We read the following in Vita Consecrata, Saint John Paul II’s document on religious life:
On this feast of John Paul II, we pray that we may be faithful to our Father's call and follow the Lord Jesus moment by moment with an undivided heart.
We read the following in Vita Consecrata, Saint John Paul II’s document on religious life:
For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Here we have one of the central verses in all of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus’s death is a “ransom”, a payment of the price the “many” are unable to pay themselves. Jesus sells himself into slavery in order to liberate his brothers and sisters from bondage. For “Truly no man can ransom himself, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly, and can never suffice, that he should continue to live on forever and never see the grave.” On our behalf he fulfills the image of the Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah: “…it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured…the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.” As we heard in the first reading, “it was the Lord’s will to crush him with pain…” and “My servant, the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear.”
But the context in which this verse occurs does not directly concern the atoning death of Jesus but his teaching on discipleship: “…whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all,” says Jesus to the Twelve.
Seen in the broader context of the passage immediately preceding this one, Mark alerts us to the theme of discipleship by telling us that Jesus, the Twelve, and his other followers are “on the way, going up to Jerusalem,” with Jesus going on ahead of them. This image calls to mind the many spiritual pilgrimages the people make to Jerusalem, and therefore elicits an atmosphere of festal celebration, as we know from praying the Psalms of Ascent: “I rejoiced when I heard them say, “Let us go up to the house of the Lord…There the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord.” It is also evocative of Israel’s journey through the wilderness with the Lord God going before them in a pillar of fire. Furthermore, it points to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah alluded to in the opening verses of Mark: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way; ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
And if we look a few verses ahead in this same chapter 40 of Isaiah we find: “Get you up to the high mountain, O herald of good tidings to Zion; / lift up your voice with strength, O herald of good tidings to Jerusalem; / lift it up, fear not; / say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” / Behold, the Lord God comes with might, who rules by his strong arm…” Here the Lord appears as the mighty, strong-armed Divine Warrior engaged in a cosmic battle against the forces of evil who has now begun his triumphant march up to Jerusalem to liberate her from her enemies and establish his kingship on Zion, his holy mountain. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy,” says Isaiah. For “her guilt is expiated…she has received from the hand of her Lord double for all her sins.”
Mark says that the Twelve and the others who followed Jesus were amazed and afraid. No doubt they were responding to the figure of Jesus himself, whose whole manner and person must have radiated from within a powerful and compelling combination of purpose, authority, and humility, united in a dynamic forward-moving energy unobstructed by sin, totally surrendered as he was to the will of his Father, and aware that the culmination of his mission was drawing near. He is like the pillar of fire leading the Israelites of old. Amazement and fear are fitting responses for those who have caught a glimpse of the divine glory present yet hidden in the humanity of the Son of Man. The whole group must have been caught up into this powerful movement, with its multi-layered associations with the history, hopes, and dreams of God’s holy people.
At this point, Jesus takes the Twelve aside and makes it absolutely clear that the way of God as liberating warrior is one with the way of the Suffering Servant. He will achieve his victory by his suffering and death as obedient Servant, as the One who has emptied himself and taken on the form of a slave. "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise."
It is at this point in the text that James and John come forward with their request. Placed here as it is by Mark, it is hard to see how they could have made a more blind request at a more inappropriate moment. They seem in another world altogether; their minds apparently so totally occupied elsewhere with their own dreams and imaginings that nothing else can penetrate. On the other hand, we all know the temptation of wishing to ride along on the wave of God’s victorious triumph over sin and death while overlooking the way of the Cross even when it is staring us in the face.
Nevertheless, it seems to me too one-sided to interpret the request of James and John exclusively as a desire for power and prestige. I see no reason why more purely religious motives can’t be present here at the same time: the enthusiasm and zeal for excellence of young, idealistic, but untried disciples of weak understanding, who have caught a glimpse of the divine glory in the face of Jesus, who hope to be intimately united with him and share as deeply as possible in the mysteries of his life, who, in short, genuinely want to be holy.
