|Giotto's Crucifixion scene in Assisi|
Psalm 63:2-6, 8-9
I love being Catholic. From the two-thousand years of history, the sacraments, and an incredibly rich theology, to the devotional life, social outreach and communal life, there is so much to love about our faith. But one of the things that I love most about being Catholic is the Crucifix. That visible reminder that Jesus died for me and that I am called to die to myself for others. The crucifix is the sign of what we ought to strive for ever day as Christians.
Last weekend we heard Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus “ You are the Christ, the Son of God!” The Lord’s response is one of affirmation, that He is indeed the Christ, and that Peter is the one upon whom His Church shall be built. There is a beautiful parallel here. We have often heard that the Church is the Body of Christ and this is absolutely true. We continue the work He Himself began 2000 years ago. And the beauty is that last week as Jesus’ own identity as the Christ is revealed, so too the identity of His Body, the Church, is revealed as a means to salvation also. To sum it up – if it happens to Christ, it happens to the Church.
This weekend we this theme of revelation continued. Immediately following last week’s account of Peter’s profession we hear Matthew telling us that the Lord revealed that He must suffer, be killed and be raised up again. He told them that suffering was absolutely necessary for Himself. And as Christ, so the Church. Thus Jesus continues, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” MUST deny himself. It’s not a suggestion. It’s not a strong encouragement. It’s a requirement. We MUST deny ourselves and pick up our cross to follow the Lord.
Every one of us has a cross to bear. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that all of us have a number of crosses to bear. Some small, some greater. It may be physical or mental limitation, emotional or spiritual suffering, the burden of caring for others or some cross which we’ve taken up ourselves. But the reality is that all of us have a cross and it is by carrying that cross in the path Christ walked before us that we are assured of our salvation.
One of the things that I love about being Catholic is that I know I’m not alone, but that millions or billions of saints have tread the path before and we can turn to them to learn how to bear our cross and to find encouragement in them. I’m certain that whatever cross we might be called to bear and any trial we are asked to endure, there is someone who has done it before and that person, now a saint in heaven, is praying for us as we strive to follow the command of the Lord.
One of my favorite saints is St. Philomena, a virgin martyr from around the 3rd century. At 13 years of age, she had consecrated her virginity to Christ forever. The Roman emperor, however, wanted to take her as his wife. When she refused, she was whipped severely. They also shot arrows at her and tried to drown her in the Tiber River. And in the midst of all of this, she patiently bore the cross of persecution out of love for Christ and His Church. She ultimately won the crown of martyrdom because she bore her cross with courage.
Usually on the 28th of August the Church celebrates the memorial of St. Augustine. Though not a martyr, he too endured great trials and suffering. A licentious youth, he sought fulfillment in fleshly pleasures and led a life compelled by lust. In the process of his conversion and afterward, he had to endure the perpetual temptations to return to that former way of life. He bore the cross of temptations and attachment to sin. And because he carried that cross well, he has stood as a model of conversion for millions through the Church’s history.
Closer to our own day we have the great witness of Blessed John Paul II. As Pope, he lived a vibrant life and certainly brought a youthfulness to the papacy that hadn’t been seen in many years. But one of the greatest gifts he gave to the Church was his witness of suffering. In his final years, and especially in his final days, he endured great physical trials and suffering. And yet, he boldly marched forward as a sign to the whole world that we ought not run from trials but embrace them as a means to growth in holiness and joy.
And while he’s not a saint of the Church, I believe him to be a living saint, Pope Benedict XVI provides us another type of witness. As a Cardinal, he has worked for many years in service to the Church and was at the age of retirement. He longed to simply find a place of solitude so he could write books he had been hoping to write for years and to live a quiet existence. And yet the Holy Spirit made it such that he was asked to set aside all of his hopes, dreams, and desires and lead the Church as Pope. The cross was offered to him; and heeding the words of Our Lord, he denied Himself and he took up that cross.
I was watching the closing Mass for the World Youth Day in Madrid Spain and it was a very touching thing to see. Two million youth there at the Mass and in the midst, Pope Benedict, clearly aging and becoming weaker from the burdens he bears. And while he certainly doesn’t have the voice of an angel, to hear him chant the prayers and pray the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass was awesome. I couldn’t stop watching because I was so drawn to this man who was visibly bearing the cross in the sight of the entire world, for love of Christ and His Church.
From these holy men and women of ages past and those who are in our midst today, even in the pews around us, we can find great strength and encouragement in heeding that call ourselves. Be they small crosses or large ones, we are not alone. We can turn to others for encouragement, ask the saints in Heaven to pray for us, and see in their lives a concrete witness of how to bear the cross well. But most of all, turn to Our Lord because as promised, His grace is sufficient for us to do all that He asks. We need only ask for it and our prayer will be granted.