07 August 2014

Take up your Cross and Follow Me

In tomorrow's Gospel lection Jesus says the now perhaps too-familiar words, [[Whoever wishes to come after me (a la Jesus' command to Peter to "Get behind me!") must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. . .]] This summary of what it means to be a disciple comes at the end of a series of parables meant to reveal the nature of and empower  true discipleship. And so, Jesus continues, [[ for whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?]] We come to suspect that this idea of "taking up of one's cross" may have to do with much more than embracing suffering and death at the end of our lives --- though of course it may include that. More fundamentally it has to do with embracing the life God offers at every moment from within and without the center of our lives and selves --- allowing it to take hold of us and transfigure our entire being.

So what does it really mean to take up our crosses? And what are the deaths Jesus is envisioning here? Only Jesus' own cross can tell us what is meant here. When we look at Jesus' passion we certainly see the pain and the shame of his death. We see the torment he undergoes at the hands of the powerful and influential because he proclaims a different Kingdom, a different reality which rivals and threatens this one. We see the inhumanity, the fear, the insecurity and need to shore themselves up which is associated with what Matthew calls here, "the world." It allows these same people to see an entirely God-filled man as godless, the one who fulfills the law as lawless, the one who is in intimate relationship with God as an abject sinner and blasphemer who is alienated from God. And of course it allows us to see the justification of injustice, oppression, and even murder in the name of religion and good public order as these blind men lead others all around them into the pit --- just as we heard in Monday's readings.

But we also see a man who, throughout his entire life and especially in his final passion has given and risked everything to shine a bright light on this world of power and influence, this world marked by such appalling deafness, blindness, cruelty and death to allow that other kingdom to be revealed, realized, made real in space and time. He has embraced a unique poverty, a complete helplessness and lack of self-assertion. And because he does this in complete self-emptying, because there is absolutely nothing more he can give, nothing else he can achieve, he takes an immense risk: As I have noted before, either the Kingdom and God he has tried to witness to is a fraud OR the Kingdom of this world's oppression will come face to face with its limits and bankruptcy as it tries to destroy God's own Messiah and it will itself be destroyed in the process. Jesus literally puts EVERYTHING into his Father's hands. Commending his Spirit to God is not a simple pious act of breathing his last with the na├»ve confidence that he will now live in heaven. It is instead a summary of the risk Jesus takes in putting everything, his entire life and mission, his entire death and eternal destiny into God's hands.

The act of taking up our own crosses is similar. No, we are unlikely to be crucified in the way Jesus was ---though I am reminded of the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena who are in danger and are being persecuted today on this Feast of St Dominic --- but we are called on to live the reality of our deepest, truest selves fully and exhaustively in a way which allows our own lives to be transparent to the love and power of God which is perfected in this way. We are called to allow the life of God which resides deep within us to grow more and more influential until it fills our whole hearts and transfigures our whole lives. We are to meet injustice, oppression, and violence in whatever way these arei expressed and to do so with innocence, with trust in God, and with non-violence; we are to witness to authentic humanity in the face of the distorted humanity we see so much more often in today's world. We are to stand up as citizens of the Kingdom of God and live as pilgrims for whom this reality around us is really not our truest home. In other words, we are to let ourselves be entirely dependent on and transparent to God just as Jesus' was entirely transparent to him.

To do this day by day over the long haul (which, by the way, Jesus ALSO did) involves both dying and rising on a daily basis. It involves the gradual death of the false or ego self that is so much at home in the world of power, prestige, competition, entitlement, etc. It involves the death of impatience and the need to see quick fixes and immediate results rather than radical solutions that take time to take hold. It means trusting in the ultimate victory of God and his vindication in our lives over the long term. It means daily prayer and penance, and a commitment to making the things of God central in our lives even when we can see no progress or the whole project seems futile or foolish. It means a commitment to conversion, ongoing, long term radical conversion and the trust that this takes. It means accepting our true poverty (and wealth) by allowing God to be the sole source of strength and meaning in our lives; and it means doing so again and again in ways which get deeper and deeper. It means the death of many of the ways we measure others and ourselves and a commitment to learn to see every person as God sees them.

A renewed and whole-hearted commitment to each of these and so many more that I have not named is what Jesus is speaking of when he tells his disciples to "get behind me" or "follow me" or "take up your cross".  After all, we TOO are the ones who have not yet tasted death and seen the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom. We are witnesses to his resurrection, witnesses to the fact that abject poverty, weakness, and incapacity in the face of a world of power, wealth, and prestige, while they seem to end in hopelessness will be made the most perfect revelation of God's power and purposes. Once again the Gospel calls us to a life where we truly risk everything on the Good News of what happens when each and every day we truly throw in our lot and "get behind" Christ as his disciples. After all, Jesus has traveled this way before us and look at the results of  the risk he took!