(This article originally appeared in Connect! magazine)
In his recently released book, Jesus, A Pilgrimage, Fr. James Martin, S.J. tells the story of Doris, a hospital volunteer whom he met while serving as a Jesuit novice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During a discussion group that was being led by the hospital chaplains, Doris, who was confined to a wheelchair, shared about her experience. Rather than complain about the limitations her condition imposed on her or the difficulties of getting around the city in a wheelchair, she expressed gratitude. Though she had once seen her wheelchair as her cross, she now looked upon it as her resurrection. As Fr. Martin quotes her in his book, “My wheelchair helps me get around....Without it, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. Life would be so dull without it.”
Though she may not have realized it, Doris in her wisdom revealed a deep truth about the mystery of the cross. What appears in our lives as a punishment, a burden or an affliction, carries within it the seeds of new life. When we accept our suffering, bear it patiently and even embrace it, we find new meaning in it. Suffering borne in love transforms us.
The cross is at the center of everything we do as Christians. We begin all our prayers by marking ourselves with the sign of the cross in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. A cross features prominently in every church. All our processions are led by a cross. It is the symbol of everything we believe and everything we are as followers of Christ.
Because the cross is such a part of our life, we can forget that it was originally used as a means of torture by ancient Rome. In fact, it was such a cruel form of punishment that it was reserved for foreigners and the worst of criminals. Often, the Romans would leave the bodies of their victims nailed to the cross for days to strike fear in the people. For the Jews of Jesus' day, the cross was a shameful way to die. There was nothing about it worthy of exaltation.
Jesus, however, has transformed the meaning of the cross. Because he accepted it with all its suffering out of obedience to the Father and love for sinful humanity, the cross went from being a shameful tool of execution to a means of salvation for all the world. When he was preparing his disciples for the violent death he would face, Jesus repeatedly told them that he would lay down his life willingly. Because he was the creator and the Lord of heaven, he could have called on a host of angels to save him. He could have silenced the taunts of the crowd by showing off his tremendous power. But, out of love, he surrendered his life to gain for us the hope of everlasting life.
Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we can look on our own suffering differently. Certainly we want to relieve suffering in ourselves and in others whenever possible. However, there are circumstances in which modern medicine and psychology can only do so much. There are also some burdens such as loneliness, confusion and doubt that we can only bear alone. However, we no longer need to add despair to our burden of sorrow. Like Doris, and like Jesus, we can find the resurrection already shining forth through the cross. For each one of us, the experience of new life through the cross will be unique and personal. Nonetheless, the path of discovery will start with humble acceptance of suffering in faith.
We can find the strength to begin by looking on Jesus’ own cross.
Jesus, raised up from the earth on the wood of the cross, shows us the depth of God's love. He accepted its shame and pain out of love for you and me. No one is left outside of this all-embracing act of salvation. It is never too late to approach the cross to seek healing and forgiveness in our time of need. Because the sacrifice of Jesus is a bottomless treasury of grace and mercy, it can never run out. We can go to the wood of the cross every day and even every hour to find forgiveness again and again and again. We can never use up or exhaust God's infinite mercy.
In the gospel reading, Jesus explains why this is. God so loved the world he created that he could not bear to lose it to sin and death. At the same time, sin is so offensive to his majesty and goodness that it could not go unpunished. And so, God sent his son, Jesus - a man who never sinned - to take upon himself the punishment which we deserved for our disobedience. Now, no matter how we may have offended God in our lives, we may go to him without fear knowing that Jesus has taken upon himself the punishment we deserve.
All this is because God loved us so much. Like all love, it is not ours because we deserved it or because we earned it. It is simply a free gift of God.
Today's gospel reading contains some of the most popular verses in the Bible because it captures the whole mystery of God and his plan of salvation. Very simply, God loves us and wants to forgive us; not because we are nice and not because we deserve it. God loves us and forgives us because he created us and because he is good.
Knowing how much suffering our sins have caused Jesus, how could we not weep with sorrow for our disobedience? Knowing how generous God has been in forgiving us, how could we not shout with joy and gladness? And, knowing how ready God is to shower us with his mercy, how could we not resolve to meet him as frequently as possible in confession and in the Eucharist to access the treasury of grace flowing from the cross of Jesus Christ?