Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Welcoming Those Who Hurt Us Back Home

In his book, Everybody Needs To Forgive Somebody,  Dr. Allen Hunt recounts one of the most powerful stories of forgiveness he had ever heard.

It is the story of Millie, a young woman who married at eighteen years old and had three children with her husband. After ten years of taking care of a home and three active children, she began to wonder what it would be like to be single and carefree again. Often, when the cares of married life became too much for her, she would wonder whether she had made a mistake getting married so young.

Believing she had fallen out of love with her husband and aching for adventure, Millie soon fell in love with another man. For four months they had a clandestine affair meeting in hotel rooms whenever they had free time. Millie became so enthralled with this relationship that she left her husband and children to move in with her lover.

Millie’s husband was desperate to have her back. Every day he would send her notes begging her to return home. He even drove by her lover’s house and asked her to go with him to talk to their pastor. He told her how the children cried for her at night but even that would not move her heart. She was determined to start a new life with her lover and leave her old life behind.

A year went by and still Millie was determined not to return to her marriage despite her husband’s earnest attempts to reconcile with her.

Then, one Wednesday morning, she woke up and the realization of what she had done to her family dawned on her. She began to sob as she thought about the heartache she caused her husband and children. There and then, she realized she had to end the dead end affair she was involved in and return to her home.

Of course, she worried how her husband would react to seeing her again. Would he scream at her and slam the door in her face? What would her children say? Would they turn their backs on her for having abandoned them when they needed her the most?

Despite her fears, she knew she had to go home and face what she had done.

And so, she pulled into the driveway, walked up to the door and knocked. As she waited for her husband to answer the door, her body was shaking uncontrollably. As soon as she saw him, she said, “I want to come home.” Her husband smiled and embraced her saying, “Welcome home.”

The days that followed seemed like a dream as Millie and her husband tried to put their life back together. It took a lot of honesty and prayer, but they were making progress putting the past behind them and starting fresh.

Then, Millie got what seemed to be the worst news possible. She was pregnant with her lover’s child. How could her husband forgive this? How could he not see it as another slap in the face? And what would their families say? How could they ever welcome this child who would be a constant reminder of her infidelity?

Looking at her face, Millie’s husband knew something was wrong and asked her what it was. As she said, “I’m pregnant,” she began to sob uncontrollably. Just as he had before, her husband took her in his arms and told her that everything would be alright. He reassured her that he would welcome the child as if it were his own and that he would always love and care for her.

Of course, not only was Millie amazed by her husband’s ability to forgive her but so were their family and friends. When people asked him how he could welcome her home after all the pain she caused him and their children, he said: “You know, with all that Christ did to forgive me, how could I look at my wife, the woman He gave me to love, and say, ‘You know, you’ve done something so horrible that I can’t forgive you.’”

If you are like me, you cannot help but be astounded by this husband’s almost boundless ability to forgive his wife. His secret, however, is not that he has a short memory or that he doesn’t have a lot of pride. Rather, his secret is that He understands how much God has forgiven him and he is willing to share that forgiveness even when he has had to suffer the worst of betrayals from his wife.

As the title of Dr. Hunt’s book suggests, all of us have someone we need to forgive. It could be that our parents did not give us everything we think we needed. Maybe we were picked on and bullied throughout our school years. Many of us have been betrayed by friends and family. The people we cared about the most often took advantage of us or showed little regard for our feelings. Though it may be many years later, those wounds are still fresh. They still sting when we touch them. We are finding it hard to move on. We are finding it hard to trust others again.

It is not easy for us to forgive. In fact, in some circumstances, it may seem absolutely impossible. However, we do not have to be doomed to bearing a burden of resentment for the rest of our days. We do not have to relive the wrongs done to us. It is possible to let it all go, to get over our hurt feelings and to finally let our wounds heal. And it all starts with reflecting on how much God loves and how much He has forgiven us.

If each of us would sit down every day and reflect on our loving God who never turns us away, who does not hold our sins against us and who loved us enough to send His Son to die for us, our hearts would begin to melt. As we come to understand how much mercy God has shown us, we will begin to show mercy to others. Our hearts will grow to understand that the people who hurt us in our past were themselves carrying a burden of pain. And, with God’s grace, we will begin to heal.