The tack they take though shows that they need much conversion. They try to get Jesus to agree to their request before they say what it is. Jesus does not respond with a reproach, however, but listens, and chooses to see this instead as an opening and therefore an opportunity. First, he warns them that they do not know what they are asking, and then sets up a condition and a challenge. In this way, he appeals to their ambition, high ideals, and goodwill in order to redirect it and draw something great out of them.
“Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?", he asks. “We can,” they respond immediately and without hesitation. “We can”, I submit, is the only real response that a disciple can give, unless we want to turn away like the rich man; in that, we must always respond to God from the conviction that with God anything is possible, and not in false humility from the sense of our limited capacity and human frailty. The Lord has turned the petition into a task, and with the task always comes the grace to carry it out. We must never come to the Lord having placed conditions on our self-gift. Although their understanding needs to be stretched and their motives purified, the basic desire for excellence and greatness, to reach beyond simple fulfillment of the commandment, is a necessary ingredient for the saint and the martyr, as it is for any lover. With their unhesitating response, James and John dispose themselves to be put to use by the Lord as the Lord needs them and sees fit. "The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized…” With him going before them showing the way, they will walk the path of the suffering servant. They will share in his redemptive suffering.
In the Acts of the Apostles we read that King Herod had James killed by the sword; probably between 42 and 44 AD. John on the other hand, according to St. Irenaeus, lived to a ripe old age, dying under the emperor Trajan, who reigned from 98-117 AD.
In John, we have an archetypal example of discipleship to look to as someone who is not a martyr but nevertheless drinks from the same cup of Jesus as the martyrs. Without in the least raising himself above the other disciples and evangelists, John will be the one whom Jesus loved, who sat at his side at the Last Supper and reclined his head on Jesus’ chest. He is the only one of the Twelve to be present under the Cross, alongside the Lord’s mother; he is the one of whom Jesus says to Peter after the Resurrection, “"What if I want him to remain until I come? What concern is it of yours? He is the one “caught up in spirit on the Lord’s Day on Patmos, who saw one like a son of man,” who “touched him with his right hand” and communicated to him for all the churches the vision of the Apocalypse. Not least, he is the one of the evangelists who can’t say enough what the others imply, that “God is love.”
All of this did not just happen, but I believe is the fruit and expression of a soul that has consistently handed itself over in unconditional love for the Lord and whom the Lord himself has freely chosen and regarded as fit to taste the full mystery of his suffering. I believe we get a glimpse of this at the Cross.
The Lord alone is capable of paying the ransom to free us from sin and death. The Lord must take the Cross on himself alone. John’s service to Jesus, to God, and to the Church is this acceptance of letting himself be drawn into the mystery of the Lord’s Cross and to taste the mystery of his suffering for all of us, of his loneliness and of his forsakenness. From the Cross, the Lord and John are present to one another and love one another as before, but they are unable to reach one another, unable to console one another. Present to one another, each must leave the other to bear his suffering alone. In his intimate love for the Lord and his experience of the separation of the Cross, John teaches us what he has learned, that these poles are inseparable and irreducible: glory and redemptive suffering. From this experience, I believe, flows everything that we have come to know as the Johannine heritage.
Let us drink deeply from this heritage and be drawn like James and John along the path of obedient service, that, in the words of St. Benedict, “having given up our own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience we may do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord,” who has given his life as a ransom for many.
At Spencer, as all through the ages, great care was taken that the monastic buildings be beautiful, to reflect the glory of God and draw the monk heavenward. The harmonious disposition of spaces was meant to express Saint Benedict’s vision of a harmonious community as presented in his Rule. And indeed for us Cistercians, this would mean in addition a certain austerity and visual sobriety expressed in unadorned interior spaces and non-figurative grisaille glass. Great attention was given to proportion and the effects of light on bare walls. Our Cistercian forebears believed the monastery should be a cloistered paradise - where the monk could regain the innocence of Adam and Eve in Eden before the Fall.
