By: Fr. Joseph Briody, Professor of Sacred Scripture
“I don’t know what I want in life or what I’m meant to do or even what to pray for. I’m lost. I’m drifting. I’ve no direction.” It’s something people confide in priests from time to time. Sometimes, we don’t know what we want. We don’t know what’s good for us. It’s too vast and complex a calculation. The Book of Wisdom (this Sunday’s First Reading) holds up a mirror to that perplexity. As the Word of God, it shows us God and it shows us ourselves: “the deliberations of mortals are timid; and unsure are our plans.” We can hardly guess things on earth, Wisdom says, how, then, can we grasp the things of heaven, the plans of God?
With Christ, we don’t have to make complex and wearying calculations of what is good or evil or what God wants of us. When we try sincerely to follow him, he shows us where to go and what to do. With the Lord, things are not necessarily easier, but they are simpler: surrender, abandonment, obedience. The big ask in these is trust. The big “calculation” of our life, is: “Can I trust God with my life?” Even more penetrating is the question: “Do I trust him?” This surrender is the response to a personal invitation from Jesus Christ rather than any kind of calculation or gamble. “I know whom I have believed,” St. Paul writes (2 Tim 1:12). We, too, know the One we trust.
This invitation to trust is placed before us today with the simplicity and directness of the Gospel: “Whoever does not carry his own Cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Beginning a new seminary year brings its sacrifices and apprehensions. What overrides fear is the whisper of his voice saying: “Come follow me.” You (seminarians) have perceived an irresistible call from God. Today, in his Gospel, Christ spells out the full implications of that call. There is no small print hidden away in this contract. In fact, it’s a covenant, an exchange of persons. He gives himself to us. We give ourselves to him, totally. He says: “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. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus tells us this not to frighten or deter us, but to show the full glory of the Cross. He is presenting the Cross as the key to life. He is telling us that “God delights in sacrificial love” (Donald Haggerty). “The greatest of these is charity,” St. Paul says (1 Cor 13:13). There is no greater love than to lay down our life for another, for him (John 15:13). Some of you made difficult choices to come to the seminary. Knowing that our trust delights God helps sweep away any foot-dragging on our part. Every time we take up our Cross, we follow him; we are released from shallow self-attachment; we are set free; we possess ourselves more so that we can give ourselves more.
Our Lord comes to us by way of the Cross. He presents himself to us on the Cross, “Christ Crucified, the power and wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24). The crucifix is his official image (Bl. Columba Marmion). There is no other way to God: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Look at his mother. No one was closer to him, and no one closer to his Cross!
Fr. Paul Mankowski (mentioned during our opening retreat) was a brilliant scholar, a world expert in ancient languages. When he died unexpectedly two years ago, all he had in his pocket was a crucifix. Father Mankowski’s words to someone going through a difficult time, carrying a heavy cross, are worth noting. He wrote: “what makes a cross a cross is that it kills the one who carries it; it puts to death that part of the disciple that God knows must die for salvation to work.”
The Cross puts to death that part of the disciple that God knows must die for salvation to work. The Cross puts to death that part of the priest that must die if his ministry is to bear fruit that will last. Jesus personalizes the Cross for each one of us and there is our consolation. He invites each of us to take up his Cross, that is, our personal Cross, the one tailor-made for each of us and given us from his hands. It’s not off-the-shelf, readymade, or standard size. It’s not like something you can order on Amazon Prime. Not small, medium, large or one-size-fits-all! It is unique and personalized. It is fashioned with the love of God, in light of what we need, and for our good. Mrs. Harkin, an old neighbor, would observe that if all our crosses were put into a big pot and stirred and we could then take out any Cross at all, we would end up taking back our own. We would see the wisdom of God: my Cross, my share in the work of the redeeming Christ. My way to God and to glory.
The Cross is never easy, but it is truly awful, only when it is not embraced. Then, we walk away sad, like the Rich Young Man. That cramp of sadness or regret is tough, when you feel you have let the Lord down or set aside what he desired for you, especially through selfishness or fear. It is the cramp that comes from resisting grace. We waste much time, sometimes years, fighting against grace, instead of surrendering to God, being changed, and set free.
In a world and culture where everything is in flux, the Cross stands as the axis of the world and of our heart. Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis, the Carthusians say: while the world is in flux, the Cross stands steady. The Cross is the axis of Christian life. All love is purified in the Cross because the Cross is the highest expression of love, the embodiment of divine and perfect charity. Without the Cross, our love remains anemic, mixed-up, and imperfect (M. Delbrel). The carrying of the Cross is the transformation of our love as it is taken up into the love of Christ Crucified.
Sometimes we fear the Cross, but that’s exactly where trust enters in. The Cross is the Tree of Life. A good tree produces only good fruit. It cannot produce bad fruit. As the Tree of Life, the Lord’s Cross cannot harm us but only do us good and give us the best fruit in healing and salvation. “Only from its triumphant wood,” St. Louis De Montfort writes, “can you pluck the fruit of eternal Life.” To choose the Cross is to “Choose Life.”
The things of God are simple but not always easy. Trying to respond to his call often means identifying what is central and what is peripheral, what matters and what is superficial in our lives. God wants our happiness. Our happiness lies in doing what he asks of us, in finding and living our vocation. The main thing is that God should get what he wants (R. Burrows). This is for our good and the good of countless others, something we will understand fully only in heaven. This is the way of the Cross. “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” The Cross is simple. It is not easy. But it is glorious.