Forgiveness is possible and it can begin for us today. On this altar, along with the bread and wine, let us offer our hurts, disappointments and pain. Let us allow God to take them up into the heart of Jesus and return peace and calm to us. It will not happen overnight, but it will happen. We can be free from the shackles of our past and open our hearts to a future full of promise. It all begins with acknowledging that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and with our willingness to share that forgiveness with others.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Heroic Forgiveness

Many horrible and heart-wrenching stories have come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Death, destruction and suffering take place there on a daily basis and on a level that most of us cannot even begin to imagine.

At the same time, when faced with horrible circumstances, we often discover examples of bravery and heartfelt charity. Even in the midst of chaos and savagery, we are reminded of the goodness of human nature and the power of God’s grace.

Just such a story of magnanimity in the face of tragedy is told in the book, The Irresistible Revolution, by Shane Clairborn.

During the height of sectarian violence in Iraq between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, a woman’s husband and only son were shot to death by a young man. It was her worst nightmare come true. Now alone with no means of support and no one to protect her, she was devastated. No one would have blamed her for feeling outraged and bitter. No one would have blamed her for demanding vengeance. However, at the trial during the sentencing of the man who had taken her family away from her, she stunned the judge and the courtroom by requesting that the young man not be sent to jail. Instead she requested that she be allowed to adopt him. Thinking that in her grief she might have lost her mind, the judge asked her to repeat her request. She explained that she was now alone but that she still had much love to give. The young man who killed her family obviously had not been loved enough. She wanted to bring him into her home to teach him how to love rather than hate.

Through the grace of God, this woman faced with the most difficult of circumstances found a way to choose forgiveness over vengeance and love over hate. She found a way to look at that young man not as a murderer deserving condemnation but as a lost soul needing mercy and forgiveness. She is an example to all of us that we do not need to be imprisoned in bitterness. Neither do we need to be locked in a vicious cycle of vengeance. We can be free from the pain of our past. With the help of God, we can forgive others from the heart.

Each of us here today can recall at least one person who has hurt us, someone we find very difficult to forgive. That person may have hurt our feelings, betrayed our trust or humiliated us. He or she may have abused us and caused us serious psychological or physical harm. We might live everyday with the scars of their hurtful actions. People can be cruel and heartless. But has any of us had our husband or child murdered as that Iraqi woman did? Has any of us suffered as much loss as she has? If she can forgive and even open her home to the young man who murdered her family, what excuse do we have to not forgive those who have hurt us? Even if we have suffered as much or more than she has, there can be no real, lasting healing for us until, through God’s grace, we find it within ourselves to forgive.

And the truth is that not only have others hurt us, but we have also sinned against our neighbor. We have been careless with the feelings of others. We have said hurtful things. We have looked the other way when our brothers or sisters needed our help. Even worse, we have taken advantage of people when they were weak and helpless. We might have many excuses for acting as we did. We might say that we were young and didn’t know any better. We might claim that we were not aware how much harm we were causing. But we did it anyway, and people are hurting because of the choices we made. Each of us would hope that those we hurt would find some way to understand why we acted the way we did and come to forgive us. Do we not then have to show the same understanding and forgiveness to those who have hurt us?

Forgiveness is not only essential for our peace of mind and general well-being, it is also vital for the salvation of our souls. Jesus makes it very clear that if we are unwilling to forgive those who harm us, then our Heavenly Father will be unable to forgive us. We cannot receive God’s mercy if we are not willing to show mercy to others. All our prayers and good works, all our sacrifices and acts of charity will be for nothing if we are harboring grudges and wishing harm on those who have hurt us.

How can we begin to forgive those who have hurt us? It certainly is not easy, but it is possible with God’s grace. The first step is always to pray for God’s help to open our hearts to be able to love. The next step is to pray for the person who has hurt us. We must ask God to bless that person and make him or her prosper. Whenever bitter thoughts against the person invade our minds, we have to ask God’s help to push them aside. As we do that, we will begin to see the person in a new light. We will understand that like us, he or she is a weak human being. With that, forgiveness starts to take root. It does not happen overnight. But with God’s help it is possible.

