12th Sunday Ordinary Time
“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.”
There is no more familiar aspect of Catholic Churches than the prominent place given to the Crucifix in our sanctuaries. So important is this furnishing of our Churches that Pope Pius XII in his famous encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy condemned as straying from the right path of Catholic worship to have a “crucifix so designed that the Divine Redeemer’s Body shows no trace of his cruel sufferings.” The New liturgical norms established after Vatican II to regulate all aspects of Catholic liturgy, including church furnishings, states clearly that a crucifix is to be placed either on the altar itself or near it so that the congregation can easily see it.
The connection between the crucifix and the altar is clear in Catholic doctrine. The crucifix visually displays what we are ritually commemorating and renewing on our altar at every Mass. The crucifix shows us Jesus in his act of perfect sacrifice on the Cross, offering himself and all his sufferings for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world. So, in our churches, our sacred temples of worship, the members of Christ’s Mystical Body, His living Church, gather before the altar to offer themselves and their works and their sufferings in union with Jesus for our personal and collective salvation, indeed for the salvation of the whole world. We firmly believe that Jesus the high priest is present in every Mass renewing his perfect self-oblation which took place on Calvary, and that we participate in that eternal worship by offering ourselves as a sweet smelling oblation to the Father.
The Mass then is our highest act of worship for two reasons. The first reason is our faith that it is Jesus Himself, the true and eternal High-priest, who is the primary offerer of His sacrifice. The second reason is our faith that the sacrifice He offers, and which we join in, is Jesus Himself, but now in every Mass His whole self includes us, the members of his Mystical Body, the Church that is His bride. We believe that every Mass is a true sacrifice of the Church, of both Head and members, and that this sacred ritual is perfectly united with the perfect Sacrifice that Jesus offered once for us all on Calvary.
Because the Mass is the center and very source of our Christian existence (Vatican II), our personal life necessarily must be marked and shaped by the sign of the Cross. If we truly belong to Christ, as St. Paul says today, if we truly are members of his Mystical Body, then we must be willing to embrace His cross as Jesus says in today’s Gospel. The Cross is unavoidable for the true Christian, because what it ultimately means to be a Christian is to share the same fate and reward that belongs to Christ. Our crosses may be large or small, but they are all to be offered up to God in the Mass. The cross may be our health, our economic circumstances, a problem child, a difficult parent, a job we hate, an unhappy marriage, a government that makes our life difficult or even miserable, a boss who is a trial, a sexual disorder, you name it.
What counts ultimately is how we deal with these crosses, either by offering them up with Christ to the Father for the purposes of salvation, or by just suffering them mindlessly and uselessly. We have the great privilege of joining our crosses to His Self-offering renewed on the altars of our Churches, or we can just suffer them without meaning or hope. In the end only Our Lord’s sacrifice provides the final meaning to our daily lives, and accepting the Cross is the true measure and manifestation of our real union with Him, of our true love for Him and of our fidelity to Him.
None of this should be a surprise to us if we approach the Gospels with faith. Jesus did not in any way hide this essential part of his New Covenant. In today’s Gospel, right after Peter confesses that he is the Christ, the Messiah, Jesus leaves no room for misunderstanding. Yes, He is the Messiah, but his Kingdom is not of this world. No, in this world the Messiah will suffer and die because of His Gospel and above all because of his unmistakable claim to be infinitely more than a man, his claim that he is the true Son of God, one with and equal to the Father. In this wretched and unbelieving world, Jesus will suffer and die; that is his destiny, and only in the world to come will He receive the glory that is his due from all eternity. That is the hard truth even his Apostles will shrink from in their darkness.
So, Jesus immediately turns to his disciples and warns them, warns then clearly that if they are to belong to Him and share his Kingdom and its glory, then they must follow Him all the way, all the way. And lest they misunderstand what this means, he spells out what following Him ultimately entails: they must be willing to suffer with him, perhaps even one day to die for Him. To be His true disciple, one must learn to say no to the world and its seductions, indeed one must deny one’s very self, one’s self-will, and even our deep seated instinct of self-preservation. In short, we must take up our cross and follow in his footsteps. The Christian becomes a true Christian by being willingly joined to Christ and his fate, by being baptized into his passion and death spiritually, and by being partakers of his suffering and death existentially in our daily lives. When St. Paul says that Christians have been clothed in Christ, this is what he means, clothed with the same purple robes of his passion, which will be replaced only in heaven with the white robes of glory.
The Cross is never something we desire in itself, for its own sake, no more than Jesus desired suffering for its own sake. He embraced the Cross out of love for His Father, who deeply desired our salvation, and thus for us out of that same love. And this implies that we will willingly embrace the Cross as Jesus did only if we do it out of love for Him and The Father, and only if we have a deep desire to share in His work of salvation by sharing the fate by which it has been accomplished.
Now, we know from St. Matthew’s Gospel, that Peter himself, right after he has confessed faith in Jesus as the “Christ of God,” will then draw back at these words of Jesus foretelling His own suffering and rejection, and his warning that His disciples must be willing to accept their own cross. Indeed Peter was so bold as to suggest to Jesus. Whom he had just confessed to be God’s Chosen One, even His very Son, that Jesus must be mistaken! And we recall how Jesus reacted, linking Peter and his suggestion to Satan, a warning to Peter and to us that to deny the necessity of the Cross makes one a tool of the devil, and amounts to a denial of Christ. Indeed, Peter would run away from the Cross once during the Passion because he was not yet strong enough to bear it with Jesus. Only after the Spirit was bestowed on Easter and at Pentecost and Peter was filled with divine love was he able to fearlessly embrace the Cross and suffer and die for Christ.
Each time we come to offer this Sacrifice together with Christ, then, we are not only reminded of our duty to bear His Cross in ours, but we are strengthened by His Spirit to do so as well. In the sacrament of His Passion, of His Body and Blood offered for us, He gives us an increase of that same Spirit and His gift of Charity that first enabled Him to bear His Passion for love of us. But He has truly called us to be his co-workers in the plan of salvation, and that means he has called us to share his fate in this world and in the world to come. Only by the power of His Love can we accept this calling and share his destiny. To walk away from the Cross would be to walk away from Christ. To reject the Cross is to render our life ultimately meaningless and hopeless. But to willingly take up our Cross daily out of love for Him is to walk with Christ in this life, and one day to share his glory in the next.