There was once a man living in an earthly paradise. Then one day, as the gentle breezes were blowing, the colorful birds flying, and the bees were busy buzzing, this man did something that changed everything. This man's name was James Leviticus Whittaker-Tate the 5th, Jamie for short. The earthly paradise was Hawaii. What Jamie did was he woke up; I can't say he got out of bed because he fell asleep on the sofa. What was staggering about Jamie waking up as he was stone-cold sober; Jamie was a rich party boy, living off his parent's dime in paradise. Jamie knew this sober situation had to be remedied. Jamie had lots of friends that would help him fix the unpleasant condition he found himself in. As he was about to call someone from his inner circle, he remembered, "Oh no, can't call him, he was in custody"'. Jamie figured he would try someone else and came up with another name, and he remembered, "Oh no, can't call her she's in rehab." Then Jamie thought, I know plenty of people who like to party and have a good time. As Jamie went down the list of comrades whom he considered close, he came to realize not one of them was available; everyone was either in jail, in rehab, or dead.
Jamie paused, and at that moment, that nanosecond, Jamie felt in a flash the clouds had parted and he was able to think clearly for the first time in years, God had given him a gift, God had given him a chance, God had given Jamie a choice. Jamie could go back to his old way of living, as he had been for a long time, and Jamie told stories of being 12 and 13 and not being able to sit up or stay awake in class because he was stoned. As I said, Jamie's family was wealthy, so he could afford to keep living the way he had, and his family was never going to come looking for him; as long as Jamie kept out of their hair, he could do what he pleased. Jamie never understood why he had received that moment of clarity, but he knew he had to choose.
Jamie was well off and living in paradise, but this is a story of a family not so well off and not living in paradise. This small family consisted of a mom and dad and two sons, and the family was living in a depressed area. With two sons and a wife to feed and provide for, the father decided it would be best to move to another location that was not experiencing the hardships that their region was, and so off they went.
Moving to a new area is never easy. Still, it can be challenging when the new region is so very different than the one you are leaving, with different backgrounds, different customs, different religions, and downright strange food, but what this little family had was their bond of family and the strength of belief in their God.
Things were not easy at first, but in time the locals accepted them and their strange ways. The young men became so much part of their new homeland they both married local girls and decided to raise families in the new surroundings they had settled in. They were all doing well with a bright future, with the anticipation of children, and that's when tragedy struck. The boys' fathers, the family's patriarch, died suddenly, and then both of the sons were struck down. So the mother and her two daughters-in-law were all left widows. The mother, whose name was Naomi decided it would be best for her to go back to her native land of Bethlehem in Judah; she did not want to stay in an alien land with no family, which now only held pain for her. Naomi told her daughters-in-law, Orpah, and Ruth, to return to their families; the women had no obligation to her as she was only their mother-in-law.
Orpah made the decision to go back to her clan; Ruth had to make the same decision to go back to the familiar, or forward with Naomi, into the unknown. Nothing is said about Ruth's life before marrying Naomi's son. Let's remember Naomi and her clan were from Judah and had unusual customs and worshiped a different God that Ruth had not known before. Maybe in Ruth's husband's family, she saw something she had not seen in her own. Perhaps the way her husband's family respected each other and interacted with other people and conducted their lives in general, and their relationship with this God of theirs was different from what she was used to, and Ruth liked it. Ruth made the decision not to go back to her old way of life. Ruth had been given a choice to make, she could do like her sister-in-law Orpah and go back to her old way of life, or she could go forward with Naomi to Bethlehem and Naomi's God.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, as the Jewish people were about to cross over into the Promised Land, Moses knowing he was not going to be allowed to cross the river, wanted to impart some fatherly advice to his people; Moses gave a lot of advice, but the key point of what he said was "I put before you, life and death, choose life." His people that had been on a journey for forty years, at this point, anyone who had been over the age of twenty when they left Egypt, was now dead, with the exceptions of Moses, Joshua and Caleb. The vast majority of the Jewish People had only known life of the road, and now they had to make a choice. They could go back to wandering, or they could move forward and cross the Jordan River, and change their lives forever and that of generations untold. When Moses says choose life, he meant a life being obedient to and loving God. But Moses never said it would be an easy choice or an easy life. Forward with God into the unknown or back to an old life, which might have been uncomfortable, but it was familiar. It is amazing how comfortable people can become with discomfort.
