Bottom line: The cross is the path to happiness.
All human beings dream about success. We want things to go well for ourselves and for those we love. Those are beautiful dreams and there is no reason to scoff at them. Jesus knows what is in our hearts and he wants us to be happy. Today he tells us the path to happiness. Unfortunately, it is not the path that we want. Jesus tells us, if we want well being, we have to embrace the cross. That is difficult for us to understand. The cross is an instrument of suffering and shame. The cross means humiliation, pain and apparent extinction. Yet Jesus says the cross is the only way to true greatness.
This is sometimes called the paradox of the cross. A paradox is a seeming contradiction. It seems like a contradiction to say that the only way to happiness is by embracing pain. Yet, says Jesus, that is the truth.
I would like to illustrate the paradox of the cross by telling a small story. It is about a Roman boy who lived back in the first century. Let's say that his name was Fidus (fee-doos). His father served as a soldier in Galilee and during that time, Fidus had the opportunity to visit Nazareth. There he met a Jewish boy and the two of them struck up a conversation. The Jewish boy invited his Roman friend to visit the carpenter's shop where he worked with his foster father. Fidus was impressed with their fine work and he confided to the Jewish boy his great dream. He wanted to become an architect and one day go to Rome where he would build a palace for the emperor. In it he would construct a magnificent throne, fit for a king.
As things happened, Fidus did not realize his dream of going to Rome, but instead wound up in the small city of Jerusalem. During the Jewish Passover, the Roman governnor, Pilate, called Fidus to his palace. Fidus felt this might be his big opportunity. But instead of asking him to construct a building or a throne, Pilate gave him the job of building a scaffold for some condemned prisoners. Fidus was disappointed, but he put all his heart into building the best scaffold he could - basically, a series of wodden crosses. That Friday he walked outside Jerusalem to view the work. His blood froze because he could hear the screams of the men affixed to the crosses. The man in the middle had this sign above his head: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Fidus realized he was standing before the boy he had met many years before. In a flash of inspiration, Fidus understood: the scaffold - with its cross - had become the throne for the king of kings.
Like Fidus, you and I are meant to build a throne for Jesus. And like him we might imagine it is throne of splendor, wealth and magnificence. But it is not. Jesus' throne is the cross. This is hard. Let's face it, you and I are like Peter in today's Gospel. We want Jesus, but we want him on our terms. We want a Jesus who affirms us, who makes us feel good, who gives us what we want. It is only human to desire all that - but, as Jesus makes clear, it can also become diabolical: "Get behind me Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."
Of all the Christian authors who wrote about the cross, one of the most insightful is Thomas A Kempis.* He wrote a book called The Imitation of Christian. Thomas A Kempis begins by making the common sense observation that no one can escape the cross: "Either you will experience bodily pain or you will undergo tribulation of spirit in your soul. At times you will be forsaken by God, at times troubled by those about you and, what is worse, you will often grow weary of yourself." We cannot escape the cross, but we can make a decision whether we will embrace it - in union with Christ. Everything depends on the cross. Here is what Thomas A Kempis says: "Take up your cross, therefore, and follow Jesus, and you shall enter eternal life...There is no other way to life and to true inward peace than the way of the holy cross and daily mortification. Go where you will, seek what you will, you will not find a higher way, nor a less exalted but safer way, than the way of the holy cross."
We can learn something from the courage of our current Holy Father. You might think that he ascended a throne when he became pope. But that throne is really a cross. This week we saw him caught between a hostile press and people ready to take offense at any slight, real or imagined. At his former university, Pope Benedict gave a profound presentation on the relation between faith and reason. In the course of the address, he mentioned the words of a besieged Orthodox emperor, critical of Islamic conquest. The words were in the context of a dialogue with a learned Persian Moslem. The media took the words out of context with a predictable result. Instead of a modern dialogue, people responded with rioting, burning of effigies and the fire-bombing of Catholic Churches. This has obviously brought great suffering to the seventy-nine-year-old pontiff. He is stretched between communication media that (by and large) have no use for faith and certain religous groups that has no use for reasoned dialogue. The Holy Father offers both - and, because of that, finds himself on a cross. Yet he knows the cross is the only way to life. You and I face a similar cross: a world indifferent, even hostile to our message - and people ready to take offense when we witness to our faith. We cannot escape the cross - for us, and for the world, it is the way to salvation, to happiness that lasts.
*The "A" is pronounced "uh."
From Archives (Homilies for 24th Sunday, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
St. Mary of the Valley Album
Bulletin (Studies of Those in Coma & the Terri Schiavo Case, Tom Burnett & The Devil's Advocate)
Announcements (special announcement concerning Pope Benedictís address at the University of Regensburg)
Barbosa Family, with Betty Weller, in new Tice Hall (September 10, 2005)
YouTube Video of Holy Family Hispanic Dancers (video taken by Luis Gomez and posted by my brother, Louis)
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
(new, professional website)