During this month of August, the month of the Blessed Virgin Mary, let us ask of our good Lord to give us a true devotion to the Immaculate Heart of His Mother, Mary! This Sunday is the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. This weekend I share with you a reflection on the Cross of our Lord Jesus in our lives. I encourage you to reflect over this message a few times this week:
The Cross in our Lives - There is no love without sacrifice. The Cross and mortification are unavoidable.
The Gospel of the Holy Mass (Mt. 16:21-27) describes the events that take place immediately after Peter’s confession of Christ’s Divinity at Caesarea Philippi. First we hear Our Lord’s words of praise for His disciple: Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in Heaven. (Mt. 16:17) Jesus goes on to say that Peter is to be the foundation of His Church, but then begins to explain to His followers that He has to go up to Jerusalem and there suffer many things at the hands of the Jews, and finally die in order to rise on the third day.
The Apostles didn’t understand this sort of talk at all, because they still thought of the Kingdom of God in political terms only. And Peter took Him and began to rebuke Him saying, ‘God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to You.’ Carried away by his great love for his Master, Simon tried to dissuade Jesus from the way of the Cross, not yet understanding the immense benefit it was to be for mankind and how it would be the supreme sign of God’s love for us. Peter reasoned in a human fashion, says St. John Chrysostom, and concluded that all Christ’s talk of His Passion and Death were demeaning and unbecoming for Him. (St. John Chrysostom Homilies on St. Matthew’s Gospel, 54, 4)
Peter views Christ’s earthly mission far too humanly, and so fails to realize that it was manifestly the Will of God that the Redemption would be wrought through the Cross, and that there was no more suitable way to rescue us from our misery. (St. Augustine, De Trinitate, 12, 1-5) Our Lord answers His disciple with great vehemence, just as He did the tempter in the desert: Get behind Me, Satan! You are a hindrance to Me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.
In Ceasarea Peter had spoken under the impulse of the Holy Spirit; he now speaks from a totally materialistic perspective. The notion that the Cross, mortification, sacrifice, are in some way good and a means of salvation, will always strike a discordant note with people who, like St. Peter on this occasion, view things from a worldly point of view. St. Paul had to warn the early Christians about people who live as 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. (Phil. 3:18-19)
If we reason only in materialistic terms it is difficult for us to appreciate that pain and suffering, or indeed anything that requires an effort, can be worthwhile. On the one hand, we know by experience that the difficulties we encounter on our way can serve to purify and strengthen us and make us better. And yet it is clear that our nature of itself abhors suffering: we all aspire to happiness.
The fear of pain, above all if it is severe or persistent, is a deeply rooted instinct in us, and our first reaction in the face of something hard or difficult is to run away. That is why we find the Christian practice of penance difficult: we never find it easy, and no matter how hard we work at it we never manage to get accustomed to it. (cf. R. M. de Balbin, Sacrifice and Joy, Madrid)
Faith enables us to see and realize that without sacrifice the soul encounters no true love, no genuine joy, no lasting purification and no possession of God. The path to holiness passes through the Cross, and all apostolate is based upon it. It is the living book in which we learn definitively who we are and how we ought to behave. This book is always open before us. (St. John Paul II, Address, 1 April 1980) Every day we have to approach and read it. And in it we learn who Christ is, the greatness of His love for us, and how we are to follow Him. Anyone who looks for God without sacrifice, without the Cross, will never find Him.
Modern paganism and the search for material well-being at all costs. The fear of suffering.
