The Cross Always Wins – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

To the world and to those what are perishing, Sunday’s Gospel is utter madness, utter foolishness. Christ in effect declares that dying (to this world) is the only way to true life. While the world’s so-called wisdom holds that the way to life is through power, prestige, possessions, and popularity, Jesus says that in order to find true life, one must die to all that. This seems to be a paradox. The true gospel (not a watered down, compromised one) is a real insult to the world.

Indeed, most of us struggle to understand and accept what the Lord is saying, but He can give us a heart for what really matters, a heart for Him, for love, and for the things awaiting us in Heaven. The way to this new life is through the cross. Jesus had to go to the cross and die to give us this new life. We, too, must go to His cross and die with Him to this world’s agenda in order to rise to new life.

To those who would scoff at this way of the cross, there is only one thing to say, “The cross wins. It always wins.”

Let’s examine the Lord’s paradoxical plan to save us and bring us to new life.

I The Plan of Salvation that is acclaimed – As the Gospel opens we find a rather strange incident. The text says, Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

What is odd is Jesus’ apparent overreaction to the simple fact that some Greeks wish to speak to Him. From this seemingly simple and unremarkable (to us) fact, Jesus senses that His “hour” has now come. Yes, the time has come for His glorification, that is, His suffering, death, and resurrection. He goes on later to say, “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

Yes, all this because certain Greeks (i.e., certain Gentiles) want to talk to Him.

Even more remarkable is that nothing in the text indicates that Jesus actually goes over to speak to them. Having given this stunning soliloquy and announced that the drama was to unfold, Jesus does not appear to have gone over to the Greeks to evangelize them. We will see why this in a moment.

First, let us examine why this simple request kicks off the unfolding of Holy Week. In effect, the arrival of the Gentiles fulfills a critical prophecy about the Messiah, wherein He would gather the nations unto Himself and make of fractured humanity one nation, one family. Consider two prophesies:

  • I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. just as the Israelites bring their offering to the house of the Lord in clean vessels. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites says the Lord …. All mankind shall come to worship before me says the Lord (Is 66:18, 23).
  • And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Is 56:6-7).

Thus we see that one of the principle missions of the Messiah would be to save not only the Jews but all people and to draw them into right worship and unity in the one Lord. Jesus explicitly states elsewhere His intention to gather the Gentiles:

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:14).

So it is that this apparently simple request of the Greeks (Gentiles) to see Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, carries such significance.

Why did Jesus not run and greet them at once? Simply put, the call and salvation of the Gentiles must wait for His death and resurrection to be accomplished. It will be His atoning death that will reunite us with the Father and with one another. A simple sermon or slogan like “Can’t we all just get along” isn’t going to accomplish the deeper unity necessary. Only the blood of Jesus can bring true Shalom with the Father and with one another; only the blood of Jesus can save us.

Consider this text from Ephesians:

But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both {Jews and Gentiles] one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Eph 2:13ff)

Thus, nothing but the blood of Jesus can make us whole, can save us, or can make us one with the Father or with one another. There is no true unity apart from Christ, and He secures it by His blood and the power of His cross. Only by baptism into the paschal mystery do we become members of the Body of Christ and find lasting unity, salvation, and true peace.

The door has opened from the Gentiles’ side, but Jesus knows that the way through the door goes by way the cross. His apparent delay in rushing to greet the Gentiles makes sense in this light. Only after His resurrection will He say, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). Now there is the power through baptism to make all one in Christ. The price of our salvation, our new life, our peace with one another and the Father, is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thank the Lord that Jesus paid that price. The old hymn “At Calvary” says, “Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan! Oh, the grace that brought it down to man! Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span! At Calvary!”

II. The Plan of Salvation applied – Jesus goes on to say, Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.

Now while it is true that Jesus pays the price for our peace and our unity with the Father and with one another, it is also true that He sets forth a pattern for us and applies it. Note that Jesus says, “Amen, amen I say to you …. He also says, “Whoever serves me must follow me.”

Thus the pattern of His dying and rising to new life must also be applied to the pattern of our life. If we seek unity and peace and want to enjoy this new life with the Father, we must die so as to rise again. We must follow in the footsteps of Jesus. If we want peace we have to be willing to accept the pattern of dying for it and rising to it.

How must we die for this? We have to die to:

  • our ego
  • our desire for revenge
  • our hurts from the past
  • our desire to control everything
  • our sinful and unbiblical agendas
  • our irrational fears rooted in ego and exaggerated notions
  • our hatreds
  • our unrealistic expectations
  • our stubbornness
  • our inflexibility
  • our impatience
  • our unreasonable demands
  • our greed
  • our worldliness

Yes, we have to be willing to experience some sacrifices for unity and to obtain new life. We have to let the Lord put a lot of sinful and unhealthy drives to death in us. New life does not just happen; peace and unity do not just happen. We have to journey to them through Calvary. We must allow the Lord to crucify our sinful desires and thereby rise to new life.

But remember, the cross wins; it always wins.

III. The Plan of Salvation at day’s end – Jesus speaks of a great promise of new life but presents it in a very paradoxical way. He says, Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.

In other words, if we are not willing to follow the pattern He sets forth of dying to ourselves and to this world, we cannot truly live. If we go on clinging to our worldly notions of life, if we live only for ourselves, if we live only for power, possessions, popularity, and prestige, we are already dead. Indeed, if we live only for the things of this world (and many do), ours will be a cruel fate, for we will die and lose all.