Forgiveness is not optional. It is not just a good thing to do. It is necessary for our salvation. As we prepare to bring the bread and wine that will be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ to the altar, let us call to mind those who have hurt us and those we may have hurt. Let us renew our commitment to forgive everyone who has ever harmed us and offer a prayer for those we have harmed. Let us call to mind the love that Jesus show by dying on the cross so that we could be forgiven. And let us allow the healing rays of the God Who is mercy and love to penetrate deep within us so that we can reflect that love even to our enemies.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Rising To A Challenge

There was a man who, for much of his life, gave little thought to God or his faith. However, little by little, he felt in his heart that there was something missing and that he should start going back to church. He also knew that the first step would be to go to confession.

Though he hadn’t been in over twenty years, he found the courage to go before Mass one Sunday afternoon. At first, he felt awkward. After so long away from the sacrament, he couldn’t remember his prayers or what to do, but the priest kindly helped him through it.

In the course of their discussion, he admitted that he and his wife had not been married in the Church and that their children had not been baptized. The priest explained to him as gently as possible but firmly what a serious sin it is for a Catholic to be married outside of the Church. He urged him to do everything possible to do the right thing, and told him that until they were married in the Church, they would not be able to receive communion.

The man felt devastated. He had gone to confession in hopes of finding some peace, but instead was told that he was living in sin. He was outraged and decided that he would never go to church again.

As time passed, however, the man reflected more on what the priest had said and discussed it with his wife. He decided to set an appointment with the deacon at his parish to try to understand why the Church did not recognize their marriage and why he couldn’t receive communion. The deacon gently explained to him God’s plan for marriage and all the graces that come from being married in the Church. He explained how in receiving communion we are receiving Jesus Himself and that our lives must be in union with His word if we are to be in communion with His Body.

It made sense to him, and he knew in his heart it was what he wanted. He and his wife discussed it and prayed together about it. They took the necessary steps to be married in the Church and to have their children baptized. Eventually, as they learned more about the Church’s teaching on marriage, they stopped using contraceptives and welcomed more children into their family. Now they work together with the deacon in their parish preparing young couples for marriage.

At first, the truth was hard to swallow. But because their minds and hearts were open, they were able to accept the reality of their situation and change their lives. Now they are experiencing countless blessings all because they overcame their fears and said “yes” to God’s plan for their lives.

Now imagine if that priest did not have the courage to tell that young man the truth. Imagine if the deacon did not love him enough to spell out to him why their lifestyle was sinful. They would have continued living just as they always had and would have missed out on the blessings God had been preparing for them.

It is hard to hear the truth, but how much harder is it for us to speak the truth to one another, to point out one another’s errors and to call each other to live the gospel in its fullness. Yet the Bible clearly teaches us that, in love, we owe it to one another to speak the truth.

God tells the prophet Ezekiel very plainly that if he fails to warn sinners that they will die because of their sins then God will hold the sinner’s death against him. These are very strong words, and we should all take them to heart. In essence, God is telling us that if we know that our neighbor is sinning and we say nothing about it, then we are partially responsible. Because we haven’t warned them, we are allowing the sin to continue. By keeping silent, we become complicit in our neighbor’s sinfulness.

Now does that mean that we go up to everyone in our families or at our work and start pointing out their sins to them? Of course not. We need to be gentle and loving in the way we approach our neighbor. We need to have a great deal of humility knowing that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. And we have to pray very intensely before even thinking about having a discussion with someone about his or her sinful choices.

Jesus in the gospel gives us some very useful advice. He cautions us always to talk to the person alone. By speaking one on one, the person will feel less defensive and will be more open to our words. Also, it gives the person a chance to explain himself. It could be that we have misunderstood something he said or jumped to conclusions about something he had done. When the matter is cleared up, it could be that our neighbor has not sinned as we thought, and our conscience can be at peace.

However, if the person has sinned and does not want to change, Jesus tells us that we don’t have to deal with it alone. We should ask someone else to discuss it with him and then we should get the Church involved, typically by seeking help from a deacon, sister or priest. If he or she still will not listen after that, then our consciences can be in peace. We have done what we can. All that is left is to pray for the person that God will help him or her to change.

