Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time – June 20, 2010 – Blessed Sacrament
Our Gospel passage gives us food for thought. It places us before the question that Jesus poses to his disciples: After they have said what other people are saying about Jesus; he asks them, point-blank: “Who do you say that I am?” This is the question on which the whole of Christianity rests: Christians say something about Jesus of Nazareth that other people do not say. Peter’s answer is a simple one, reflecting the earliest stages, when the disciples themselves were looking for categories into which they could place this man whom they had begun to follow. “You are the Christ of God,” Peter says. “The Christ of God” means “God’s Messiah,” the long-awaited heir of King David who would save and restore Israel. Later Peter and other early Christians, in the light of their further experiences of Jesus, particularly the dramatic, even traumatic, experience of his death and resurrection, would come up with other names and titles: Lord, Savior, even Son of God. And these and other names would be the ones with which, throughout the centuries, generations of the Church would answer Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” In a few minutes we will ourselves give our reply, when we recite the Creed together.
But the incident does not end there. Jesus goes on immediately to give the first prediction of his passion and death. This surely was not what Peter and the other disciples had in mind when they began to entertain the thought that Jesus might be the Messiah. A suffering and dying Messiah was not within the horizon of their expectations. In part, surely, this was because they knew that for them to continue following Jesus was to be likely to face themselves the same kind of opposition that he was predicting he would face. To follow him was to follow him on a path that ended in Calvary.
And in fact that is what Jesus goes on to make clear to them. He is not satisfied with Peter’s confession of faith. Something more will be required: “If anyone wishes to come after me,” he says, “he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” The brutal fate that Jesus encountered when he was tried, convicted, and executed was now a metaphor for what his disciples must willingly accept for themselves. To be a Christian was to carry the cross, and to do this not once and for all, but every day: “Take up his cross daily,” Jesus says. The decision to be a Christian is one that has to be renewed every day, and to accept whatever it costs is the challenge of every day.
It is important to recognize that this is not a glorification of pain and death. It does not mean that we should go out and look for ways in which to mortify ourselves, in other words, to carry crosses of our own making. It does mean, however, not fleeing from suffering if that is required in order to be faithful to our discipleship, to keep on stumbling after Jesus. The most important crosses that we are to bear are ones that we don’t choose: the illness of a child; Alzheimer’s in a parent; the loss of a job; a debilitating disease; betrayal by a friend; even the knowledge of one’s own betrayal of another; and so on. You can add to the list, and perhaps you are thinking of one particular cross you are having to carry at the moment, or that some friend or relative is having to carry.
Jesus’ words do not glorify these experiences of evil, and they do not turn evil into good. But the knowledge that the supreme evil that Jesus himself experienced was transformed by his love into the supreme good that is our salvation motivates in the Christian the conviction that, as St. Paul put it: “There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.” The path of discipleship does indeed lead to Calvary; but Christians believe that Calvary was not the last word to be spoken about Jesus of Nazareth. The last word is the message of the angel on Easter morning: “He is not here; he is risen.” In his triumph over death is given the promise and the hope that every evil short of death, and even death itself, can be overcome in our lives, too. The shadow of the cross may fall over our lives, but it is not so thickly dark that it can withstand the glorious light of his resurrection. The journey that Jesus traveled, and the one he asks us to travel, ends not on Good Friday, but on Easter Sunday.