In today's gospel, we hear of a young who wants to be holier and grow closer to God, this young man has kept all the commandments and been faithful to his religion and his God, but he wants more; at some level, he realizes he is not satisfied with what the world has to offer. So, the young man asks Jesus what he should do. Jesus Christ gave this young man a choice; the young man had to make a decision. Go back to his old life, which even though it was luxurious, the rich young man could sense, could feel, he knew it lacked something, or he could give up what he owned and what he thought he was in charge of and go forward with God. As we all know, the young man chooses not to go forward with Jesus but stay with the familiar; maybe it would be too hard to change.
My friend Jamie took the chance God offered him and had been sober for decades and was busy sailing around the world with his wife and family. Ruth went into the unknown with Naomi, to her homeland and her Hebrew God, she was blessed with marriage, became the great grandmother of King David, and is part of the heritage of Jesus Christ. The Israelites said yes and put their slavery behind them. As far as the rich young man is concerned, I would like to think his story is not over; the tighter he holds on to his possessions, the less important and valuable they may become, he is young, and God has time on his side. The young man could still say yes to choose life.
We are all given the choice of saying yes to God. Rarely is it as dramatic as with Jamie, or Ruth, or the Hebrew people crossing the Jordan River, but it is saying yes to God not just once but again and again. For some, saying yes to God is a daily event, sometimes a couple of times in the course of a day, occasionally every hour, and every so often, it's done with every breath. God puts before you life and death; choose life. Today's homily by Deacon Brother Stephen.
We see it happening all over - a nostalgia “for a return to clear borders, settled truths,” a worldwide fear about what is not pure, what is other, different, or mixed. One commentator has named this phenomenon Anti-pluralism. It takes many shapes – “nationalism, authoritarian populism, and religious separatism;” “reactions against diversity, fluidity, and the interdependent nature of modern life.” There is a deepening division between people - left/right, red/blue, white vs black and every other color in between and now even vaccinated vs anti-vaxxers; divisions over race, gender, belief. This constant need to keep what is “other” and different far, far away. The network of relationships, connectedness, and trust that everything else relies on is unraveling.1
So it is that in today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis we are reminded, "It is not good for the man to be alone.” It is not good for us to be separate, not healthy, not holy. God envisions us connected; this will be good for us. God has created us incomplete and meant for connection. If marital commitment is its icon, then all friendships, communities, all relationships are meant to echo this love and connectedness that God envisions for us - together we are meant to mirror the loving relationship that God is - Trinity of Persons joined in constant mutual self-gift.
Such is the good news of God’s kingdom - we are not in this alone. We’re not supposed to be. God in Christ has promised to be with us always; and he is relentlessly calling us to be like God, to forget our stubborn pride and independence and learn how to accompany one another in love, speak the truth and seek it together, with utter focus and compassion. Why? Because human relationality is the bedrock of who we are.2
In today’s Gospel Jesus reaffirms the beauty and intimacy of marriage as sacred – it is God who has joined together man and woman to become “one flesh.” Divorce was most often, though not exclusively, the husband’s prerogative.3 And so in denouncing this dismissal, Jesus seems to highlight a woman’s frequent predicament; she could be sent away at her husband’s whim, (even, some rabbis taught, if she were a terrible cook.) Women and children were among the most vulnerable in Jesus’ time, but for him, they are the little ones who are able to receive the kingdom as free gift from God. They can be part of the kingdom because they can make no claim to it on the basis of their status or power.4 They are nobodies. But Jesus takes them seriously. And so, as he embraces little children in today’s Gospel, he reveals what God is like. God loves smallness, embraces it.