The truth very often hurts, but it can never harm us. When we accept it, we are set free to embrace all the blessings that God has in store for us. It is an act of mercy to admonish the sinner and instruct the ignorant because it gives them a chance to experience God’s mercy and all that blessings that come from living in the light of His love. And we will be helping to save our own souls in the process. Why would we want to deprive anyone of that just to be polite or out of fear of offending someone?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Did You Know That Jesus Was Here?

The legendary quarterback of the San Francisco '49'ers, Joe Montana, ended his football career in Kansas City playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. One Sunday, he attended Mass at a local parish. After the Mass, a parishioner breathlessly ran up to the pastor and asked him, "Father, Father, did you know that Joe Montana was here?!" The pastor wryly replied, "Well, did you know that Jesus was here?"

We are gathered here today for one reason - to meet Jesus. Jesus is here. We encounter Jesus here in a way that is more real and more profound than if we had stayed home to pray alone. Jesus promised us that whenever two or three are gathered in his name that he is present among them. And so, Jesus is present in this assembly of believers gathered here today.

Jesus is also present in the Scriptures we proclaim. The Bible is inspired by God to such a degree that we can rightly call God its author. Whenever the Scripture readings are proclaimed at Mass, it is God who is speaking to us. Likewise, whenever the gospel readings are proclaimed, it is Jesus who is speaking to us. We have heard God speak to us today in a real way through the Scriptures.

And, finally, the most real way - indeed the most miraculous way - that Jesus makes himself present to us today is through the Eucharist, the gift of his body and blood. The bread and wine we receive at communion is not just a symbol of Jesus' body and blood. Rather, it is actually his body and blood. When we receive the bread in our hands or on our tongue and when we bring the chalice to our lips, it is the very body and blood of Jesus our Savior who comes to meet us and to dwell in us.

If someone famous were to show up here today - like Joe Montana or some other sports personality - we would get very excited. We would be staring at him, taking note of what he was wearing, how he was praying and trying to see with whom he was sitting. We might even try to meet him and get his autograph. Can we be just as excited about Jesus' presence here today? Do we get a lump in our throat knowing that he is speaking to each of us personally? Does our heart start to race knowing that we will touch him in the Eucharist? Do we get short of breath when we realize that Jesus is sitting right next to us in the person of our neighbor?

As we grow in the awareness of the presence of Christ among us, it becomes obvious to us that we are called to mirror the love and mercy we have encountered in Jesus. Since Jesus is present when we gather together, we have to be more like him in our everyday lives. And, because of Jesus' presence in each of us, we must love each other. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading: "Owe no debt to anyone except the debt that binds us to love one another."

Brothers and sisters, we owe it to each other to love one another. Since we are the presence of Christ in the world, we must prove it through our willingness to love. When we love, Christ shines forth in us. When we love, Christ is real in us and in our world. And so, when we fail to love as we should - when we sin - it is never a personal failure. It is never just something between ourselves and God. When we fail to live up to the gospel message of love, we let each other down. When any one of us sins, all of us are affected because it makes it harder for us to show to the world the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. Because of this we begin every Mass by calling to mind our sins and praying: "I confess to Almighty God AND TO YOU MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS that I have sinned through my own fault." We can pray those words because we recognize that we are responsible to each other to live as Jesus taught us.

It is also for this reason that, in today's gospel, Jesus doesn't tell us to mind our own business when we see our brothers and sisters sinning. Rather, he tells us that we are to speak with them and to try to correct them. Jesus teaches us that we have a real responsibility to each other and for each other to ensure that we are all living the gospel message. It is not because anyone of us is better than another nor because any one of us is worthy to judge another. Rather, we correct each other precisely because of our love for our brothers and sisters and because we want each other to experience the presence of Christ. But, we must not only be willing to correct others, we must also be willing to be corrected. And, out of love, we must also be willing to forgive each other. No matter what the situation may be, we must always correct each other lovingly and respectfully because our goal is one and the same - to make the Church a place where Jesus is made present and where the love and mercy of Christ shine with a light which is as brilliant as the sun.

