Second Sunday of Lent 2013:
For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their “shame.” Their minds are occupied with earthly things.
Exactly who is St. Paul speaking about when he refers to those who “conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ?” From the context of his letter, and from the fact that Paul weeps as he says this, we can see that he is not speaking so much about those who refuse to believe at all in the Gospel, but about some in his own Christian communities who are trying to empty the Gospel of the demands of the Cross. In other words, they are likely Paul’s own converts who have gone astray, and who now are trying to distort the message of the Gospel preached by Paul. They are somehow denying that they must accept the Cross of Jesus in their own lives, They are, in practice at least, denying that Christians must take Jesus literally when he demands that if we are to be his followers and have a true hope to share in the glory of his resurrection, then we must first embrace His cross in our life in this world.
The enemies of the Cross of Christ are those Christians, then, who try to remove their lives from the shadow of the Cross. In short, they are Christians who reject half of the Gospel, who refuse to accept that true discipleship of Christ inevitably includes the willingness to suffer for His sake, to take up our cross in this world as the basis of our hope to share in the other half of the Gospel, the resurrection of Christ.
St. Paul describes this destructive attitude very bluntly. He says these Christians have set their upon the things of this world, and thus they choose to live in worldly fashion, making sensible pleasures their true god, and thus they end up glorying in things that should make them ashamed. In short, they are men and women who live for this world and its pleasures, as if these things were their goal in life. Yet, in their blindness they also fool themselves into thinking that they can live for this world and still inherit the Kingdom of God in the next. But they are doomed, says Paul, to end in disaster.
This Letter of Paul also challenges us today to honestly evaluate where we stand in relation to the Cross of Christ? It is indeed a most appropriate challenge for the Season of Lent which calls us all to conversion of heart and life. We too live in a cultural situation in which many Christians live lives that are often difficult to differentiate from the pagan world around us. Would not Paul, if her were living today see many Christians living lives almost exclusively focused on the pleasures of this world, what to eat for the most pleasure, what to wear to keep up with fashions, where to vacation no matter how much it costs, how to load our lives with all kinds of entertainment.
Do not many Christians live just this way, and do we not catch ourselves at times envying this deadly, worldly life style, often being more concerned about our comfort in this world than the promised rewards of the next? And how do we handle the crosses that come our way? Do we accept the crosses we carry, and joyfully carry them with a hope in the future, in the promises of Heaven? Or do we see them as empty of meaning, of no positive value, of no relation to the Gospel and Jesus’ demand that his followers must pick up their crosses and follow him?
Even some Catholic Churches today have gotten rid of the Crucifixes, and replace the crucified Christ with a statue of the risen Lord, as if the Cross no longer belongs to our life as Christians, and is something to be left behind, as necessary for less enlightened ages than our own. Does this not suggest that there are enemies of Christ in our own day as well as Paul’s?
Doing away with the Cross today seems to be demanded by our age which sees suffering or self-denial as contrary to the dignity of human nature. Our age wants to deny that human beings will always experience suffering or will always die. Science will do away with suffering and death in time, that’s the faith of the secular world around us. The attempt to deny the Cross is an attempt to deny suffering and death as part of human existence.
But this denial of the place of suffering in human existence, at least in this fallen world, in turn leads inevitably to a lessening of human love. For in a world where there is suffering, love will involve suffering ourselves, suffering with others, suffering for others. But when people reject the necessity of the Cross for human redemption, reject the cross as the pre-condition of the Resurrection, reject suffering and death as part of life, and as part of the Gospel of Redemption, then love grows cold, love eventually dies and people begin to live for their own pleasures, and people are headed for destruction.
Jesus knew full well that the Cross would not be easy for his disciples to accept and make a part of their lives. He knew full well that many would see the cross as a denial of life, whereas His Cross would actually make a greater life possible. He taught that with his grace we could make our crosses contribute to our share in His life, assuming that we learn to accept them as an act of love. So Jesus teaches the Apostles that they must keep their hearts fixed on the Kingdom to Come. Indeed in our Gospel today He gives three of them a glimpse of His divine glory on Mt. Tabor, so they will keep their eyes fixed on that glory when he is hanging on the Cross, and later, when they are carrying their own crosses. Jesus knows the world will try to seduce his disciples by denying that the Cross is really what saved mankind, and that we can eliminate the Cross from our world with no damage.
Paul already saw his own converts seduced by this worldly wisdom, and called them back to the wisdom of the Cross. Today the world would have us, like Paul’s converts, come to believe that the Cross is folly, a dispensable part of the Gospel. But Lent teaches us a different wisdom, and holds up a different hope, not a hope in this world, but a glorious hope in the place where our true citizenship resides. Let us keep our faith fixed on the vision of that world glimpsed by Peter, James and John on Mt. Tabor, and witnessed in the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. This vision will not make our crosses go away or easy to bear, but it will make these sufferings capable of joyful acceptance, the way the Apostles rejoiced after the resurrection to be found worthy of suffering with Christ for His Church. Lent teaches us the way of God’s love, the way that leads from the Cross of Calvary to the Glory of Heaven and to the Resurrection of the Just.