…for you are not on the side of God, but of men. Peter will later come to understand profoundly the meaning of pain and sacrifice; along with the other Apostles, he will consider himself fortunate that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name. (cf. Acts 5:41)
As Christians we know that our salvation and the path to heaven is to be found in the loving acceptance of pain and sacrifice. Is there any such thing as a fruitful life that doesn’t contain suffering? Are married couples sure of their love until they have suffered together? Is friendship not strengthened by hardships shared, or simply by having borne together the heat of the day or the fatigue and danger of an ascent? (J. Leclerq, Thirty Meditations on the Christian Life, pp. 217-218) If we want to rise with Christ we have to accompany Him on His journey to the Cross: we do this by accepting life’s trials and tribulations with calmness and serenity. Being generous in voluntary self-denial, which purifies us interiorly, helps us understand the transcendent meaning of life and affirms the soul’s mastery over the body. Just like in Apostolic times, we have to bear in mind that the Cross Jesus preaches is a scandal to some and utter foolishness to others. (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23)
Nowadays too there are many people who are not on the side of God, but of men. They have their gaze fixed on things here below, on material well-being, and chase after it as if it were the only thing that really counted. Mankind is suffering from a wave of materialism that is permeating everything and trying to take our civilization over completely. This contemporary paganism is characterized by the search for material well-being at any cost, and by the corresponding disregard (or, to put it more accurately, fear, genuine panic) of anything that could cause suffering. With this outlook, words, such as God, sin, cross, mortification, eternal life…, become incomprehensible to a great number of people, who are ignorant of their meaning and content. (A. del Portillo, Pastoral Letter, 25 December 1985, 4)
The pleasure-seeking mentality which makes enjoyment the supreme purpose of existence, has greatly affected customs and habits in the more developed countries in particular, but, as St. John Paul II reminds us, it is also the life-style of increasing groups inside the poorer countries. (St. John Paul II, Homily in Yankee Stadium, 2 October 1979, 6) This radical materialism is suffocating the religious sense of nations and individuals, and is directly opposed to the Doctrine of Christ, whom we hear once more in the Holy Mass inviting us to take up our Cross as a necessary condition of following Him: If any man would come after Me, He tells us, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.
Our Lord makes use of pain, of voluntary sacrifice, of poverty, of unheralded sickness, all of which, far from separating us from God, can unite us more closely with Him. If we go to Jesus in the Tabernacle and offer Him everything we find hard and difficult, we discover that it is through Christ, and in Christ, that light is thrown on the riddle of suffering and death. (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 22) This is the only way to lose the fear of suffering which will accompany us all the days of our life. We will manage to accept it with joy if we discover in it God’s lovable will: The great Christian revolution has been to convert pain into fruitful suffering and so to turn a bad thing into something good. We have deprived the devil of this weapon; and with it we can conquer Eternity. (J. Escriva, Furrow 887)
What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?
In our apostolate we have to tell everybody, by word and example, not to fill their hearts with the things of this world, because everything in this life is impermanent, it grows old and lasts but a moment. Omnes ut vestimentum veterascent (Heb. 1:11), they will all grow old like a garment. Only the soul that fights to retain its sense of Divine awareness will remain forever young until the moment of the definitive encounter with its Maker. Everything else passes away, and quickly too. What a great pity it is to see so many people risking their Eternal Salvation, and indeed even their earthly happiness, for a few worthless trifles! ‘What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?’ What use to man are all the things of the earth, all that our intelligence and will can aspire to? What is the point of all that, if it is all to come to an end and sink out of sight; if all the riches of this world are mere theatre props and scenery, and if after this there is Eternity for-ever, and ever, and ever? (J. Escriva, Friends of God, 200) The world and its riches can never be man’s ultimate end. Even man’s temporal end, which we Christians have
the obligation of working for, does not consist strictly speaking in
material accomplishments (the achievements of technology, science
and industry), but in man’s human dimension, in the perfecting of
his faculties, social relationships and cultural values through the
medium of work and material goods, which should always be at the
service of the dignity of the human person.
Only a truly disinterested love, purified and moderated by
temperance, can give its proper meaning to the legitimate striving
after earthly goods. If God is really the centre of our life, then it will
have many practical consequences for everyday living: marriage
will be capable of overcoming all obstacles to achieve its primary
end, which is to beget children for God and educate them for Him;
and family life will be a mutual and generous self-giving between
spouses. Only if God is present, will art and public entertainment be
worthy of man and a genuine expression of the richness of the
human spirit. Only in God can the objective foundation of morality
be properly understood, and the laws of nations be a faithful
reflection of the Divine Law. Only here can man overcome all fear;
only in the inevitability of suffering will he find a source of
purification and of co-redemption with Christ. In a word, only the
love that is rooted in generosity and sacrifice will enable the human
person to obtain his Eternal Destiny in Heaven.
(From: In Conversation with God by Francis Fernandez)
Through the intercession of Mary, the Queen of Heaven and earth,
St. Joseph, St. Michael and St. Paul, may God grant us the grace to
offer all our sufferings as an offering of love back to Him!