My brothers and sisters, the Risen Jesus is truly here today. We have heard him speak and met him in each other. We will touch him through the miracle of the Eucharist. And, we are each called to carry the light of Christ out into the world - to our families, to our workplaces and to our schools. It is by our love that we show the face of Christ to the world. It is through love that we will draw more people to this place so they too can meet and experience Jesus for themselves.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Gift of the Cross

Throughout her childhood, Anastasia’s mother did nothing but verbally abuse her and humiliate her in public. When she was not telling her how ugly and obnoxious she thought she was, she would go days without speaking to or acknowledging her.

These years of neglect and abuse left Anastasia profoundly disturbed. Even though her mother began to treat her less severely, she still would feel overwhelmed by anxiety to the point that she could not leave the house and had to drop out of school. All she could do was sit in her backyard looking up into the sky asking God why He did not give her a loving family.

For almost a year, she could not find the strength to leave her house. Though her friends begged her to get help, she could not bring herself to go anywhere and would often lock herself in her room whenever people stopped by to see her.

Knowing in her heart that she could not continue to live this way, she began to pray the rosary begging God to take her anxiety away from her. As she prayed, she would experience some relief from her inner turmoil and moments of peace, but she still could not bring herself to leave the house. Sometimes she would even grow angry with God thinking that He was not answering her prayers or even accusing Him of neglecting her the same way her mother had.

In the meanwhile, several of her friends arranged an intervention for her. They arrived at her house and begged her to sit with them. She agreed. They sat in a circle and each of them told her how much they loved her while asking her to get help. Though at first she felt betrayed by them, she acknowledged how right they were. And so, she agreed to check herself into a facility to help her deal with her anxiety.

It took much courage for Anastasia to leave her house and attend the treatment program. It was only with great difficulty that she was able to open herself up to the counselors. But, with time, she began to find some relief and, though her anxiety has not totally gone away, she has learned to deal with it.

In witnessing to her ordeal, Anastasia said that for years she begged God to take her anxiety away and He never seemed to answer her prayer. Now she has learned to look at her anxiety as a gift because it makes her depend on God for everything. She was not able to conquer her anxiety until she acknowledged that she was powerless over it and decided to put her trust in God to give her the courage and strength she needed to do something as simple as leave the house every morning.

As she put it, “I would not want it any other way. Because of my anxiety, I have learned to depend on God. And I wouldn’t trade my relationship with Him for anything.”

All of us have a cross. And when we are weighed down by it, our first instinct is to call out to God to take it away from us. None of us wants to suffer. Even Jesus, when faced with His death cried out: “Lord, if it be your will, take this cup from me.”

Sometimes, God answers our prayer by taking the cause of our suffering away. Other times, however, He allows the suffering to continue.

Like Anastasia, we may grow angry with God and ask why He is silent when we need Him most. We may cry out like Jeremiah in today’s first reading - “You duped me, O Lord.” We may think that God has abandoned or even betrayed us.

However, there is a deeper truth to be discovered. Nothing happens to us without God allowing it. And if He allows something to happen to us, it is always for our good. Therefore, if God is allowing us to suffer it is somehow for our good.

This is not always easy to hear. Often, we cannot imagine what possible benefit could come from our pain or that of our loved ones. However, it is a truth that we hold in faith.

Human beings can endure much suffering when they see a purpose to it. Just think of what athletes go through to condition themselves for competition. However, when we do not see any meaning to our suffering, we are tempted to give up and fall into despair.

Our faith, however, challenges us to trust in God when our anguish overwhelms us. Our suffering is never meaningless because our Heavenly Father promises to always bring good out of it whether we see it immediately or not. When the turmoil seems too much to bear, a prayer as simple as “Lord, I trust in you” can give us peace and strengthen us to take one more step under the weight of our cross.

Also, our faith teaches us that none of us suffers alone. Jesus is by the side of all of those who suffer to help them bear the weight of their cross. Like Anastasia, if nothing else, our cross can help us to grow in love for our Lord by teaching us to rely on Him.

In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks plainly to us: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Our Heavenly Father does not promise to always save us from suffering but He promises to always save us through suffering. If we embrace our cross with faith and love, then we can already taste some of the joy and glory of the resurrection even in the midst of our anguish. And by offering our pains to God in union with Jesus, we will feel connected not only to our Lord but to all those around the world who suffer.