It is God our Father who has, in the first place, placed a Child in our midst, his own beloved Son, Jesus. And our union with God and one another has been accomplished through his flesh.5 This reality breaks through in all Jesus’ signs and healings. Jesus abolishes divisions and separation. Isolated outsiders – lepers, the lame, blind and deaf are all healed, the dead given life; and all sent back to those they love, back to family and community. And it is finally in his death on a cross, that the ugliness of our stupid divisions and divisiveness will be revealed and put to death in his wounded body. He e has reconciled us to himself and to one another once and for all.
As we prepared to enter this abbey, each of us can probably recall at least one friend or relative asking, “Why do have to go there to pray? What’s so special about a monastery; you can pray anywhere.” But we sensed it; we knew in our hearts that we needed a community. We needed to be with these people who did this “thing” together. How precious, how necessary, how good it is for us to be here - together in this place. Even when, or more especially when, all seems craziness or burden, when we hurt and disappoint and irk one another, even then, perhaps most of all then, we are invited to muster the humility, vulnerability, and forgiveness that are demanded of us, and understand that it would not be good for us to be alone. That my way is not as good as our way, that we are always better together than apart. It is good for us to be here, remembering the “incredible care we have for each other at the core of our being.”6
It is in community that we discover our need and loneliness over and over again. And, if we’re honest, we discover to our dismay and salvation our total incapacity to do this life alone. We see the beauty of our incapacity, the beauty of our insufficiency. We see how little we are when left to ourselves. Then it is that we become most truly like Jesus, then we become his beautiful, wounded body. Then perhaps we can persevere in hope, even if sometimes only a thread of hope, perhaps like the Cistercian martyr of Tibhirine, Blessed Luc, who was often overheard murmuring in the quiet darkness after Compline, “OK, Lord, I will give you one more day. Just one more.”
If we do not remember our essential goodness, our capacity to be more loving than we suspected, we are doomed. This is our only hope, our destiny. To be transformed, conformed to Christ, does not mean that we will immediately get better, holier, or nicer, but we will be opened to “the harrowing wonder and disequilibrium”7 of our desperate need for Christ Jesus and for one another.” Then at last we will be perfectly disposed to receive and to become Holy Communion.
Gnadenstuhl, in the Blutenburg chapel in Munich from 1491, by Johannes Polonus.  See David Brooks in The New York Times, 2018 & 2020.  Paul Kalanithi.  Mark, M. Eugene Boring.  John Donohue & Daniel Harrington, Sacra Pagina: Mark.  Robert Barron.  David Brooks.  Miriam Pollard.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
Jesus’ radical, seemingly ridiculous exhortation to us is meant to catch us off-guard. Jesus is speaking kingdom language here, spoken in the kingdom, that place where nothing whatever is more important than doing the Father’s will. So, Jesus speaks these crazy words to us: “Cut off your hand, your foot, poke out your eye if they cause you to sin.”
And the invitation is to get beyond the words, beyond the obvious, to the heart of his message - God’s desire for our absolute holiness. Jesus is teaching us that whatever impedes love and compassion must be eliminated at its root. It must be yanked out, cut off. He sets the bar higher and higher, demands that we go beyond ourselves. He expects so much of us, too much of us, demands a very high standard of excellence of us his disciples - like the teacher or the coach we loved and simultaneously found absolutely infuriating, who always expected more, who had such confidence in our abilities, who knew we could do it. “I won’t accept shoddy work from you. Take it back; do it over. You can do better. I want more. I expect more of you.”
Our initial response may well be: “You’ve got the wrong party. Sorry. It’s too much. You want too much. My heart is too small. I can’t.” His response, “Of course you can’t. We can, I can do it through you, with you, in you. I can stretch your heart wider than you ever imagined.”
Some years ago, my friend, John, was dating a plastic surgeon, who was interning at Boston Children’s Hospital. I remember her telling us about her work with little children in the burn unit. When children are terribly burned, their skin has to be replaced. She told us how doctors harvest tiny oblong patches of skin from hidden places on a kid’s body, under legs and arms, then take these teeny pieces of skin and make a series of alternating cuts on opposite sides of the pieces, so that the little patches of fresh skin can then be stretched open like little accordions and placed in the scarred areas. New skin grows in the gaps. It seemed wild, wonderful, ingenious to me; something small becoming wider in no time. Healing by cutting and stretching.
Maybe that’s what Christ wants to do with our tattered hearts if we let him in. Frankly, I wonder how available I am to this stretch, this conversion of heart that Jesus so desires. It’s awesome work; certainly, somewhat painful. But he promises that healing, hope, wholeness, and love will be accomplished through our availability to his skillful touch and cut and stretch. Jesus says to us, in other words, “Trust me. You can afford it.” And the good news is - if your heart has been broken open, the more little holes and slashes and old wounds you’ve sustained, the more stretchable your heart will be, and the easier his work will be. He can then make our hearts like his own Sacred Heart burning with love and mercy. “Just as we resemble Adam the man of the earth, all dust, so too, we are like the man from heaven" - Jesus our Lord" whose heart is big as all outdoors.
Baptized into Christ, we are bound to live in covenantal relationship with him and with one another, and to hold to the conviction that peace and love and reconciliation and tender mercy are "not far away things to hope for, but things we can do together now." We are bound to believe and proclaim that love is shown in deeds now. All those small cuts - small choices to love and defer and restrain our tongues and our judgments do matter; our faithfulness in little things has consequences far beyond what we could hope or imagine - far beyond the walls of this monastic enclosure because “those who love more can do more.” Love does stretch hearts wide open. We believe this because Love himself has shown us; Love himself has given himself away for us, to us on the cross and on this Table over and over again. Love never fails, never runs out, because a little bit of love freely given multiplies like crazy, because our tiny hearts in Love’s skillful hands can be stretched far beyond what we can possibly imagine.
Detail of fresco by Masaccio. Reflections by one of our monks.
Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
Mary the wheatsheaf, Christ the living Bread;
Mary the rose tree, Christ the Rose blood-red!
Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the mother’s Son.
Both ever blest while endless ages run. Amen.
Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Mary the Dawn, text by Paul Cross,1953 St. Pius X Hymnal.
The characteristic Cistercian habit is the white cowl which is given to the monk at his solemn profession. It is a sign of his consecration and of the unity of the whole Order. As he blesses the cowl during the rite of solemn profession the abbot prays to the Lord Jesus, "May its ample folds be for our brother a daily reminder of the freedom which he received in baptism. May its form of a cross remind him of the life he is to lead in following you, and may he be clothed entirely in your unutterable mercy."
The cowl is worn by the solemnly professed monks; the cloak is worn by novices and simply professed brothers. In the warmer months, we do not wear cowls or cloaks in church. But as mornings get chillier, we await the prior's announcement which appeared on the community bulletin board last evening: "Resume Cowls and Cloaks for Vigils, Lauds and Mass."
he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.” Mark 9
In the Incarnation, God has come down to us, to imitate us, his own creation and so himself become imitable in his lowliness, littleness. In Christ Jesus, our Lord, the Father has placed a dear Child, his only Son, in our midst to teach what God is really like.
And If we are to be "imitators of God as his own dear children"- it is now possible because God in Christ first imitated his parents at Nazareth. God's Word learned to speak words from listening to Joseph and Mary. The Creative Word learned the trade of carpentry from Joseph.
When we hear Jesus say, "I can only do what I see the Father doing," could it be that he thinks of Joseph as well as his Father in heaven? And when his heart is on the point of breaking and he says: "Into your hands, I commend my spirit," could it be that he is doing what Joseph did with Mary at Nazareth, just what Mary did at her Annunciation - placing his life in God's hands. Indeed, Jesus grew in wisdom and grace, his little heart formed at Nazareth, Christ Jesus empowered by the Father's love, by the love of Joseph with Mary, hands himself over.
How God wants to be ordinary. Christ’s life reveals this so plainly. And in all the accounts of his healings, what he is doing best of all is returning these once sick and isolated folks back to the ordinary. Jesus’ healing restores them to family, kinsfolk, and friends. They are no longer isolated by their maladies. Think of the lepers, the deaf and blind and crippled. Jesus gives them back to ordinariness. The deaf man he cures will, at last, be able to hear a friend say hello, hear her laugh; hear a breeze blow through the trees. He will, at last, be able to speak clearly, tell someone a story; whisper I love you. He can simply blend in again. Jesus has given him back to ordinariness, blessed ordinariness. It is after all where he always comes to meet us. We know that.
God only wants to be ordinary and small. It is why Jesus has come, he is God with us, near us, in us. The ordinary is charged forever with his kind, incessant presence. God longs to be ordinary, not taken for granted, but here, always here with us. Why else would he choose to be a child, why else a carpenter and a wandering teacher? Why else allow himself to be done in by thugs and jealous bureaucrats? Why else choose to be hidden in a morsel of bread on our altar? In Christ Jesus, God Most High has come down to serve us and care for us and teach us to go and do likewise.
Photograph by Brother Brian.
This morning’s Gospel contains one of Jesus’ hardest sayings: “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 and that of the gospel will save it.” This is one of those passages most of us could do without. We prefer passages like “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest,” or “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Those are comfortable, safe passages, words that provide some cushion in a sharp and often frightening world. But “deny yourself and take up your cross”?
When Jesus predicts his own death for the first time, Peter rebukes him. In Matthew’s version, Peter even explodes: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Peter has a way of saying what the rest of us are thinking, and here he is trying to dissuade Jesus from walking right into a trap set for him in Jerusalem, where he will suffer and be killed. Peter can’t imagine his wise, young teacher coming to such a quick and bloody end, especially an end that can be avoided. So he basically protests: “Why take a risk you do not have to take? Can’t you skip this trip to Jerusalem and find another way to save the world? There has to be another way!” And then, what a shock it must have been for the other disciples to hear Jesus call Peter “Satan” (he, the first disciple and rock upon which Jesus builds his church). Recall that in one of the earliest teachings recorded in the Gospels Jesus tells his followers, metanoiete, which could be literally rendered as “go beyond the mind that you have” or “change your way of thinking.” In the wake of Peter’s rebuke, Jesus says something very similar: “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
So what precisely is the difference between these two frames of reference? To think in the human way is to follow an instinct toward self-protection. To think in the divine way is to follow an instinct toward self-donation. The old mind flees from the cross, but the new mind seeks it out. Do we want to save our lives, or do we want to give them away? Everything that we say and do will be conditioned ultimately by the way in which we answer that fundamental question. The Gospel this morning tells us in a dramatic way that to follow Jesus, to have his mind, means to enter into his death, that is, to accept the essential poverty/emptiness of our human existence, for a purpose beyond ourselves—actually, for a quality life of depth and scope and heft otherwise unattainable.
Barbara Brown Taylor has an interesting take on this scene (found in all three Synoptic Gospels).
The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words in this passage is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not really living at all. The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words is that the way to have abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and saved any more than fresh spring water can be put in a mason jar and kept in a kitchen cupboard. It will remain water, and if you ever open it up you can probably still drink it, but it will have lost its essence, its life, which is to be poured out, to be moving, living water, rushing downstream to share its wealth without ever looking back. Peter did not want Jesus’ life to be spilled, to be wasted. He wanted to save it, to preserve it, to find a safer, more comfortable way for Jesus to be Lord. But he missed the part: “and on the third day be raised”—that after the suffering and death there is life again, abundant life, life for Jesus and for all of us, life that can never be cut off.