If we allow the Lord to help us die to this world’s agenda and to its pathetic charms, then and only then can we pass increasingly to real life, to true unity with the Father and to deeper unity with one another in Christ. Only then does a newer, deeper life dawn upon us. Only then do we see our lives dramatically transformed day to day.

Jesus had to die to give this to us. In order to have it bestowed on us we must be configured to Christ’s death to this world so that we can live in Him and find this new life. We die to a sinful and overrated world so as to live in a whole new way in a life open to something richer than we could ever imagine.

Note that Jesus calls this new life “eternal life.” Eternal life means far more than living forever. While not excluding the notion of endless length, eternal life at a deeper level has more to do with its fullness.

For those who know Christ, this process has already begun. Now that I am well past age fifty, my bodily life has suffered setbacks, but spiritually I am more alive than I ever was at twenty. Just wait until I’m eighty! Our bodies may be declining, but if we love and trust Christ, our souls are growing younger and more vibrant, more fully alive. Yes, I am more joyful, more serene, more confident, less sinful, less angry, less anxious, more compassionate, more patient, and more alive!

All of this comes from dying to this world little by little and thereby having more room for the life Christ offers.

What is the price of our peace and our new life? Everything! We shall only attain to it by dying to this world. While our final physical death will seal the deal, there are the thousand little deaths that usher in this new life even now. Our physical death is but the final stage of a lifelong journey in Christ. For those who know Christ, the promise then will be full. For those who rejected Him, the loss will be total.

Again from the hymn “At Calvary”: “Now I’ve given Jesus everything, Now I gladly own Him as my King, Now my raptured soul can only sing of Calvary!”

Yes, the promise is real, but it is paradoxically obtained. The world calls all this foolishness. You must decide. Choose either the “wisdom” of this world or the “folly” of Christ. You may call me a fool, but make sure you add that I was a fool for Christ. I don’t mind. The cross wins; it always wins.

A Different Look at the Cross

When I was young and throughout my seminary years, I usually contemplated the crucifix and Jesus’ suffering on the Cross somberly. It was my sin that had put Him there, that had made Him suffer. The Cross was something that compelled a silent reverence in me, and suggested that I meditate deeply on what Jesus had to endure. I would often think of John, Mary, and the other women beneath the Cross, mournfully beholding Jesus’ slow, painful death.

These were heavy and somber notes, but deeply moving themes.

In addition, the crucifix made me think about the fact that I would have to carry a cross and go through the Fridays of my life. I needed to learn the meaning of sacrifice.

Liturgically, I saw the crucifix as a way of restoring greater reverence in the Mass. Through the 1970s and 1980s, most parishes had removed crucifixes, quite often replacing them with “resurrection crosses,” or just an image of Jesus floating in mid-air. I used to call this image “touchdown Jesus” since it so closely resembled a football referee indicating a score. In those years we had moved away from the understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice; we were more into “meal theology.” The removal of the crucifix from the sanctuary was a powerful indicator of this shift. Many priests and liturgists saw the Cross as too somber a theme for their vision of a new and more welcoming Church, upbeat and positive.

This Cross-less Christianity often led to what I thought was a rather silly, celebratory style of Mass in those years, and I came to see the restoration of the crucifix as necessary to bring back proper balance. I was delighted when, through the mid-1980s and later, the Vatican began insisting in new liturgical norms that a crucifix (not just a cross) be prominent in the sanctuary and visible to all, and further, that the processional cross had to bear the image of the crucified.

Balance Restored – I was (and still am) very happy about these new norms because they restore the proper balance. The Mass is a making-present of the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross; it is also a sacred meal, whose power comes from that sacrifice. I also believed that such a move would help restore proper solemnity to the Mass, and to some extent that has occurred.

All of this background is just to say that I saw the cross — the crucifix — in somber, serious tones. The theme was meant to instill solemnity and encourage meditation on the awful reality of sin and on our need to repent.

But the Lord wasn’t finished with me yet; He wanted me to see another understanding of the Cross.

He wanted me to also experience the “good” in Good Friday, for the Cross is also a place of victory and love, of God’s faithfulness and our deliverance. There’s a lot to celebrate at the foot of the Cross.

It happened one Sunday during Lent of 1994, one of my first in an African-American Catholic parish. It being Lent, I expected the typically celebratory quality of Mass in the parish to be scaled back a bit. Much to my surprise, though, the opening song began with an upbeat, toe-tapping gospel riff. At first I frowned, but then the choir began to sing:

Down at the Cross where my Savior died,
Down where for cleansing from sin I cried,

There to my heart was the blood applied;
Glory to His name!

Ah, so this was a Lenten theme! It was odd to me to hear the Cross being sung of so joyfully.

This was quite new for me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been, but it was. The Catholicism of the 1970s and 1980s with which I was familiar found it necessary to remove the cross in order to celebrate, but here was celebration with and in the Cross!

The choir continued,

I am so wondrously saved from sin,
Jesus so sweetly abides within;

There at the Cross where He took me in;
Glory to His name!

The congregation and choir were stepping in time and clapping, rejoicing in the Cross, seeing it in the Resurrection light of its saving power and as a glorious reflection of God’s love for us. Up the aisle the procession wound. The last verse was transposed a half-step up to an even brighter key:

Oh, precious fountain that saves from sin,
I am so glad I have entered in;

There Jesus saves me and keeps me clean;
Glory to His name!

Yes, indeed, glory to His name! A lot of dots were connected for me that day. The Cross indeed was a place of great pain, but also of great love. There was grief, but there was also glory; there was suffering, but there was also victory.

Please do not misunderstand my point. There is a place and time for quiet, somber reflection at the foot of the Cross, but one of the glories of the human person is that we can have more than one feeling at a time, even conflicting ones.

Balance – Some in the Church of the 1970s and 1980s rejected the Cross as too somber a theme, too negative. They wanted to be more upbeat, less focused on sin; and so, out went the Cross. There was no need to do this, and it was an overreaction. At the Cross, the vertical, upward pillar of man’s pride and sin is transected by the horizontal, outstretched arms of God’s love. With strong hand and outstretched arms, the Lord has won the victory for us: there at the Cross where he took me in, glory to his name!

The balance is both for the individual and for the Church. Some prefer a more somber meditation on the Cross to prevail, while others feel moved by the Spirit to celebrate joyfully at the foot of the Cross. The Church needs both. I suppose we all need some of both experiences. Yes, it is right to weep at the Cross, to behold the awful reality of sin, to remember Christ’s sacrifice; but we should rejoice, too, for the Lord has won the victory for us, right there: Down at the Cross. There’s a lot of good in Good Friday.

Here is the song I heard that Sunday in 1994, sung in very much the style I remember.

Trademarks of the True Messiah – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

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.”

Addendum:

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.

Four Disciplines for Worthy Disciples – A Homily for the 13th Sunday of the Year

take up your cross

take up your crossIn the Gospel this Sunday, the Lord gives three important principles for a disciple. He also teaches on the concept of being worthy of Him. We tend think of being worthy as acting in a way that meets a certain standard, but the Greek word for “worthy” involves more than merely external behavior, important though that is. To be worthy of the Lord is to ascribe worth and give proper weight to who He is and what He teaches. Let’s take a look.

I.  The priority of a disciple – The text says that Jesus said to His apostles, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”

The Lord could not be clearer: we are to love Him more than we love anyone or anything else. There is to be no person or thing in our life that has greater importance than the Lord. So fundamental is the priority of our love and obedience to Him that it eclipses even the most fundamental relationships in our family. Our love and honor for our parents is very important; it is mandated by the Fourth Commandment: Honor your Father and your Mother. And yet, even it cannot overrule the most fundamental of all the commandments, the First Commandment: I am the Lord your God, You shall have no other gods before me.

Therefore, even the love and respect owed to parents and the love that parents should have for their children cannot be preferred to the love and obedience we owe to God. If a son or daughter, even while still a minor, were to hear a parent instructing him or her to disregard a clear teaching or commandment of God, the child would have to respond, “Sorry, Mom, Dad, but I love God more. I cannot obey you in this matter.”

The same is true for any other relationship. If a spouse, a sibling, a boss, or a government official were to try to compel us to act contrary to God’s truth and commands, the answer must always be the same: “I’m sorry but I cannot comply; I love God more. Even if I suffer at your hands as a result, I cannot and will not comply.”

The love of Jesus, who is Lord, supersedes every other love, respect, or honor due to others, be they persons, philosophies, nations, or political parties.

Truth be told, many Christians manifest greater allegiance to political parties, careers, and the opinions of men in general than to the Lord and His Church. Many prefer worldly thinking to what the Lord teaches. Many cave in and compromise to what others demand of them in order to ingratiate themselves to others, to gain access, or simply to preserve a false peace. Silencing the Gospel is never a recipe for true or lasting peace.

II.  The Profundity of a Disciple Jesus speaks strongly and says that such people as this are not “worthy” of me. As noted above, we tend to measure worthiness externally, by whether we live up to expectations of us. While this is proper, it overshadows the more internal dimensions that are the deeper part of being worthy.

The Greek word translated here as “worthy” is axios, and which is related to weights and scales. Most literally the word means “drawing down the scale,” and thus implies weighing as much or more than something else.

Internally, the concept of being worthy of the Lord here is that we assign a greater weightiness in our life to Him than to the passing treasures and trinkets of the world. We are to ascribe greater “worth” or “worthiness” to Him than to anything or anyone else. We take the Lord seriously. His teaching is to weigh on us and to carry a weight in our life. This internal disposition of being worthy of God produces the external behaviors that are worthy of Him.

The Lord paints a kind of picture for us to show that if we love anyone or anything more than we love him, the scales are tipped wrongly; we are not ascribing enough weight or worth to Jesus and are thus living in an unworthy way.

As we “size things up” in life and weigh the true importance of things, remember this: No person, no political party, no boss, no person at all who seeks our money, time, loyalty, or acquiescence ever died for us. None of them can ever save us, for none of them is God. If we esteem anyone or anything more than we do Him, then we are weighting His Blood and His saving love too lightly.

III. The passion of a disciple – The text says, … and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Every disciple must be willing to take up his cross; if he does so, there is ample reward. The Lord originally offered us paradise, but Adam and Eve wanted a better deal. Welcome to that better deal: Paradise Lost. In Paradise Lost, suffering is a reality. But suffering, by God’s gracious mercy, is also redemptive. The Lord teaches us that we must join our cross to His. Taking up the cross is a way of “losing” our life in the sense that it often diminishes our enjoyment of this earthly existence. But in dying to self and to this world, we find our true life: God and the things He offers!

It is interesting to note that we are often willing to take up crosses for worldly gain. We work hard for a paycheck or to earn a college degree. Why not then for the Lord? An old song says, “No cross, no crown.” The Lord asks of us no less than what the world demands for its trinkets. The Lord teaches that rewards far greater than worldly trinkets come with the cross He instructs us to take up. The Lord’s insistence on the need for the cross is not unreasonable, yet many of us bristle. Although we will gladly spend several years and a lot of money in order to obtain a college diploma, going to Church on Sundays or giving up some of our favorite sins is viewed as unreasonable, or just too much trouble.

In effect, the Lord demands that we take him seriously, that we give weight to His words and to His promise. If we dismiss His words lightly then we are not worthy of Him, if we do not give proper weight to His words then we do not take Him seriously. This is a bad idea because He who mercifully summons us now to His truth will one day be our judge.

Be worthy of the Lord. Give sufficient weight to what He says. Respect and obedience are the proper virtues for a disciple who accords worth (weight) to the Lord’s teaching and acts in such a manner.

IV.  The prize of a disciple – The text says, Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.

The Lord promises reward if we get our priorities and passions right, if we welcome His word and give weight to what He says and who He is!

Even now, we can enjoy the fruits of God’s Word as we listen to His prophets and see our life change. In welcoming the Word in my life, I have seen many positive changes. I am less anxious, more patient, and more loving than before. I have greater wisdom. I have seen sins and sinful attitudes reduced and graces come alive. Word and sacrament have had their effect; accepting the prophecy of the Church has given me a prophet’s reward. How about you?

Further, the Lord says that He will reward every work of mercy by us, which is in effect a small share in the cross. We pray that God will forget our sins, but it is said that God will never forget the good things we have done and will never be outdone in generosity.

The Lord does not demand the cross without pointing to its reward. The cross ushers in the crown. Do you believe this? Do you take the Lord seriously? Do you give weight to and count as worthy the Word that He speaks to you?

 

Four Immediate Results of Jesus’ Death on the Cross

crossLet’s conclude our consideration of certain texts from the Passion Narratives with one that describes the aftermath of Jesus’ death. The Gospel of Matthew recounts four immediate results of Jesus’ death, and while they describe historical events, they also signal deeper spiritual truths.

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city, and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:50-53)

Let’s consider the four results described in this passage, each in turn.

I. Return At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

The significance of the tearing of the Temple curtain and the way in which it happened ought not to be underestimated. Consider that God had walked intimately with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of day (cf Gen 3:8), but that after sin, they could no longer endure His presence; they had to dwell apart from the paradise that featured God’s awesome presence. Consider, too, how terrifying theophanies (appearances of God to human beings) were after that time. For example, the appearance of God on the top of Mt Sinai is described in the Book of Exodus:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Ex 20:18-19).

Had God changed? Was He different from when He walked with Adam and Eve in intimacy? No. We had changed and could no longer endure the presence of God.

Throughout the Old Testament, a veil existed between God and Israel. There was the cloud that both revealed God’s presence and concealed it. There was also the curtain in the sanctuary, beyond which the High Priest could only venture once a year, and even then in fear and trembling.

Sin had done this. Mere human beings could no longer tolerate God’s presence.

But with His Death on the cross, Jesus has canceled our sin. We once again have access to God through Christ our Lord. His blood has cleansed us and the ancient separation from the Father and from God’s presence has been canceled. But we will not encounter God in a merely earthly paradise; He has now opened the way to Heaven.

It is now up to us to make the journey there, but the way has been opened, the veil has been rent. Through this open veil the Father now says, “Come to me!”

II. Rendering of Judgment upon the World The earth shook, the rocks split …

Judgment has now come; Earth stands judged. This refers not merely to the created world, but also to the forces of this world, the forces of this age, which are arrayed against the Lord and His kingdom. These are forces that do not acknowledge the sovereignty of God but rather insist that political, social, cultural, and economic forces are what must hold sway and have our loyalty.

This earthquake, which has significant historical corroboration, demonstrates that the foundations of this rebellious world ultimately cannot stand before God. The foundations are struck; the powers of this world quake. Scripture says,

  1. People will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from the fearful presence of the LORD and the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to shake the earth (Is 2:19).
  2. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts (Haggai 2:6-7).
  3. In my zeal and fiery wrath, I declare that at that time there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel (Ez 38:19).
  4. The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain” (Psalm 2:2-6).
  5. In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever (Daniel 2:42).
  6. The LORD will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble. But the LORD will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel (Joel 3:16).
  7. A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it (Ez 21:27).

Yes, the world shakes; the world is judged. And, most important, as Jesus says, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out (John 12:31).

Do not doubt, dear reader, that no matter how powerful this world may seem in its pride and glory, it has already been shaken; it has already been judged. The world has been conquered and shaken to its very foundations. Do not put your trust or hope in any worldly reality; the world has been judged and shaken; it cannot stand the test of time. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 3:14).

