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):

God Works Wonders With Wood – A Meditation on the Cross and How God Prefigured It In the Old Testament

As we draw near to Holy Week, and on this Friday when many of us pray the Stations of the Cross, we do well to meditate on the wood of the cross. For it is a fascinating fact that, when saving His people, God often had recourse to wood. Indeed, one of the great themes of the Old Testament and into the New Testament is that “God Works Wonders With Wood.”

Consider with me a number of places in the Scriptures where God uses wood to save:

1.    Ark of Safety– One of the most terrifying stories of the ancient world is the flood. The world had grown so wicked, and sin so multiplied that God concluded he must literally wash it clean. (And you think its bad now!) God went to a man named Noah and told him that He was going to trouble the waters and that Noah had to be ready. He was instructed to build an ark of Gopher wood. Now this was not a small project. The Ark was the length of one and a half football fields (150 yards), it was 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. God then, troubled the waters and the flood made an end of wickedness and a new beginning of goodness. Through the wood of the ark God saved Noah and his family from the flood waters.  (cf Gen 6-9) An old Latin Hymn says, Arbor una nobilis (One and only noble tree)! By this wood, God saved his people.

2. Victory at the Red Sea– Pharaoh had finally relented and the Jewish People were leaving Egypt for the Promised Land. But fickle Pharaoh has once again changed his mind and pursues them. With the Red Sea before them and Pharaoh behind them the people were struck with fear. Yet, God would win through for them. How?! God told Moses to take up the wooden staff and to trouble the waters with these words: And you lift up your staff and with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two… So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. (Ex 14:16, 21). And God brought them through those troubled waters, and they went out of slavery and into freedom. Are you noticing a pattern? Wood works wonders. The wooden staff and troubled waters bring forth freedom: Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!

3. Water in the Desert – It is a fine thing to be free but thirst has a way of making itself known. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. But notice again how God uses wood to bring forth saving water: And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet! (Ex 15:23) So once again, God saves through wood and brings forth water. The wood of the tree made sweet the water: Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!

4. Saving Stream –  But yet again, as they journeyed further, more thirst. And once again God used wood to save them: God said to Moses: Go over in front of the people holding in your hand as you go the staff with which you struck the sea, …Strike the rock and the water will flow from it for the people to drink. (Ex 17:5-6). With God’s power the wood works wonders. The wood of the staff troubled those waters and they came forth with the blessing that preserved life in the desert. Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!

5. Down by the Riverside – After forty years of wandering in the desert the Israelites are finally ready to enter the promised land. But the Jordan is in flood stage, impossible to cross! But once again God had a plan and it involved wood. He instructed Joshua to have the priests place the Ark of  the Covenant on their shoulders and wade in the water. Now the Ark was a box made of Acacia wood and covered in gold. In it were the tables of the Law, the staff of Aaron and a ciborium of the manna. The also knew and believed that the very presence of God was carried in that ancient wooden box, even as in our tabernacles today. And when those who bore that wooden Ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests touched the water the waters, those waters rose up in a heap far off, and the  people passed over opposite Jericho (cf Joshua 3:15) So again, with God,  wood works wonders! The wooden box of the ark troubled the waters and they parted bringing the blessing of the promised land. Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!

Now all of these prefigure the noblest tree of all: the Cross of our Lord. For as we have amply seen, God works wonders with wood.

It is said that Jesus was a carpenter. Actually the Greek calls him a teckton (builder). But surely carpentry was among his skills. But more truly he was the greatest carpenter of all, not merely for any table or chair he built, but for the salvation he won us through the wood of his cross: Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!

Jesus, master carpenter among all master carpenters!  Wood alone cannot save, but God works wonders with wood, and by his power, and his grace he wills to use wood to save us: Wood Works Wonders!

Please consider these beautiful lines from the 6th Century Hymn Crux Fidelis:

above all other,
one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peers may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!

Lofty tree, bend down thy branches,
to embrace thy sacred load;
oh, relax the native tension
of that all too rigid wood;
gently, gently bear the members
of thy dying King and God.

