowed up in victory. Then this cross itself will be crucified. The cross will be nailed to the fear of God.”
So the first way to carry the cross is to look to the goal, and carry it with pride, knowing it’s our ticket to glory.
But that can be impossible, I’ve found. So, when I can’t muster much enthusiasm for the cross, I have learned what St. Elizabeth Ann Seton learned: Simply go forward anyway, one step at a time. Soon we will find that “It is the cross which carries us,” said St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and that “the weakest become strong by its virtue.”