III. Resurrection to New Life … the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

“Death is struck and nature quaking. All creation is awaking, to its judge an answer making.” (from the Dies Irae). Yes, by dying, Jesus has destroyed our death.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).

Note well that although the text says that many of the dead appeared in Jerusalem, these appearances occurred after Jesus’ resurrection. Hence, we ought not to imagine ghosts or corpses walking around at 3:00 PM on Good Friday! Rather, they appeared on or after Resurrection Sunday. In this, they witness to the truth of resurrection and the initial fulfillment of the text from Ezekiel:

Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people! I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life (Ez 37:12-14).

Yes, on Good Friday, Jesus awakens the dead with the words, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14).

IV. Realization of Who Jesus Is When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!

Jesus most clearly showed His identity as the Son of God through His obedience to the Father. According to the Gospel of John, as Jesus rose from the table of the Last Supper, He said,

The prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. Come now; let us go forth (Jn 14:30-31).

The centurion, in seeing Jesus die this way, somehow recognizes in Him the obedience of the Son of God, who loves and obeys His Father.

By His obedience, Jesus has canceled our disobedience; His humility has canceled our pride. Yet the weakness of God is more powerful than any worldly force. The centurion, who knew power and was trained to respect it, saw in the earthquake and the other occurrences, an indication of the Lord’s glory. The Lord’s way to that glory is not our way. But His glory and Sonship cannot remain forever hidden! Scripture says,

See, he comes amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. Even So. Amen (Rev 1:7).

No Cross, No Crown: A Homily for the 29th Sunday of the Year

blog10-17In today’s gospel, the Lord Jesus speaks of crosses and crowns. The apostles have only crowns in mind, but the Lord Jesus knows the price of that crown. And so He must teach them and us that crowns—the things that we value most—come only through the Cross.

It may help to remember the context of this gospel. Jesus is making His final journey to Jerusalem. He is on his way to the Cross, having already announced this to His disciples on two occasions. But throughout this final journey they prove unwilling and/or incapable of grasping what He is trying to teach them.

Today’s gospel is a perfect illustration of a common biblical theme known as the “inept response.” This refers to the common pattern in the gospels wherein Jesus presents a profound and important teaching, and within a matter of verses, or sometimes even just a few words, the apostles demonstrate that they have absolutely no understanding of what He just told them.

Today’s gospel illustrates the inept response. You may recall that on the previous two Sundays, the Lord gave two critically important teachings. Two weeks ago he stood a young child in their midst and spoke of the child as being truly great. He also warned that we must be able to receive the kingdom of God like a little child. Last week, He warned of the pernicious effects of wealth and spoke about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven.

And yet as this gospel opens, on very heels of those teachings, James, John, and later all the apostles wish honors upon themselves. They want seats at the head of the table, high offices in the Kingdom, which they still conceive of in very worldly terms. Never mind that Jesus has taught them that the place of honor is not at the head of the table or even at the foot of the table; the honor is upon those who wait on tables.

And thus we see here the inept response. The apostles (and we) just don’t get it. No matter how clear Jesus is, no matter how often he repeats Himself, we just don’t get it.

Let’s look at this gospel in three specific stages.

I. Misplaced Priorities – The Gospel opens with James and John approaching the Lord with an inept question, even a demand. “Grant that in your glory, we may sit, one at your right, and the other at your left.”

As we have already seen, this is a misplaced priority. Their understanding of the place of honor is worldly. Further, they want to move right to the head of the table. They want the Lord to grant them this honor. Even in a worldly way of thinking, places of honor must usually be earned. While some are born into royalty, most attain leadership and honors only after years of effort. Thus, even from a worldly point of view, James and John are being utterly bold, exhibiting little understanding that prior to honors comes labor, comes the earning of those honors. Their priorities are misplaced. They want the crown but without the Cross.

II. Major Price – The Lord Jesus replies to them, “You do not know what you are asking! Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

Was Jesus astonished, was He amused, or was He sad? It is not easy to say. But the bottom line is clear: they had absolutely no idea what they were asking. And neither do we. So often we want blessings, honors, or seats in high places. But we give little thought to the crosses that are necessary both to get there and to stay there.

Those who finally do attain leadership often know what a cross it is. It can be lonely; there are many pressures; often there are many long hours and the heavy weight of responsibility. True leadership has its perks, but it is hard. Most leaders know also the consistent sting of criticism and isolation.

There is an old joke among bishops that goes something like this: “When a man becomes a bishop, two things are certain: he will never again have a bad meal, and he will never again hear the truth.” Leaders in many other walks of life know something very similar.

And thus the Lord Jesus wonders if James and John have any idea what they are really talking about, what they are really asking for. His question is also poignant, for He has been trying to teach them of the passion, the pain, the crucifixion that awaits Him, and which even He, the Lord of glory, must endure before entering into His glory. No, not only do they not know what they are asking, they just don’t get it.

And this must make the Lord very sad. Sometimes we underestimate the kind of suffering the Lord endured long before the garden of Gethsemane that fateful night, when the sufferings of His passion began in earnest. Prior to that evening, the Lord endured a kind of death by a thousand cuts: enemies trying to trap Him, crowds wanting medical miracles but no true healing, strident and judgmental Pharisees and other religious leaders, ridicule, and disciples who walked away from Him as he taught about the Eucharist. And even the Twelve, to whom He looked for friendship, seemed completely disconnected from what He was trying to teach them. He also knew that one would betray Him, another deny Him, and all but one would abandon Him, never making it to the foot of the Cross. Oh, the grief that they gave the Lord!

