Most of those who are here today know that this is my first Sunday back after a two-month sabbatical. It is good to be back! I owe an enormous amount of gratitude to many inside and outside this room who did all kinds of things and took on all kinds of responsibilities that allowed me to be away. Thank you, all.
A lot of my time away was spent looking at and learning more about art, places, and communities that I had read about, but never met in person. One of those places that I was able to visit just a few days ago was the Catacombs of Priscilla just outside the old city walls of Rome. Early Christians buried their dead in caves or catacombs. The volcanic rock carves easily and when exposed to air, it hardens. And so, there are multiple levels of niches in which corpses were laid. Many of the surfaces around the tombs were decorated with Christian images and some of these are among the very first Christian symbols—in the case of the Catacombs of Priscilla—symbols carved or painted into frescos from the second through the fourth centuries after the death of Christ.
There in the catacombs, one can see the symbol of the anchor used as a popular Christian symbol. Jonah is there, pictured emerging from the belly of a beast, as a symbol of the resurrection. The sign of the fish is there, as is the symbol of the Greek letters Chi and Rho, symbolizing the name of Christ. There are phoenixes rising from flames, a pagan image adopted by early Christians. And there is what is thought to be one of the very first images of the Good Shepherd.
But there are no crosses. This might seem strange at first, but remember that this was 2nd to 4th centuries. The cross was still fresh in the minds of Christians as an instrument of torture and pain. There was nothing beautiful about it. The cross as a Christian symbol of resurrection and hope didn’t begin to appear until the 5th century.
We are so used to seeing crosses as decoration, as jewelry, as architecture, that it’s easy for us to miss the shock-value of the cross. And yet, it’s THAT cross—shocking, scandalous, and yet liberating, that Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel.
Today’s scriptures invite us to think about the cross, and to think about our own cross—but not in the sense of a personalized rosary or a necklace or even the kinds of everyday burdens we might lightly refer to as “our cross to carry.” Instead the cross in today’s scriptures has to do with service, with discipleship, and with sacrifice.
We make the sign of the cross. We walk the Stations of the Cross. We wear crosses, but the scriptures today invite us to think about what part the Cross really plays in our lives.
The cross casts a shadow over today’s Gospel. Jesus gathers the multitudes with the disciples and explains that the “Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” When Jesus speaks of the “Son of Man,” his audience would have known what he meant. But they would not have thought the Son of Man would ever be someone who could suffer. In fact, the Son of Man was imagined to be just the opposite: someone who never suffered. Someone who was never rejected. And so, after Jesus explains that this Messiah-figure will have to suffer, Peter speaks up and says what is probably already on everyone else’s mind.
We don’t have Peter’s exact words, we’re just told that Peter takes Jesus aside and tries to clean up Jesus’ presentation a little bit. Peter must have wondered if there surely wasn’t a more compelling way for Jesus to motivate the crowds.
Jesus couldn’t be allowed to suffer—that didn’t make any sense. After all Peter and the other disciples have invested a lot in Jesus—he can’t let them down.
The disciples have left everything—families, jobs, positions, futures, and now Jesus is asking them even to give up their ideas and hopes for Jesus and his kingship. But here, Jesus speaks of failure. He speaks of death and the cross.
If Peter was surprised at the way Jesus talked, he must have been even more surprised by the way Jesus snaps at him. Jesus says harshly, “Get behind me,” and then he calls Peter “Satan.” “Satan,” the tempter, the accuser. Last week we read how Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert, tempted to take the easy way out, tempted to avoid difficulty, tempted to dodge suffering.
But Jesus goes further in sharing his vision of the future. He tells those gathered around him that not only will HE have to suffer, but that the suffering will be a part of their lives as well, if they follow him.
If one is faithful, there will be suffering. Suffering does not need to be looked for or sought after, it will come all on its own.
The suffering Jesus points to here is a specific kind of suffering. He points to the kind of suffering that happens whenever we live our lives dangerously, in faith. Suffering comes when we are passionate for Christ because of the way in which Jesus Christ clashes with so many of the ways of this world.
For us to take up our cross, or as Luke’s gospel has it, “to take up our cross daily,” implies movement. To take up our cross, implies action. It carries with it intention, energy, creativity, and resourcefulness. It is a way of describing how we are called to move through life.
In order to “take up” our cross, we will probably have to put something down. For me to pick up a load of books, I have to put down whatever else I am carrying. It works that way in other areas of our lives. If I want to read more, I will have to watch less television.
If I’m going to spend 15 minutes every morning in silence or prayer, then I have to give up 15 minutes of sleep. If one pledges to spend more time with family, with a spouse or partner, one will have to come home from work on time, or perhaps even settle for a lower-paying job.
Taking up our cross means that we try to act in ways that reflect the love of Christ to others. It means that we care for the kinds of people Jesus cared for. It means that we try to speak truth in ways that Jesus spoke it. It means that we try to love God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
We never know when or how we might be called to take up our cross, and so it makes sense for us to hold on to everything else with a loose grip. To hold on to things loosely. If we hold on to things too tightly to money or clothes or food– we won’t have hands available to help carry a cross, or to help feed and help others.
If we hold on too tightly to other people—holding on only to those we care about, those who are close to us—we may miss the opportunity for easing the burden of others. If we hold on to certain beliefs or ideas or perspectives too tightly, we may miss the opportunity and the timing to take up a cross; to take up our cross.
Jesus shows us what a life of living lightly looks like. St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, in words that are read on Palm Sunday, encourages us to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.
We should hold on to the things of this life, and indeed, to life itself, with a light touch, a light grip, easily, gently and gracefully. But even when we take up our cross, we even hold on to it lightly, because we it really won’t be we who are holding it, at all, since Jesus has promised, that to those who come to him weighed down, tired and heavily burdened, he will give refreshment and rest. His yoke is easy and his burden light.
One of my favorite new images of the cross is one I have seen several times over the last week or so. It’s an image of a cross on a bronze door do the Church of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs very near the main train station in Rome. The new doors were made just in 2006 by a polish artist named Igor Mitoraj. The image I like so much is of a person’s face and torso, emerging out of the door. But the face and body have space cut into them in the form of a cross.
It’s an unusual image, startling and beautiful at the same time because it pictures someone living out the cross of Christ. The person looks as if he or she is leaving the church, going outside the door to carry the liberating message of the cross into the world. It’s not a cross hidden away on an altar or preserved in a reliquary, but outward leaning and leading—just like Christ.
Especially in this season of Lent, may we allow God to loosen our grip a little. And may we be strengthened to do our part in helping to transform the cross of suffering into a cross of glory and new life. And may we come to know what it feels like to have the cross of Christ written on our bodies, as we share his message with the world.
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen