Psalms 1:1-2, 3, 4, 6
St. Ignatius' roommate, at the University of Paris, was the fastest runner on campus, one Francis Xavier. It seems that Francis was on the fast track in other ways as well, and his buddy got into the routine of bugging him periodically by whispering in his ear, "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and, in the end, loses his soul?" Eventually, the fast guy slowed down enough to allow is roommate to take him through a prayer format that he called "spiritual exercises." This led Francis to make a radical choice to follow Jesus. That choice eventually led him to the far eastern frontiers of the Christian mission--India and Japan.
That saying about the radical choice for Jesus turns up in Luke's version as today's Gospel reading. In fact, all three of the selections chosen for this second day of Lent portray the either/or quality of one's response to God. Two of the readings are from the Hebrew Scriptures. The first is from a speech of Moses addressing the Hebrew people as they are about to enter the promised land. Living the covenant law, he says, will bring an abundant life; failing to live out the covenant relationship (with God and fellow Hebrews) will mean death, pure and simple.
The responsorial verses from the first Psalm portray that same choice with powerful images. The person who chooses to soak up the revelation of God is like a tree planted near running water producing abundant fruit. The person who chooses to live otherwise is like . . . what? The poet can't even use an image of a living thing for that one. Such a person is compared to dead husks--chaff that the wind scatters.
But Jesus' words in the Gospel have an edge that cuts even deeper. "Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross daily, and follow me." These days, we readily apply the idea of carrying the cross to virtually every challenging thing that comes into one's life--from sickness to a computer crash to a difficult relative. Granted the validity of such applications, is that at the heart of what Jesus is speaking about?
I suspect not. In Jesus' day, the point of a convict carrying the cross-piece through the streets of Jerusalem prior to undergoing the Roman death penalty by crucifixion was not the burden of the wood or the abrasion of the flesh. The point was shaming. A convict carrying the crossbeam on the way to Skull Place was a person marked for public dishonor. Such a person was targeted for taunting, kicking and spitting. So, even before Jesus' own crucifixion, his word about carrying the cross would have made sense to his audience. He was saying in effect, "Follow me and you are going to be shamed and dishonored along the way. For I stand for a way of life that the world in general rejects.
Suffering in the New Testament is apostolic not pathological.
"Carrying the cross" in our day still means making a choice to stand for
what Jesus stands for, even at the risk of rejection. Being thoroughly
honest, nonviolent, in solidarity with the poor, consistently pro-life--all
these things represent choices that rarely entail physical suffering.
But eventually, almost always, they lead to the kind of rejection that
fits the ancient image of crossbearing. This has nothing to do with
self-hate, and everything to do with the love choice of following Jesus.
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