In Sunday’s Gospel the Lord firmly sets before us the need for the cross, not as an end in itself, but as the way to glory. Let’s consider the Gospel in three stages.
I. The Pattern that is Announced – The text says, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.
The Lord announces not only the Cross but also the Resurrection. In effect, He announces the pattern of the Christian life, which we have come to call the “Paschal Mystery.”
The expression “Paschal Mystery” refers to the suffering, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus as a whole. The word “Paschal” is related to the Hebrew word for Passover, “Pesach.” Just as the shed blood of a lamb saved the people from the angel of death and signaled their deliverance, so does Jesus’ death, his Blood, save us from death and deliver us from slavery to sin.
So He is announcing a pattern: the Cross leads somewhere; it accomplishes something. It is not an end in itself; it has a purpose; it is part of a pattern.
St. Paul articulates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery in this way: We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (2 Cor 4:10). It is like an upward spiral in which the cross brings blessings we enjoy. We often circle back to the crosses God permits, but then there come even greater blessings and higher capacities. Cross, growth, cross, growth—so the pattern continues until we reach the end, dying with Christ so as to live with Him.
This is the pattern of our life. We are dying to our old self, to this world, to our sins; but rising to new life, rising to the Kingdom of God and becoming victorious over sin. The cross brings life; it is a prelude to growth. We die in order to live more richly. An old spiritual says of this repeated pattern that “every round goes higher, higher.”
Do you see the pattern that Jesus announces? Neither the Lord not the Church announces the cross so as to burden us. No, the cross is part of a pattern that, if accepted with faith, brings blessing, new life, and greater strength.
II. The Prevention that is Attempted – The text says, Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Notice Peter’s exact wording: “No such thing shall ever happen to you.” We ought to ask, “What such thing?” Peter, in precluding that Jesus suffer and die, also implicitly blocks the rising and glorification of Jesus, for Christ cannot rise unless He dies.
Peter, of course, is not thinking this all the way through—but neither do we when we seek to avoid crosses for ourselves or to hinder others improperly from accepting their crosses. The cross brings glory and growth; we run the risk of depriving ourselves and others of these if we rush to eliminate all the demands and difficulties of life. We may do this through enabling behaviors or perhaps by spoiling our children.
We also hinder our own growth by refusing to accept the crosses of self-discipline, hard work, obedience, suffering, consequences, limits, and resistance of temptation. In rejecting the cross we also reject its fruits.
All of this serves to explain Jesus’ severe reaction to Peter’s words. He even goes so far as to call Peter, “Satan,” for it pertains to Satan to pretend to befriend us in protesting our crosses while really just wanting to thwart our blessings. Peter may not know what he is doing, but Satan does—he seeks to become an obstacle to Jesus’ work.
Jesus’ severe reaction is rooted in protecting our blessings.
III. The Prescription that is Awarding – Jesus goes on to teach further on the wisdom of and the need for the cross. The text says, Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 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? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”
The heart of Jesus’ teaching here is the deep paradox that in order to find our life we must lose it. More specifically, in order to gain Heaven, we must die to this world. That dying is a process more so than just an event at the end of our physical life here. Although we cling to life in this world, it is really not life at all. It is a mere spark compared to the fire of love that God offers; it is a single note compared to the great symphony God directs.
Jesus instructs us to be willing to exchange this tiny, dying life for that which is true life. The Lord says that whatever small blessings come from clinging to this life and this world are really no benefit at all.
Of course what the world’s cheap trinkets offer is immediate gratification and evasion of the cross. We may feel relief for a moment, but our growth is stunted and those cheap little trinkets slip through our fingers. We gain the world (cheap little trinket that it is) but lose our souls. It’s a total loss, or to use a modern expression, it’s a FAIL!
Jesus’ final words, however, remind us that the choice is ours. The day will come when He will respond to our choice. Either we accept true life and win or we choose the passing, dying life of this world and lose.
This song speaks of life as a kind of spiraling climb between cross and glory. As the spiritual says, “Every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the Cross.”
Hedonism – This is the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life. It comes from the Greek word hēdonē, meaning “pleasure” and is akin to the Greek hēdys, meaning “sweet.”
Of course pleasure is to be desired and to some degree sought, but it is not the only good in life. Indeed, some of our greatest goods and accomplishments require sacrifice: years of study and preparation for a career; the blood, sweat, and tears of raising children.
Hedonism seeks to avoid sacrifice and suffering at all costs. It is directly opposed to the theology of the Cross. St. Paul spoke in his day of the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Php 3:18–19). He also taught that the cross was an absurdity to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23).
Things have not changed, my friends. The world reacts with great indignation whenever the cross or suffering is even implied. So the world will cry out with bewildered exasperation and ask incredulously of the Church, are you saying that a woman who was raped must carry the child to term and cannot abort? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a “gay” person must live celibately and may never “marry” his or her same-sex lover? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a handicapped child in the womb must be “condemned” to live in the world and cannot be aborted and put out of his (more accurately our) “misery”? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a suffering person cannot be euthanized to avoid the pain? Yes, we are.
The shock expressed in these sorts of questions shows how deeply hedonism has infected the modern mind. The concept of the cross is not only absurd, it is downright “immoral” in the hedonist mentality, which sees pleasure as the only true human good. To the hedonist, a life without enough pleasure is a life not worth living, and anyone who would seek to set limits on the lawful (and sometime unlawful) pleasures of others is mean, hateful, absurd, obtuse, intolerant, and just plain evil.
When pleasure is life’s only goal or good, how dare you, or the Church, or anyone seek to set limits on it let alone suggest that the way of the cross is better or required! You must be banished, silenced, and destroyed.
Many faithful Catholics in the pews are deeply infected with the illusion of hedonism and thus take up the voice of bewilderment, anger, and scoffing whenever the Church points to the cross and insists on self-denial, sacrifice, and doing the right thing even when the cost is great. The head wagging in congregations is often visible if a priest dares to preach that abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, and contraception are wrong regardless of the cost, or if he speaks about the reality of the cross. The faithful who swim in the waters of a hedonistic culture are often shocked at anything that might limit the pleasure that others want to pursue.
Hedonism makes the central Christian mysteries of the cross and redemptive suffering seem like something from a distant planet or a parallel and strange universe. The opening word from Jesus’ mouth, “Repent,” seems strange to the hedonistic world, which has even reconstructed Jesus Himself to be someone who just wants us to be happy and content. The cry goes up, even among the faithful, doesn’t God want me to be happy? On this basis, all kinds of sinful behavior is supposed to be tolerated because insisting on the opposite is “hard” and because it seems “mean” to speak of the cross or of self-discipline in a hedonistic culture.
Bringing people back to the real Jesus and to the real message of the Gospel, which features the cross as the way to glory, takes a lot of work and a long conversation. We must be prepared to engage in that extended conversation with people.