Second Sunday of Lent 2016
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. [Philippians 3:18-19]
We should ask ourselves today exactly who St. Paul might be 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 actually 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 very own Christian communities who are trying to empty the Gospel of the demands of the Cross.
In other words, these folks are Christians, and likely Paul’s own converts, who have gone astray, and who now are trying to distort the message of the Gospel as preached by Paul. In short, there are in the Church, then and now, those who want to deny that Christians must accept the Cross of Jesus in their own lives, which means they are denying that we 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 this world.
The “enemies of the Cross of Christ” Paul refers to then are any Christians, in any age, who try to remove from their daily lives any shadow of the Cross. In sum, they are Christians who reject half of the Gospel, that is, 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 very basis of our hope to share in the other half of the Gospel, i.e., the resurrection of Christ.
St. Paul describes this dangerous attitude very bluntly. He says these Christians have set their hearts upon the things of this world, and thus they choose to live in a very worldly fashion, making sensible pleasures their true god, and thus they end up glorying in things that should truly make them ashamed. To put it yet another way, such Christians are men and women who live for this world and its pleasures in such a way as to effectively make these things the final goal of their life. And in their blindness, they actually fool themselves into thinking that they can live fundamentally for this world and yet still inherit the Kingdom of God. But they are doomed, says Paul, and will end in disaster.
This letter of St. Paul, however, also challenges us today to honestly evaluate just 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 a deeper conversion of heart and life. We too live today in a cultural situation where Christians are sorely tempted to live lives that are often difficult to differentiate from the pagan world around them. Indeed, would not St. Paul, if her were living today, see many Christians living lives almost exclusively focused on the pleasures of this world, with little attention given to the higher things of the Kingdom of God?
And do we not ourselves get tempted at times to live this same way, living as we are in a very materialistic and hedonistic culture? Do we not catch ourselves at times perhaps envying this deadly, worldly life style, by being more concerned about our comfort in this world than the promised rewards of the next? And the proof of this tendency or temptation can perhaps best be seen in just how we handle even the small inconveniences and crosses that come our way. Do we easily 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 either empty of meaning, or of no positive value, of no essential relation to the Gospel and Jesus’ demand that his followers must pick up their crosses and follow him?
How telling it is in this regard that 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 really no longer belongs to our life as Christians, is something to be left behind, as necessary perhaps for less enlightened ages but not our own. Does all this not suggest that there are enemies of Christ in our own day as well as Paul’s, and that we are perhaps in danger of becoming one of them?
What is behind this cultural rejection or doing away with the Cross today? Perhaps it seems to be demanded today because our culture sees suffering or self-denial as somehow contrary to the very dignity of the human person. Our secularized culture even wants to deny that human beings will always experience suffering, and even death. The new mythology of secularism believes that science will one day be able to do away with suffering and death, a new kind of secular faith for a radically secular world. In the end, the denial of the Cross is but an attempt to deny suffering and death as part of human existence.
Sadly, however, this radical denial of the place of suffering in human existence, at least in this fallen world, inevitably leads, in its turn, to a lessening of human love. For in a world where there is suffering, and it is properly understood, love will get us involved in the suffering of others, in suffering with others, and at times suffering for others. But when people reject the necessity of the Cross for human redemption, as the pre-condition of the Resurrection, and end up rejecting suffering and death as part of life and as part of the Gospel of Redemption, then love inevitably grows cold. In such a culture, love eventually dies for many people, and such people begin to live solely for their own pleasures and are headed for destruction.
Jesus knew full well that the Cross would not be easy for his disciples to accept, let alone make a central part of their lives. He knew full well that many would see the cross as a denial of life, whereas He taught that His Cross would actually make a greater life possible. He taught that with His grace we can make our crosses contribute to our sharing in His life, assuming that we learn to accept them as an act of love.
So Jesus teaches His Apostles that embracing the Cross will keep their hearts fixed on the Kingdom to Come. Indeed, in our Gospel today, He gives three of them on Mt. Tabor a glimpse of His divine glory, precisely so they will keep their eyes fixed on that glory when they see Him 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 and saves mankind, and by asserting that we can eliminate the Cross from our world with no damage.
Paul already saw his own converts seduced by this worldly wisdom, and so He 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 fixed on the place where our true citizenship resides.
Let us keep our faith, then, fixed on the vision of that world only glimpsed by Peter, James and John on Mt. Tabor, and then witnessed in the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. This vision will not make our crosses go away or always 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.