Tree, which solely wast found worthy
the world’s Victim to sustain.
harbor from the raging tempest!
ark, that saved the world again!
Tree, with sacred blood anointed
of the Lamb for sinners slain

The full hymn by Venantius Fortunatus is here: PANGE LINGUA – CRUX FIDELIS

Never forget what your Master Carpenter, Jesus has done for you.

Here is a sung version of the hymn Crux Fidelis:

Finding the Good in Good Friday – A Lenten Meditation on the Liturgical Experience of the Cross

When I was younger and through my seminary years I had usually seen the crucifix and Jesus’ suffering on the cross in somber tones. It was my sin that put him there, had made him suffer. The cross was something that compelled a silent reverence, and suggested to me that I meditate deeply on what Jesus had to go through. Perhaps too I would think of Mary and John and the other women mournfully beneath the cross beholding Jesus slowly and painfully dying. These were heavy and somber notes, but deeply moving themes.

In addition the crucifix also called forth memories that I must carry a cross and go through the Fridays of my life. I needed to learn the meaning of sacrifice.

Liturgically I also saw the crucifix as a way of restoring greater reverence in the Mass. Through the 70s and 80s parishes had largely removed crucifixes and replaced them, quite often, with “resurrection crosses,” or just an image of Jesus floating in mid air. I used to call this image “touchdown Jesus” since he floated in front of the cross with his arms up in the air as if indicating a touchdown had just been made. In those years we had moved away from the understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice and were more into “meal theology.” The removal of the crucifix from the sanctuary was powerfully indicative 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.

A cross-less Christianity tended to give way to what I thought was a rather silly celebratory style of masses in those years and I came to see the restoration of the Crucifix as a necessary remedy to restore proper balance. I was delighted when, through the mid 80s 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. Further, that the processional cross had to bear the image of the crucified, not just be a bare cross.

Balance Restored –  I was very happy about these new norms (and still am) because they restore the proper balance in seeing the Mass as a making present of the once-for-all perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It is also a sacred meal, but it is the sacrifice that gives it its power. I further thought that such a move would help restore greater and proper solemnity to the Mass, and to some extent this has been true.

All of this background just to say that I saw the Cross, the crucifix, in somber, serious tones, a theme that was meant to instill solemnity and sobriety, a meditation on the awful reality of sin and our need to repent. And all of this is fine and true.

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

In effect he wanted me to experience also the “good” in Good Friday. For while the cross is all the things said above, it 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 in Lent of 1994, one of my first in an African American Catholic Parish. It being Lent, I expected the highly celebratory quality of Mass to be scaled back a bit. But, much to my surprise, the opening song began with an upbeat, toe-tapping gospel riff. At first I frowned. But 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! But how unusual for me to hear of the cross being sung of so joyfully. (You can hear the song in the video below; try not to tap your toe too much).

It was something quite new for me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been but it was. The 70s and 80s Catholicism that had been my experience found it necessary to remove the cross to celebrate. But here was celebration with and in the cross!  Here was the good in Good Friday.

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!

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 and the last verse was transposed a half step up, 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 victory.

Please do not misunderstand my point. There IS a place and time for quiet, somber reflection at the foot of the cross. All the things said above are true. But one of the glories of the human person is that we can have more than one feeling at a time. We can even have opposite feelings going on at almost the same moment!

The Balance – Some in the Church of the 70s and 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 unbalanced. For at the cross, the vertical, upward pillar of man’s pride and sin is transected by the horizontal and 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!

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

Photo credit (right click on photo for URL)

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

Strange Medicine and the Gaze that Saves: A Meditation on the Triumph of the Cross

One of the stranger passages in the Old Testament is a command Moses received from God. The people had grumbled against God and Moses for the “wretched” manna they had to consume (Numbers 21:5). They were sick of its bland quality though it was the miracle food, the bread from heaven that had sustained them in the desert. (Pay attention Catholics who treat lightly or find  the Eucharist boring!) God grew angry and sent venomous snakes among them which caused many to die (Nm 21:6). The people then repented and, in order to bring healing to them, God command a strange and remarkable thing: Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live(Nm 21:8).

