Sep 15, 2012

24th Sunday - The mark of a disciple


Hill of Crosses - Lithuania
"Whoever wishes to come after me . . . must take up his cross and follow."

Is 50: 4 -9
Jm 2: 14-18
Mk 8: 27-35
In the northern part of the Lithuanian countryside stands a shrine called the “Hill of Crosses.” Of all the three Baltic States, Lithuania suffered the most from the 70 years of Communist oppression.  Likely due to its strategic location but even more to its strong Catholic identity.  Like Poland, more than 90% of the population are Catholic. 

The Hill of Crosses, even to this day, has become a symbol both of faith and defiance. Covering acres of gentle rolling hills in the green country side are what is likely millions of crosses of all sizes, shapes and styles.  They were placed there by faith filled citizens of the Country originally as an act of defiance against an oppressive occupying government which did all they could to stamp out the practice of the Catholic faith. Three times the Communist government mowed down the crosses and three times they reappeared until the oppressors finally gave up. 

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the Baltic States were once again free, more crosses than ever have been placed on the hills.  There are pathways which wander through the dense mountain of crosses and you can reflect not only on its unique cultural beauty but even more on how willing the Lithuanians, like so many others oppressed by atheistic control, were willing to pick up their crosses and carry them.

In our Gospel this Sunday (Mk 8: 27-35) we hear Jesus say: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me . . .” How often have we heard this basic challenge of Jesus to all Christians who would be his followers.  Placed in the context of Jesus’ words to Peter and the other Apostles this Sunday, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly . . . and be killed, and rise after three days . . .” the mandate that suffering has a certain meaning and purpose when endured and accepted for a higher purpose.  In Jesus’ case it was salvation for humankind.  In our case, in can be a road to grace, character formation, spiritual discipline, and ultimate union with God in heaven. But, what a price to pay we say. Yet, the cross is the indispensable sign of Christianity.

In the Gospel, Peter proclaims that Jesus is “the Christ.” This is Marks version of the more expanded conversation that Jesus has with Peter when he proclaims, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God . . .” (Mt 16: 16) and Jesus entrusts the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to him – the scriptural foundation of the Papacy. But then, as in Mark, he qualifies the meaning of Messiah as one who must bring change and redemption through suffering – the Paschal mystery as we call it.

In support of the Gospel, our first reading from Isaiah presents the image of the suffering servant: “. . . I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard, my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting . . .” This decidedly Good Friday imagery foreshadows Jesus words that his mission is to embrace the Cross for humankind.  As we see in the intrepid Lithuanians, he is determined to plant his cross on the hillside of Calvary. 

One perspective of all this is to leave him there alone.  This was something only God could do and so Jesus’ cross is solely his. But it is clear from the Gospel that his cross and our “cross” is meant to be connected.  We live in our very self-reliant, independent culture.  The “self-made man” still lives as a sign of success although we may not speak in that direct manner. But in the ancient Middle Eastern culture of Jesus’ day, one’s identity is measured by the group one is attached to. In that group loyalty is demanded and leadership is established.

We all belong to a group called the Catholic Church.  In that same group, a certain loyalty is expected and leadership has been established since the time of Jesus.  While there is certainly a measure of independence due to our differing personalities and viewpoints, in the end we all must make the same decision the Apostles themselves had to make when they heard Jesus refer to Peter: “Get behind me Satan . . .” Tough and painful words to be sure.

Peter’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission and his more worldly perspective as to the meaning of success for Jesus is at the root of our Lord’s rebuke: “You are thinking . . . as human beings do.” It seemed that Jesus’ message to Peter was, “Either you change your attitude or go back to fishing!”  Ouch!

But our cross is Jesus’ cross or so it can be for us; albeit with less suffering but nonetheless tough to endure at times.  I recently heard from a parishioner that a friend of hers told her his daughter had recently discovered the child in her womb had died.  Only a woman and mother could understand such pain and disappointment.  That is a cross she has been asked to carry.

Many these days find themselves in search of employment.  Their financial future is uncertain, their self-image is injured, their families are fearful of future security.  That too is a cross many have been asked to carry.

Our good health is sometimes taken for granted until we are suddenly faced with weakness.  That cross is not uncommon by any means.  And on it goes in each of our lives.

Are we with Peter? Are we somehow confused about the purpose of our crosses – “Why would this happen to me?” 

Yet, it is through the passion and suffering of Our Lord that God brought glory and resurrection.  Only in the face of suffering, in whatever form we find ourselves, can we come to know the power of God and attach ourselves, as members of the Christian-Catholic family, as loyal sons and daughters of our suffering and glorified Christ.
Upon what hill will you place your cross?