And, oh, the grief that we continue to offer up! How we continue to offend His external glory and be difficult cases for Him! How easy it is for us to be hardheaded and stubborn, to have necks of iron and foreheads of brass! No, we shouldn’t be so quick to scorn the apostles because we do the very same things.

The Lord can only remind them and us of the monumental price, the true cost. No Cross, no crown! Ultimately, Heaven costs everything, for we must leave this world behind to reach Heaven. The Easter Sunday of glory, whether in this world or in the world to come, is accessed only by a journey through Good Friday.

It is a major price, but it is a price that James and John seem to dismiss. They simply state, categorically, that they are able to drink the cup that the Lord drinks and to be baptized into His death. But they have no idea what they’re talking about, and neither do most of us.

III. Medicinal Prescription – The other apostles join in the inept response by becoming indignant that James and John are trying to get special dibs on the seats of honor. Their indignity simply shows that they also have no idea of anything that the Lord is talking about.

So the Lord tries to bring the big picture of the Cross more down to earth. He tries to make it plain. He says that the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all, indeed, the slave of all. Is this straightforward enough? It is not those who sit at the head of the table, even those who sit at the foot of the table, nor at any place at the table who are the greatest; the greatest are those who wait on the table, who serve.

Do they get it? Probably not, and neither do we. It takes most of us a lifetime before we finally get it through our thick skulls that the point in life is not to have the corner office with the view. We have everything upside down, exactly backwards. We are not rich in what matters to God. We think of bank accounts, prestigious addresses, the square footage of our homes, big salaries, and impressive titles—not service.

We may be on our death beds before we finally realize that the greatest people in our lives are those with the ministry of care, those who feed us, perhaps change our bandages and give us basic care.

Like the apostles, we can be so foolish. At the end of the day, and at our final judgment, God will not care about the square footage of our house, our titles, or our worldly honors. What will capture His notice is the times when we served, when we gave a cup of cold water to the thirsty or food to the hungry, when we instructed the ignorant, prayed for the dying, or cared for needs of the poor. He will look for the calluses and the wounds of our service. He will listen for our proclamation of His kingdom. And He will tell us that what we did for the least of our brothers, we did for Him.

Don’t miss the point of this gospel. There is no crown without the Cross. In the Kingdom, honors and crowns are reserved for those who serve, who take up the cross of washing the feet of others, of going to the lowest of places.

In today’s gospel, the Lord speaks of crosses and crowns, and in that specific order. We will not, we cannot, gain any crown in His kingdom without being baptized into His death, into His Cross, into the humble servitude of dying for others in loving service.

The Cross is Pregnant with Victory! A Brief Ecclesiology for the Downcast

091713In the parlor of my rectory where I meet with most of my spiritual directees, and others who come to me for counseling or instruction, there is a crucifixion scene, (see photo at right).

Among the many things means, it is for me something of a paradigm of the Church at her darkest moment. How tiny the Church had suddenly become. Gone were the crowds of Galilee which followed the Lord. Gone were the crowds of Palm Sunday shouting Hosanna. Gone were all but one of her first bishops, St. John. One of them (St. Peter) had followed at a distance, and then three times denied he knew the Lord, the rest of those first bishops fled to God knows where.

And now the tiny infant Church was gathered around her Lord at the foot of the cross. Yes, there is the Church, so tiny; only St. John, Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clopas, and perhaps one other. So tiny now, so few.

Yet here was one of her greatest moments. The bride of Christ, the Church mystically united to her groom.

And strange,  though even in this reduced and horribly suffering condition of the Church, Satan’s back was being broken, his power undermined. It is almost a Trojan Horse incident. For, even as Satan gloats over his apparent gift, a surprise waits within, a hidden power that will send him reeling.

And small though the Church has become, she will gain two surprising converts that Good Friday: the good thief, and the centurion. Perhaps not a bad day for a Church reduced to five or six: two converts, plus the breaking of the back of Satan’s power.

I often point to the statute in my parlor. For many come to me at times with great struggles, perhaps feeling defeated, or at least discouraged. I point and remind them that, for those with faith, there is something about being in the crucible, something about the cross that is pregnant with victory. Satan still has his incursions, and his apparent victories. But they are only temporary, they cannot stand. His back was broken Good Friday, and not by a large and triumphant Church, but by a tiny and suffering Church, the Church in the crucible, The Church at the foot of the cross with Christ her groom and head.

Many of us who share this blog together, are often dismayed at the condition of the Church today, and even more, the condition of culture. For those of us who are little older, our discouragement is deepened by the fact that many of us can remember a time when things at least seemed to be greater repair. Our families were largely intact, our churches filled, people seemed generally more able to make commitments and keep them…

The list could go on, but you get the point. Things were far from perfect, but things did seem to be more orderly, and the basic fundamentals necessary for culture, civilization and for the Church were more in place.

Yet, our mind should never stray far from that Good Friday afternoon, the Church so reduced, betrayed by most of her members, even her leaders; yet never more powerful.