No Graven Images?? Now remember it was God who had said earlier in the Ten Commandments Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth(Ex 20:4). Yet here he commands a graven (a carved) image. Moses made it of bronze and showed it to the people who looking at it became well (Nm 21:9)

In a way it is almost as if God were saying to Moses, “The people, in rejecting the Bread from Heaven have chosen Satan and what he offers. They have rejected me. Let them look into the depth of their sin and face their choice and the fears it has set loose. Let them look upon a serpent. Having looked, let them repent and be healed, let the fear of what the serpent can do depart.”

 Jesus takes up the theme in today’s Gospel and fulfills it when he says, And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14). Almost as if to say, “Let the people face their sin and see the ugly reality that it is and what it does to me to them and others. Let them face their choice and seek healing repentance. Let them also see the outstretched arms of God’s mercy and find peace.”

There is something about facing our sins, our short-comings and our anxieties and fears. There is something about looking into the face of them in order to find healing.  One of the glories of the Catholic Faith is that we have never hid the cross. We have never run from it. There have been brief times when we shamefully de-emphasized it. But throughout most all of our history, the crucifix has been prominently, proudly and fearlessly displayed in our churches. We cling to and glory in it.

Do you know how shocking this is? Imagine, instead of a crucifix in our Churches, you were to walk in and see Jesus dangling from a gallows, a rope around his neck. Crucifixion was the form of execution reserved for the worst of criminals. It was shocking, horrifying and emblematic of the worse kind of sufferings. When the Romans saw or thought of something awful they would cry out in Latin: “Ex cruce!” (From the cross!) for they could think of nothing more horrible to compare it to. And this is where we get our English word, “excruciating.”  Crucifixion is brutal and awful, a slow, ignoble and humiliating death: ex cruce!

 But there it is, front and center in  just about every Catholic Church. There it is, at the head of our processions. There it is, displayed in our homes. And we are bid to look upon it daily. Displayed there is everything we most fear: suffering, torment, loss, humiliation, nakedness, hatred, scorn, mockery,  ridicule, rejection, and death. And the Lord and the Church say: “Look! Don’t turn away. Do not hide this. Look! Behold! Face the crucifix and all it means. Stare into the face of your worst fears, confront them and begin to experience healing. Do not fear the worst the world and the devil can do for Christ has triumphed overwhelmingly. He has cast off death like a garment  and said to us, In this world ye shall have tribulation. But have courage! I have overcome the world(Jn 16:33).

 And therein lies the key that the cross is. It is the antidote to the world. It is the world and our roots in it that cause us the greatest fear. Have you ever noticed that the more you have, the more you fear? The more we have to lose, the more we have to fear. But through the Cross, and the sufferings of this world we begin to discover how hollow and foreign this world  really is. We begin to experience that this world is a valley of tears and an exile from our true homeland. It loses its savor and so we begin to focus more on our heart’s truest longing which is God and the things waiting for us in heaven. St. Paul wrote: May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14).

And herein lies the Victory of the Cross – The cross crucifies the world to me and I to the world. The cross breaks the bond, severs the unholy relationship and sets me free. The cross has a way of helping us to see the truer reality of things and the world begins to lose its hold. It is a strange and hard medicine, but there is a power in the cross and remedy for our soul. Sorrow suffering bring detachment, and detachment brings peace and freedom. And this is victory of the cross, victory over the world.

Illustration-  St. John Chrysostom had suffered much from the world, frequent exiles and threats for emperors, heretical clergy and the like. Popularity was mixed with hatred from the powers and princes of this world. But he had faced the cross and accepted it. And now, threatened once again with exile, he mounted his pulpit in Constantinople and laughed at the threats before him. He declared his freedom from fear at anything this world could dish out. In so doing he declared and illustrates the triumph of the cross. I close with his words. Listen to a man who has been set free and experienced the Triumph of the Cross:

What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? ‘The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good….I urge you, my friends, to have confidence…. (ante exsilium n. 1: PG 52, 427)

The Cross is the Tuning Fork of the True Faith

A Cross, not a cushion – Some argue that religion, faith, is a man made fiction, meant to soothe our difficult life with stories about ultimate victory in a heaven somewhere. I believe is was Karl Marx who thought of religion as an opiate of the masses in that it blunted the difficult reality of life in the same way that opium dulled the minds of drug users. But a charge like this cannot apply to the true Christian and Catholic Faith. There are consolations, to be sure,  from faith. Yet at the center of the true faith is a cross, not a cushion and this is an important corrective to those who think of religion merely as something to soothe us.

