Pick up your cross and follow me
Last month I wrote on the Transfiguration, emphasizing the words of God, “Listen to him,” and the setting of the passage within the journey of Jesus and the disciples to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus predicted his passion three times each followed by a misunderstanding by the disciples. February’s reflection concentrated on the second and third misunderstanding about being the greatest and seeking places of honor and power. This month, during Lent, the first misunderstanding offers further challenging thoughts.
After Jesus’ first passion prediction (Mark 8:31-33), Peter took him aside and rebuked him. Jesus, in turn, rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan.” Then Jesus told the crowds: “If any person wishes to follow me, let that one pick up their cross and follow me. … Whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Peter is rejecting Jesus’ mission that will lead to death; he is also rejecting any suffering that he, Peter, might encounter in following Jesus. The transfiguration follows. God is telling the disciples to really hear what Jesus is saying.
There is a difference in asking, why did Jesus die? and why did historical persons kill Jesus? We often concentrate on theological answers to the first question and miss the second question. In a recent book, “Why the Cross?” Father Donald Senior, CP, a former member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, writes to recover this meaning of the cross and to understand Jesus’ death in the context of his life.
Senior begins by briefly remarking on the different meanings attached to the cross of Jesus including that of human suffering. He distinguishes between the cross as the means of killing Jesus and the cross as symbolizing various forms of human suffering that are not chosen, such as illness, death of a loved one, loss of a job, and such. In these circumstances, we are urged to bear our suffering, “our cross.” On the other hand, the disciples are taught by Jesus to actively choose to “pick up their crosses,” to choose a discipleship way of life modeled on Jesus’ words and actions, accepting that this might cost them their very life.
Having discussed crucifixion in the Roman world as a heinous form of capital punishment, a public act reserved primarily for slaves and lower classes, and meant as a deterrent, Senior turns to examine the gospels, especially the passion narratives, and the letters of Paul. In the gospels, Senior finds that the cross is essentially linked to God raising Jesus from the power of death and is the ultimate expression of his mission. From Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Senior makes the point that by baptism the Christian lives by the power of the Spirit, is transformed into Christ. By baptism, faith in Jesus leads to living by the faith of Jesus.
A summary of Senior’s study is found in his final chapter where nine times he asks and responds to the question “Why the cross?” Here are just three of Senior’s responses: “Because Jesus was innocent and just, His death on the cross was an act of supreme injustice, an act of violence and oppression whose roots are radically evil”; because “through the cross we recognize the God who cares for those who are poor and vulnerable, … the God who embraces all people”; and because in taking up the cross “Christians, through grace, are able to shape their lives in the pattern of Jesus’ own life-giving mission.” This chapter, in fact the whole book, provides an excellent reflection for Holy Week.
In the Transfiguration, mentioned above; the voice heard there echoed the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” After the death and burial of Jesus, the gospels recount that God raised His beloved Son after Jesus had been faithful to his mission, to our God, even to his terrible death – always the beloved Son in whom God is “well pleased.” The resurrection of Jesus is a promise to each disciple who picks up her or his cross and follows him.