There have been days of triumph of the Church, only to see collapse! And then, Victory again! The early days were so marked by suffering and martyrdom, and then suddenly the Edict of Constantine and the Church emerged victorious. Resurrection!

And yet, finally set free, Arianism reared its ugly presence and so many other endless fights ensued, perhaps necessary, over basic doctrines of Christology and the Trinity.

And then the sudden loss of the western flank, as the Roman Empire collapsed and moved to the east, as so-called barbarian tribes swept in to what we call Europe today. St. Augustine was so troubled that he wrote the City of God trying to explain how his beloved Roman Empire, finally having embraced the faith would now fall. St. Jerome, depressed, went to live in a cave. The Cross again.

But the Church struck up a conversation with those barbarians, and began to convert them, first in small numbers, then in waves. Resurrection!

And then, just as things seemed to be improving, all of North Africa, the great cradle of the Church, was lost, almost overnight, laid waste and mowed down by the edge of the Muslim sword. There were once 500 bishops in North Africa, some of the greatest Fathers of the Church had lived there: Augustine, Cyprian, Tertullian, Athanasius, and so many others. And now the great North African part of the Church lay beneath the sand. The Muslims made it across Gibraltar and into the Portugal and Spain before they were turned back. All of Asia Minor so beautifully evangelized by St. Paul, was also lost, lost to the Church! The Muslim invaders made it all the way to the gates of modern Vienna before they were turned back. The Cross again.

But now that North Africa was tragically lost, Europe began to flourish as a kind of Christian civilization was built there: Universities were founded, hospitals too, and the great cathedrals rose. Something called the great “Medieval synthesis” took hold. Resurrection!

And then, all of this to begin to erode with the rise of Nominalism and the Cartesian revolution it would eventually usher in. With intellectual confusion, came an epistemological revolution that severed the connection of the mind to reality, ushered in radical doubt, decadence, the rise of the individual autonomous self, and the rejection of any lawful authority within the Church. The revolution that some called the “Reformation” led to a break of unity, and the Church was once again firmly cast to the foot of the cross to search her own soul and begin a counter reformation. Ecclesia semper reformanda (The Church is always being reformed). The cross again.

Yet even as a million people left the Church in Germany in the Lutheran revolt, our Lady ushered in nine million Mexicans at Guadalupe. Resurrection!

Back in Europe, as wars, rebellion and confusion raged the Church was wracked by division, more Protestant revolts, and the hundred years war. A great darkness was gathering there that would lead to the bloodbath known as the 20th Century: two World Wars, bloody ideological revolutions, an iron curtain and an almost complete loss of faith. The lights were going out in Europe.  The Cross!

Yet, even so, faith began to take hold in the New World, And, though early persecuted, waves of immigrants escaping Europe brought the Catholic faith to the United States in numbers too big to ignore. Even though Europe was racked with confusion and doubt, many fled from there and found in America a remarkable synthesis of faith and culture held in tight knot ethic communities built around parish churches….(With healthy persecution besides!)  Resurrection!

But even America could not ultimately withstand the decadence of Europe and its decline in the post Cartesian centuries. America was eventually drawn into two European World Wars, and the poison of modernism reached our shores. And now there seems to be bewildering, almost demonic decline. The cross again!

And, suddenly, Africa is abloom again. There is a 7,000% increase in the number of Catholics in Africa in the last fifty years. Resurrection!

Yes, it would seem that the Church must often find herself back at the cross. Yet even as we are there now in the West, we must never forget that the Cross is pregnant with victory.

Many look to the Church now with ridicule and declare that we are done and defeated. But they have not studied history, nor do they know the power of God, and that the Cross is pregnant with victory.

Even within the Church there are naysayers who point to glory days and, in fear, announce great woe, and seek to assign blame for the current decline. “Things have never been worse,” they declare. But they too have not studied history (things have been far worse) nor do they seem to remember the power of God.

That the Church is at the foot of the Cross in many ways, at least in the West, in hard to deny, but the Cross is pregnant with victory. Just you wait and see!

Ecclessia semper reformanda! Sed Christus Resurrexit tertia die! Semper! Ubique!

Are We "Down with the People" or Up with the Cross? A Call to Courage in Preaching the Cross

070713Some forty years ago the Venerable Bishop Fulton J Sheen admonished the priests of his day in these words:

We become real priests when we empty ourselves, and no longer seek our [own] identity, and where we are lifted up to the cross, not going “down to people.” Too many of us today feel we have to be loved…[thinking] the young will not love us unless we talk like them, eat like them, drink like them, clothe ourselves like them. No! They will not love us simply because we go down, they will love us when we lift them up. Else, the world will drag them down…. (Retreat for priests, “The Meaning of Being a Priest)

I remember those days of the seventies when priests, religious sisters and adult parish leaders wore jeans, sandals, and flashy sweaters. The men grew their hair longish, and the parish leaders recast “Sunday school” as a “rap session.” (Rap in those days did not mean anything related to music, it meant “to talk” but in a way that was “real” and “down with the struggle”).

The goal, it would seem,  was not for the clergy religious or adult leaders to teach, but rather to “relate” and to “facilitate a discussion.” I remember it was considered “hip” (i.e. cool, popular etc) to have the class sit on the floor in a circle. The “teacher” was “one of us” and would often start by saying something like “I do not have the answers, but together we can explore the questions.”