The cross also goes a long way to speak to the Divine origin of our Holy Faith. If the faith were an invention of man what is the cross doing there? I don’t just mean Jesus’ cross, I mean ours. Jesus did not just carry his own cross, he told us we’d have to carry ours. And this teaching on the cross is not just an incidental sidebar, the cross is absolutely central. Now it seems to me that if our Holy Faith were man-made, there would not be a cross as the central tenant, but rather a pillow, a giant fluffy pillow.

Man made religion would exult pleasure, prosperity, consolation, affirmation and so forth. But true religion, God’s Holy Faith, holds up the cross, the cross of repentance, self-denial, self-discipline, sacrifice, living for others, and so on. This hardly seems to be something that we human beings would devise, given as we are to selfishness. And what’s even more amazing, and surely something no human being would think up on his own, is that the cross truly brings life. It is in losing our life that we find it and gain it (cf  Matt 6:25). No human wisdom is this….it must be from God!

The Cross is like a tuning fork –  It’s what you use to be sure that the preacher is “in tune” with the true faith of God or to discover that he is just preaching a false version of the faith, one not of God. There are false preachers out there today and one way to tell that they are false is that they seldom or never mention the cross. They talk about prosperity and blessings, rewards and gain. Nothing intrinsically wrong with those to be sure. But do they mention the cross? Do they mention self-denial, self-discipline, repentance and the fact that we are all called to share in the sufferings of Christ? If they do not, they are not of God. Beware the preachers of the “prosperity gospel.” Beware of a cross-less Christianity. There is joy in faith to be sure, but there must also be the cross. God does not only affirm, He also disciplines, matures and quickens the Christian, always with love.

St. Augustine rebuked the false shepherds of his day in these words:

“The Apostle says, ‘All who desire to live a holy life in Christ will suffer persecution.’ But you say instead…’All things will be yours in abundance!’ Is this the way you build up the believer? Take note of what you are doing and where you are placing him. You have built him on sand. [But] The rains will come….! [Rather,] put him on the rock. Let him be in Christ. Let him consider Scripture which says to him: God chastises every son who he acknowledges. Let him prepare to be chastised or else not seek to be acknowledged as a son. (sermo 46:10-11)

The video below from a very strange little comedy called “Dogma.”  The scene here depicts a mixed up bishop who wants to refashion the Catholic Faith and make it a more “pleasant affair.”  It’s a pretty silly scene but there is a serious point: The cross is like a tuning fork. Without the “A 440” of the Cross the whole symphony is out of tune. With that in mind, watch this video of a false teacher (comically portrayed) who wants to substitute a pillow for the cross, a false Jesus for the real one a false teacher who  exults affirmation in the place of transformation.

Four Demands of Discipleship: A Meditation on the Gospel of the 23rd Week of the Year

In today’s Gospel Jesus defines four Demands of discipleship. We can look at them one by one.

1.  The CONTEXT of the discipleship. The text says that large crowds were following Jesus and so he turned to address them. Just about any time you find a mention of a large crowd fasten your seat belts and prepare for a hard teaching. Jesus didn’t trust the big crowds who were often out for the goodies. They were looking for miracles, multiplied and free bread, physical healings and a fiery sermon. So upon sensing a large crowd the texts says, rather provocatively, that Jesus turned to address them. He then gives a series of “hard sayings” which seem almost designed to thin the ranks and to distinguish true disciples from the “lip service” crowd.