Suffering is unavoidable in this life. The question is, will we allow it to make us bitter? Will we give in to despair? Or will we allow God to give meaning to our suffering so that we can endure it with hope and so that we can grow from it? If we give it all over to our Heavenly Father, then we, like Anastasia, can learn not only to carry our cross but to thank God for it. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Attending To Our Neighbors In Their Need

Why should I?

What’s in it for me?

What will I get out of it?

Have those questions ever run through your mind when someone has asked you for help? Our society teaches us that we should never do anything for free. There should always be something in it for us whether it be money or even just emotional satisfaction.

However, we can clearly see how this selfishness has damaged relationships and families. When we put our own comfort before the needs of others, society begins to break down. Families cannot function because spouses are too busy pursuing their own interests to communicate honestly with each other. And once that happens, they cannot meet the needs of their children. We only have to look at our schools, our prisons and even our parishes to see the toxic effects. It is a downward spiral that drags all of society down with it.

In today’s second reading, Saint Paul urges us not to be conformed to this world in its selfishness. We are instead to be transformed by the renewal of our mind so that we can look at reality in a different way, not from the perspective of our own needs and wants but from the point of view first of God and then of our brothers and sisters. We are to put the interests of others before our own. We are to make sure that the needs of our brothers and sisters are met before we take care of our own needs.

This mindset is absolutely foreign to our present culture. We are taught to put ourselves first and to let others take care of themselves. But imagine what our world could be like if we started to live the self-sacrificing love shown to us by Jesus. Imagine a world in which everyone had enough to eat because neighbor shared with neighbor. Imagine families in which mothers and fathers could work out their differences and raise their children to care for others. Imagine neighborhoods transformed because people began watching out for one another. All this could be possible if, through the grace of God, we could begin to live the gospel message of self-sacrificing love.

If a world transformed by love is going to be a reality, then it must begin with you and me. We can only bring it about by making the conscious effort to put the needs of others before our own. But how do we even begin? As always, it is Jesus who shows us the way. In today’s gospel, He gives us the antidote for our selfishness by telling us that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.

First, we must learn to deny ourselves. We learn from an early age that if we are going to accomplish anything, we have to learn to say “no” to ourselves. We cannot get our homework done unless we turn off the television. We cannot learn how to play a sport without sweating through practices. The same is true in our life of faith. To break the selfishness that locks our world in destructive competitiveness, we must learn how to say “no”. It starts in small ways by going without desert at supper or by not buying an extra pair of shoes that we know we do not need. Then we begin donating the money we save to help the poor. Going a step further, we miss a meal so that we can volunteer at a homeless shelter. Or we lose a good night’s sleep because we are manning the phones at a suicide hotline. Before we know it, our small acts of self-denial are transforming us into saints.

Second, we must take up our cross. Each of us has a burden to carry. It could be sickness, anxiety, a challenging job or family members who constantly hurt us. It is natural for us to want to avoid difficulties and suffering at all costs. But Jesus teaches us to look at our life’s burdens in a new way. They are not there to punish us but to help us on the way to holiness. By accepting the burdens of our daily lives and offering them up to God out of love for him, in atonement for our sins and for the conversion of sinners, we grow in patience and in love. By realizing that Jesus is carrying our cross with us, our burden does not seem as heavy. Then we are not so overwhelmed with our own problems that we cannot reach out and help others to carry their crosses.

Third, we must follow Jesus. Our eyes must always be fixed on our Lord and Savior. He walks ahead of us marking a sure pathway forward. We learn from Him that we do not have to be afraid. We do not have to hoard money because He will provide for us. We do not need to have a big house and lots of clothes to feel good about ourselves, because He gives us the dignity of being called sons and daughters of God. Knowing that Jesus is always by our side frees us to care for others because we know He will care for us.

There is much that is wrong with our world today. All the problems we are faced with can overwhelm us and make us want to give up. While there are no easy answers or quick fixes, there is something each of us can do. We can attend to the needs of those around us, the people God has placed in our lives. By denying ourselves, picking up our cross and following Jesus we can begin to make a difference. At first, it may not seem as if there is anything in it for us. But we will experience the joy of bringing a smile to a tired woman’s face, the satisfaction of helping a neighbor make it through another day and the peace that comes with doing God’s will.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Jesus And The Cross

There is a saying: "Don't seek Christ without his cross. You might find a cross without Christ."

