The Triumph of the Cross
(Readings: Isaiah 50:5-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35)
Introduction to Mass
In today's gospel Jesus dampens the enthusiasm of his disciples by warning them of what lies at the end of his public ministry: his death on the cross. They react strongly against the idea of Jesus' life ending in humiliation and failure. They haven't yet learned the crucial aspect of God's nature and God's love which Jesus' death will reveal. At the same time, Christianity isn't a masochistic cult of suffering. "Taking up the Cross" is only worthwhile if it refines and strengthens our capacity to love and to identify with others in their needs and weaknesses.
As we begin this Mass we think of the times we've failed to do that and we ask God for his mercy and guidance.
The symbol of the Cross has often been the centre of an unhealthy cult of suffering. Some older forms of prayer and devotion described Christ's crucifixion in gory and vivid language and gave the impression that pain and suffering were beneficial in themselves.
Victims of injustice were advised to see their situation as an expression of God's will and encouraged to accept it piously, "sanctifying themselves" by doing so. This was a great means of whitewashing oppression and excusing the abuse of power, because it argued that the victims of exploitation should simply endure their situation in "Christ-like" fashion, rather than declaring, as the Old Testament prophets did for example, that abuses and injustices anger God and should be eradicated.
On the other hand it seems that one of the features of our society now is a sort of cult of avoiding suffering, a cult of personal comfort.
If the world of television adverts was remotely real, we would all be able to create a life of blissful contentment for ourselves just by buying the right products. The mass consumer economy requires a mentality and a pattern of behaviour which in all sorts of ways encourages selfish indulgence, immediate gratification, the instant anesthetising of anything that causes pain or anguish, heartlessness towards other people.
But in spite of the propaganda of consumerism some form of suffering, some types of difficulties and setbacks, are unavoidable for most of us. The choice we do have - to a greater or lesser extent - is how we respond to them.
Some people respond in a bitter and resentful way. They can only think to ask, "why me?" Their experience of suffering only makes them more closed and self-absorbed. But then there are others whose personal experience makes them more appreciative, and more sensitive, to what others are going through. Because of what they've experienced themselves, they're able to put themselves in the other person's place.
At the height of the Black Civil Rights movement in America, the Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, and black Christians like him, were faced with that choice.
King's response to the injustice of the race laws, and the violence used to enforce them, was to remind his followers that the white people who thought they were superior, and who enjoyed various privileges denied to blacks, were also their brothers and sisters, and that the Christ-like way to respond to their bigotry and violence was with non-violence and love.
Other civil rights groups, of course, had no desire to channel their suffering and their legitimate anger in the same way, and channelled it into violent protest instead. This was Peter's reaction. This was how Peter responded to the idea that Jesus was going to be killed. It's always the easier way, but morally and spiritually it's a defeat, because it so easily give way to hatred and the failure to see one's opponents as fellow human beings.
The passage in the gospel reading today is about the choice that God made. The Triumph of the Cross, to use the title of the feast day which was celebrated during the week, isn't any other kind of triumph except the triumph of God's love and self-sacrifice over evil and sin.
Like the prophets who had come before him, Christ preached his message passionately and even violently. Some things are worth getting angry about, both then and now. If Jesus had been less angry and less violent in his manner of announcing God's Kingdom, if he had chosen to avoid antagonising certain powerful sections of his society, he would never have ended up on the Cross.
But as time went on he could see where things were heading. If he was going to be true to his cause, he was going to have to be prepared to suffer the violence of his opponents, and possibly to die.
When it finally happened his disciples were ashamed of him. But later on, after Jesus' Resurrection, the members of the first communities of Christians reflected more profoundly on the significance of Jesus' refusal to offer any resistance to the plot against him, and they quickly latched onto the passage from the prophet Isaiah in the first reading today as a perfect description - almost a forecast or a prediction - of how Jesus approached the end of his ministry.
God's idea of his own status or power has nothing to do with maintaining a sense of superiority and avoiding humiliation. The heart of God's nature is love: not in the way that people often think about it today, where the desire for love is really a desire for their own happiness or satisfaction, but a love which means being completely free from the grip of self-seeking motives, ready to suffer and to renounce the age-old ways of violence and self-assertion.
So what this set of readings tells us is that, in the person of Christ, we have the fullest picture of what God is like, while at the same time Christ shows us what we can be like if we open ourselves as fully to God as he did. Jesus doesn't only predict his own death, he informs the disciples that if they're not prepared to "renounce themselves and take up their cross" they can't be true practitioners of the gospel.
Being a Christian doesn’t mean allowing ourselves to be treated as a doormat, but "the Cross" is going to be present in our lives in various forms of hardship: sickness, pain, loneliness, failure, sometimes in forms of suffering that are small and relatively trivial, at other times in sources of misery that are overwhelming and leave us permanently marked.
Indeed the more we imitate Jesus’ own commitment to truth and his willingness to make powerful enemies by our allegiance to the values of the Kingdom, the truer this will be.
But it's only if we remain able to grow in the spirit of compassion and service towards others, in spite of suffering, injustice and misrepresentation, that we'll draw close to God. If the experience of suffering makes us violent, hard-hearted and closed-in on ourselves, then we'll be cutting ourselves off from God and from the healing, transforming power of his grace.
As the embodiment and revelation of God on earth Jesus faced this dilemma throughout his ministry, and it's only if we follow the route that he did when suffering and unhappiness come our way, that the Cross will be a triumph in our lives as well as in his.