We will see in a moment what he says. But let’s take a moment and examine other incidents where the gospels demonstrate Jesus’ tendency to distrust big crowds:

  • Mat 7:13 Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
  • Matt 22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.
  • Luke 6:26 Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

There is also the tendency in the gospels for the mentioning of a large crowd to be followed by a “hard saying:”

  • Matt 13:1-9 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.”
  • Matt 19: 1-6 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (cf also Mark 10)
  • Luke 11:29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.
  • Luke 14:26-27 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
  • Luke 12:54-56 He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?
  • John 6: 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick….and He said to them, I am the living bread come down from heaven…..the crowds murmured.

So, the CONTEXT of discipleship is not usually with the crowd. Though many are called, indeed all are called, only few make the cut and become true disciples. There is a kind of remnant theology at work here, to be sure. But it is a common pattern that Jesus thins the ranks and distinguishes the many who are called from the few who are chosen. This is a fact not only in the Scriptures but it also remains true that the Lord has often had to prune his Church. Even now we are seeing a large falling away, a kind of pruning as large numbers depart who are not able to take the “hard sayings” of Jesus and the Scriptures about sexuality, forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, heroic charity and generosity, and so forth. The CONTEXT of discipleship is with the few, rather than the many.

2. The CENTRALITY of the discipleship. Jesus indicates that we can prefer or love no one more than him if we are going to be his disciples. This extends even to our family relationships: If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Now “hate” here does mean that we are to have contempt for others or nourish unrighteous anger toward them. What we are dealing with here is a Jewish idiom. The Hebrew language, for some reason, has very few comparative words such as: more, less, greater, fewer, and so forth. Hence in ancient Hebrew if one were to prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate one would say, “I love vanilla but hate chocolate.”  But what “hate” means here in context is that I “prefer” vanilla, not that I literally hate chocolate.

So, what Jesus means is that we cannot prefer anyone or anything to Him. He’s first, he’s number one. Jesus says, I must have absolute priority over the closest human relationships in your life. If there’s anyone in your life that can talk you out of obeying God, forget ‘em! Anyone who keeps you away from God has too much power. Anyone who can keep you from your Christian walk has too much power. Anyone who can pull you into unrighteousness has too much power. So if The boss instructs us to do something immoral – sorry boss. If the accountant or lawyers advise saving money by paying unjust wages or cutting necessary benefits – sorry boys. A boyfriend pressures his girl friend to have sex – sorry dear. Peers pressure to use drugs or abuse alcohol, skip school, or steal – sorry buddies. A spouse calls his or her mate away from teaching the children the ways of faith. – sorry honey. A child pressures a parent to that which is unwise or wrong. – sorry child of mine. So, do you get it? No one is to have priority of Jesus Christ and what he teaches., The word “hate” here may not be literal but on second thought, if Jesus really does have priority in our life it may cause some to say, “You’re so devoted to him, I think you hate me!”

3. The CROSS of discipleship. Jesus says if we want to be a disciple we must be willing to carry the cross. Now the cross comes in many forms, but in the end, to be a disciple does not mean we are in any way exempt from the troubles and trials of this world. Jesus indicates that we will be hated by the word (cf  Jn 15:20), persecuted and sorely tempted by this world. But if we hold out, victory will be ours. It is a simple rule: No cross, No crown. There are some who want to preach a prosperity gospel. There are others who demand a gospel stripped of its moral imperatives. Still others demand an updated faith that tickles their ears and affirms their aberrant behavior. But Jesus points to the Cross, not to torture us, but because it is the only way to glory. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). Now, for a little while you may have to suffer various trials…(1 Peter 1:6)

4. The COST of discipleship. Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’ Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. Jesus asks us to count the cost of what he is teaching here. Many of the Protestant preachers like to emphasize that salvation is free,  and it is. But discipleship is costly. Jesus gives the image of someone building a tower or of a king going to battle. But, truth be told, these examples are distant from us. So Jesus brings it home and says to us: anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

The Greek word  ἀποτάσσω (apotasso) translated here as “renounce” also means, “to say farewell.” And the Lord is reminding us that heaven costs everything. Ultimately we must say farewell to everyone and everything we consider precious here in order to inherit heaven. This of course is not something that waits merely for death.

At one level, we give back everything to God as we go, little by little. We have all given back loved ones. Perhaps too we have given back youthful figures, strength, good health, and so forth. Ultimately we will give it all back.