Jesus tells us this morning, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Those will never be easy words to hear, but they are, in the final analysis, an invitation to follow him into life, both now and later on. We all know that there is a certain amount of pain involved in being human, and a good bit more involved in being fully human, fully alive. Jesus felt it all. His enemies counted on his fear of death to shut him up and shut him down, but they were wrong. He surely was afraid (we have only to think of his agony in Gethsemane and on the Cross until his last breath), but he did not let his fear stop him from giving himself over to the Father and to us. Self-donation, not self-protection. He lived only from and for his Father and saw himself only in this relationship. The Father’s will was the motive force of his life. He had nothing of his own, everything was received. And so it must be for us.
One final thought. When Jesus freely embraced his Cross, we know that he really took up all of our “crosses”—and in so doing gave us an example to follow. In other words, life in Christ is not a matter of only embracing our own cross freely, but especially the crosses of others. I was struck by this in reading the following observation by Caryll Houselander about Simon of Cyrene:
Simon of Cyrene saw only three criminals (of whom Christ was one) on the way to die. He could not know until he had taken up the stranger’s cross, that in it was the secret of his own salvation….We must be ready to carry the burden of anyone whom we meet on our way and who clearly needs help. Everyone is our ‘business,’ and Christ in everyone, potentially or actually, has a first claim on us, a claim that comes before all else. We are here on earth to help to carry the cross of Christ, the cross of the Christ hidden in other human beings, and to help in whatever way we can. We may, like Simon, have literally a strong arm to give, we may help to do hard work; we may have material goods to give; we may have time, which we desperately want for ourselves but which we can sacrifice for Christ. Or we may have only suffering. Suffering may well be the most precious coin of all. Suffering of body, suffering of mind, paid down willingly for Christ in others, enables him to carry his redeeming cross through the world to the end of time.
More often than not we may realize, uncomfortably, that we aren’t up to “losing our life” in order to gain it; that taking up our cross, let alone those of others, is beyond us, too risky. In moments of ingrained self-protection and fear of going beyond the limits of our own comfort and safety, perhaps we can make St. Augustine’s prayer our own, as a first step in humble yet confident faith. He prays in the Confessions:
You will carry us from when we are little until our hairs grow gray. When our strength is from you, we are strong. When our strength is our own, we are weak. Life with you is the good life indeed. When we live apart from you, our life is a twisted life. Let us come home to you, Lord, lest we be lost. Life with you is a life in which nothing is lacking because you are life. We do not fear that there is no home to turn to. We may have turned away from it. But it remains. It did not fall because we fell away. Our home is your eternal life.
Photograph of Canadian geese in the Abbey fields by Brother Brian. Sunday's homily by Father Dominic.
The 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich recorded the following vision: “I understood Christ's passion as the greatest and overwhelming pain. And yet it was revealed to me in an instant, and then it quickly became a consolation. For our good Lord would not have us frightened by this ugly sight... but because of the tender love which our good Lord has for each of us, he comforts us readily and sweetly. And the meaning is this: It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well. These words were revealed most tenderly, showing no kind of blame to me or anyone...”
No blame. Taught so well and so often that difficult was better - you know, no guts, no glory; no pain, no gain; taught that there is no easy grace - the readiness of Christ's forgiveness may embarrass us. Like Saint Peter when Jesus wants to wash his feet, the sense of Jesus' condescension can be disorienting. But his passion and resurrection are all about love and mercy not blaming. This is what Julian of Norwich will call in another passage Jesus' "courtesy." It is true we are unworthy; his love alone makes us worthy, and so all will truly be well.
Seeing the wounded Jesus, and at the same time acknowledging my own stubbornness and stupidity, which is to say my own woundedness, how could I ever withhold forgiveness, or judge another. If Jesus in his agony could forgive his persecutors, forgive that poor thief writhing on the cross next to him, if he could take back his loser apostles after his resurrection, if he is always so ready to mercy me, who am I ever to withhold forgiveness or nurse a grudge? “Peace,” he says to us, and he breathes on us. Too much has happened, but forgiveness is worth it, love is worth it.