Jesus cannot be separated from his cross. His whole purpose was to bring us back to God through his death on the cross. The cross is the fulfillment of Jesus' mission on earth and the realization of God's promises. Without the cross, Jesus is just another good man who said some inspiring words but who has no power to forgive sins. With the cross, Jesus is the Savior of the World holding out to us the promise of everlasting life.

Jesus makes this very clear to his disciples. To save the world, he will have to be rejected, will have to suffer and will have to die.

Peter, however, would have none of it. He didn't want to hear that Jesus, whom he loved dearly, would have to suffer. There is no doubt that Peter would gladly have suffered and died in his place. But it is often more painful for us to see the suffering of those we love than to go through it ourselves. Peter loved Jesus so much that he couldn't bear the thought of his suffering and death. And so he cried out: "God forbid that any such thing happen to you!" However, Jesus rebuked Peter in the strongest possible terms, going so far as calling him "Satan". For Jesus, there was no other way for him to save the world and gain for us the forgiveness of our sins than by embracing the suffering of the cross.

Peter did what we are so often tempted to do. He tried to separate Jesus from his cross.

If Jesus and his cross come as a package, then we cannot welcome Jesus into our lives without also welcoming his cross. We cannot follow Jesus without picking up our own cross. We cannot love Jesus without also loving the cross.

Each of us has a different cross to bear. For some, it is illness. For others, it is financial hardship. Most of us struggle under the weight of a cross made up of many smaller crosses. Whatever form it may take, we can often stumble under its weight. We can feel alone and isolated because of the pain we feel. We can become bitter and let suffering harden us and close us off from others.

But, when we welcome Jesus and choose to live as his disciples, our cross is transformed from a burden into a source of strength and even joy. We begin to experience that we are not alone in our pain, but that Jesus is carrying our cross with us. Our suffering no longer closes us off from others, but helps us to become more sensitive to the pain that others experience. And, instead of making us bitter, our pain begins to open our heart to the love and mercy of Jesus. We even begin to inspire others by persevering through difficulty. Suffering, then, takes on a whole new meaning for us. We begin to love the cross because it is the means by which we come to know Jesus in a profound and personal way.

We can begin to experience the transforming power of the cross by following the advice many of us received from our parents whenever we complained about something - by "offering it up". It is as simple as saying, "Jesus, I offer this suffering up to you for my sins and for the sins of the world." Or, "Jesus, I offer this pain to you for my friend who is also in pain." We can offer up our suffering for our own sins, for the souls in purgatory or for others who are also suffering. When we offer up to Jesus whatever difficulties, inconveniences and hardships we experience, they are transformed from sources of anger and frustration into opportunities to give ourselves more to Jesus. Eventually, we even become grateful for the struggles we encounter in our daily life because they bring us closer to him. We come to love the cross because we understand that it is the way to Jesus.  

There is a still deeper meaning of the cross. If we decide to live according to the gospel message, we are going to experience difficulties. We are going to be ridiculed for our beliefs which seem out of touch to many people. We are going to be rejected by our friends, coworkers and classmates because we live differently than they do. We are going to be accused of being close-minded and judgmental. We are going to feel left out of the crowd. It is the same rejection and ridicule that Jesus experienced in his life. When we have the courage to stand up for what we believe, to go out of our way to help the poor and the needy and to defend the rights of the weak against the powerful, we will know the real power of the cross not only to transform us but to transform the world.  

Jesus cannot be separated from his cross. But, just as importantly, the cross cannot be separated from the Resurrection! The power of the cross comes from the fact that it leads us to the Resurrection which is Jesus' victory over sin and death. It is the Resurrection that we celebrate when we gather every Sunday. We come to this place with our cross on our shoulders to proclaim boldly that there is no suffering, no persecution, no difficulty which God cannot transform. And, we reaffirm our commitment to embrace the cross by overcoming evil with good through the power that Jesus gives us in his Body and Blood.