Even those of us in our rebellious teens knew there was something amiss here. I wonder if the “hip” priest, nun or youth leader knew that we laughed at them behind their back. Frankly, they DID look strange trying to dress and act like us. And though we humored them, we knew we had them in our back pocket. They were not to be taken seriously, and we didn’t.

I will not excuse our violations of the 4th commandment, but it was hard not to laugh and even mock them behind their back. We used to particularly laugh at one cleric who showed up with a guitar strapped to his back. And thought he did a pretty swift “Peter, Paul and Mary” gig, he did not. And when he left the room, convinced that he had “reached us,” we would “imitate” him derisively (I am sad to say) playing our air guitars and changing the lyrics to the silly songs he sang.

Of course, one might argue we would still have done so had they taken the traditional role of standing before us, commanding respect, and being in the role of teacher, rather than “fellow searcher.” Perhaps, but at least in the second scenario something would actually have been taught that we might later remember when we got over our “too cool for school” schtick.

Ah the Seventies, a sad and “dorky” time that endured well into the 90s and is still operative in some places today.

I think most younger priests today, who had to endure a lot of that silliness are clear that, as Sheen says, going “down to the people” is not an ultimately effective pastoral approach. Most younger clergy are clear enough that people, young and old, are appreciative when we dress and act as clergy. Religious Sisters too, are far more respected and appreciated when they wear the full habit and exhibit the qualities of dignity and grace that go with their honored state. It is no mistake that the traditional orders attract vocations, while the secular-clad, aging “hippie” orders are all but dead.

But, while the externals may be more intact today than in the dorky 70s and 80s, the desire to be loved is still a deep wound with which many clergy, religious, parents and lay leaders struggle. At the end of the day we must always ask, do I fear and serve the Lord or do I fear and please man?

We serve a Lord who, while popular at times, made a journey to the cross that few, even among his 12 were willing to follow or found pleasing. They were looking for a Messiah who was “down with the struggle” on their terms and who would usher in a new worldly kingdom of power and prosperity. Yes, this is what it meant for them that Jesus be “down with the struggle.” But Jesus went up to the cross and few would follow him there. Only St. John, Mother Mary and several other women made it there.

Those of us who lead, Clergy, Religious, parents, and lay leaders must point to the Cross and be willing to lead others there. As for pointing to what is popular and “hip” and what will make us seemingly “loved” and accepted, any newscaster or Hollywood star can do that.

It is true that we ought not engage in all or nothing thinking, or set up a false dichotomy. To be up with the cross and not merely “down with the folks” is not an absolute conflict. Pope Francis has surely reminded the whole Church that we need to be out among the flock, and out in the public square.

But here is the key, we must be there are Christians, as Catholics, as followers of Jesus, who, who charity but also with clarity announce the Gospel. And key to the Gospel to to point the Cross as the way to glory and healing.

And we preach the cross not as an abstraction, but as focused on some very real and sometimes difficult choices. We preach a cross that includes turning away from the pleasures of sin and the flesh, to embrace, chastity, self-control, openness to life, even in difficult circumstances. The cross means there is to be no abortion, even in rape and incest, we are to work out our marital difficulties instead of splitting. We hold up the cross in calling the unmarried to perfect chastity, to homosexuals there is the call of perpetual continence. We preach the cross of enduring persecution, forgiving our enemies, humbling ourselves through confession, of atoning for our sins and obedience to the Commandments. We hold up the cross when we insist on generosity to the poor, and the forsaking of greed and the accumulation of so many unnecessary things. We hold up the cross when we remind others of their duties to family, community, the Church and the nation.

The Cross is not an abstraction and we who would lead must be up with Jesus and the Cross if we are ever to be “down with the people” and “down with the struggle” in any effective way.

We who are the leaders of the Church, have the mission to reflect the teachings, wisdom and way of our founder Jesus Christ. Many today mistakenly think our job is to find out what the majority of people think, and reflect that. No, this is not our job. We are to be Christ and his voice, his wisdom and his teaching in this world. This goes not only for clergy but also for parents. We are to preach his gospel, the whole counsel of Christ in season and out of season, popular or unpopular. We point the way of Christ.

And Christ had this “crazy” way of the Cross. The cross is like a tuning fork for us. It is the “A 440” that helps us to know if we are in tune with Jesus or just reflecting the world, if we are just “down with the people” or up with Christ on the cross.

Many that Good Friday told Christ they would be believe if he came down from his Cross. But he he would not come down from that cross just to save himself, he decided to stay, to save you and me. Had he been down with the people where they wanted him, he could not have saved them, or lifted them up.

A few quotes from scripture to finish:

  1. Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it….If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mk 8:34-38)
  2. Jesus said, “I do not accept glory from human beings” (John 5:41)
  3. Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:20-25)
  4. You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. (Gal 3:1)
  5. If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Gal 1:9-10)
  6. We speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else… (1 Thess 2:4-6)

Are we with Christ, or just “down with the people?” If we are with others, as we should be, are we there with Christ? Do we preach his way of the cross, or do we seek merely to please men?

Are we up with Christ and the Cross, or merely down with the people and the pillow of popularity and the esteem of men?

Here is a favorite video of mine that both illustrates the silly 70s, but also shows the dark side of “tolerance.” Meet Prof “Stanford Nutting” (i.e. stand for nothing):