But at another level the Lord is clear to say here that we must be willing to part with anything that hinders discipleship now, not later. The fact is that many things attach us to this world and make discipleship difficult. Are we willing to de-clutter our life, simplify and get more focused on being disciples? Or will we go on setting down roots here and amassing a worldly kingdom? What’s it going to be, the world or the Kingdom? Count the cost. See what it really means to be a disciple and what it cost, then decide.

What Jesus is looking for are disciples who, having counted the cost and realistically assessed it, are ready, nonetheless, to be his disciples. Tag-alongs, lip service Christians, fair weather folks, need not apply. So today Jesus is looking at a big crowd and teaches in a way that is meant to distinguish true disciples from the “lip service” disciples. We are asked to ponder in which category we most truthfully belong.

This Homily is available in recorded form here:

Is He Your King? Jesus’Trial Before Pilate

                     GOOD FRIDAY – All through the night Jesus has been locked in the dungeon of the high priest’s house. Early this morning he was bought before a Pilate who transferred his case to Herod. Herod sent him back to Pilate who, sometime in the mid-morning, bowed to the pressure of the Temple leadership and the crowds, and condemned Jesus to a horrible death by crucifixion. In the late morning Jesus was taken by the soldiers through the city and up the hillside of Golgotha. By noon he is nailed to the cross where he hangs in agony for some three hours. He dies around three in the afternoon. He is taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb hastily before sundown. Today is a day of prayer, fasting and abstinence. Whenever possible, Christians are urged to keep today free of work, of social engagements, of entertainment, and to devote themselves to communal prayer and worship. At noon many parishes gather for stations of the cross for recollections of the seven last words of Jesus. Many parishes also offer stations of the cross at 3pm the hour of Jesus death. In the evening, we gather quietly in our parish Churches to enter into time of prayer as we reflect on Jesus death on the cross. We also pray for the needs of the world. To acknowledge the power of the cross in our lives today, we one by one come forward to venerate the cross with a kiss. Our hunger from this day of fasting is satisfied with Holy Communion distributed at the end of this liturgy.Consider too how the apostles might have gathered that night together in fear and prayer reflecting on all that happened.

The following video depicts Jesus and Pilate. It is from the movie The Gospel of John.Notice how Jesus turns the tables on Pilate. Although Jesus is on trial, he ends up putting Pilate on trial! Notice too how many times Pilate goes in and out of Praetorium (Audience Hall). At least four times! He is vacillating. He knows Jesus is innocent of the charges. But in the end, out of fear, he suppresses his conscience and hands Jesus over.  Pilate had wanted to avoid committing to Jesus one way or the other. But he, like you and me had to make a decision. You might say he goes from vacillation to assassination!

Notice particularly the question Pilate wrestles with over Jesus’ Kingship. He asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” But Jesus will not answer. This is a question Pilate must answer. It is a question you and I must answer. And so Jesus says, “Are you saying this on your own or have others been saying this to you?” In other words am I a King becuase you say so or are you just saying what others say? Only Pilate can aswer if Jesus is a king. Only you and I can answer for ourselves. Is he your King?

Jesus vs Terminator

What would happen if Hollywood got hold of salvation history? The following video is meant to be funny and it is. But consider that it unwittingly makes a very important point. You see, Hollywood loves the happy ending and notions like the cross are quite foreign there. Hence, in this clip the Terminator, (Arnold!) won’t let Jesus die! According to Hollywood Jesus, our hero has to live. Now if Hollywood with its worldly perspective got its way we’d still be dead in our sins. An old Gospel song says, “He would not come down from that Cross just to save himself. He decided to die just to save me.”

So now that you’ve permitted me to be serious for just a moment, enjoy a rather silly video, though please overlook the “cartoonish” violence that is part of the shtick.

I’m in the Holy Land this week until November 8th. I have scheduled blogs that will appear each day while I’m away so stay tuned! My participation in the comments however may be a little light since my time with the internet will be sporadic. Comments will be moderated by someone else on the team and I’ll participate when I can. – Msgr Pope.