Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)
We all have crosses. And indeed, as Franciscan penitents, we are exhorted to take the words of Christ to heart and live them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24) Knowing that this is our call and living it, however, are two different matters. How often, when a cross is given to us, do we turn our faces, pray for deliverance, tell the Lord, “Not this cross, Lord. It is much too heavy for me! I will carry a cross, just not this one.” How fickle and frail we are! I was struggling last week with a cross of my own when I felt led to pick up the writings of Luisa Piccarreta. Here is what I read:
Isaiah 12:3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Global tensions are on a seemingly exponential uptick. Yet the utter importance of joy has been coming to me again and again. The above Scripture passage can be read in two ways, a passive way and an active way. The passive way implies that joy is what we are filled with after we are saved. Very true. But the active reading of this passage tells us that joy can also be the “bucket” we can use to draw water from the wells of salvation. Joy therefore becomes an instrument of salvation in the hand of the Christian.
Matthew 26:39 My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.
In some Christian circles, any form of suffering, especially if it follows a good deed, is seen as an “attack”. But, I think we do God a disservice if we are too quick to attribute these things to the evil one. I have often thought of what Sirach says about suffering:
“My child, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. Be sincere of heart, be steadfast, and do not be alarmed when disaster comes. Cling to him and do not leave him, so that you may be honoured at the end of your days. Whatever happens to you, accept it, and in the uncertainties of your humble state, be patient, since gold is tested in the fire, and the chosen in the furnace of humiliation.” [Sirach 2:1-5]
Read this again: “If you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal.” How many of us know the truth of this first-hand! St. Theresa of Avila, once complained to the Lord about a trial she was undergoing, to which Jesus replied, “Teresa, that’s how I treat all my friends.” Teresa responded, “No wonder you have so few of them.”
Matthew 24:42 Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
Most people in the secular world—and many believers as well—are afraid of death. Certainly a good deal of money is spent in first world countries in an attempt to live longer and put off the inevitable. In the past, some people even experimented with cryogenics so that they could be frozen in the instant after (or even before) death and thawed out once a cure was discovered for whatever had killed them. There is always a buck to be made off people’s desire to avoid death.
I recently watched a series of short videos by Jeff Cavins on the Rabbi-Disciple Relationship*. In the last video of the series, Cavins quotes Archbishop Fulton Sheen as saying that the reason we’re so afraid of dying is that “we have not practiced for it.” It is not difficult to picture Archbishop Sheen saying that, with his characteristic twinkle. But what did he mean?
Luke 21:9-19 When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky. “Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
The Mass readings in November are somber in tone—dire even. The fact that the month preceding Advent offers Mass readings that are meant to shake us up, is an annual reminder that followers of Christ should guard against getting too comfortable; the Lord, through the Church, is warning us against complacency. We are not meant for this world and so the world will necessarily hate us. I heard a bishop say once that if you’re fitting in quite well with the world, you’re doing it wrong! Those of us striving to live “in the world, but not of it” would do well to check ourselves often. The pull of the world is subtle; before we know it, we can be pulled under! We must remain vigilant!
However, if we only look at the warnings in the November readings we are missing something crucial. Read again the last half of the above Scripture passage. The Lord is promising to be with us in all our trials in a powerful way. He promises wisdom to confound our persecutors; he promises the greatest reward of all for what we suffer in his name—eternal life with him.
Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten (lepers) made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18)
Here in Canada, since our harvest comes earlier, we celebrate Thanksgiving in October. I once heard a priest say something very challenging in his Thanksgiving homily. Essentially he said that gratitude to God is more important than any other pious act—including prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Many of us have come to the BSP in response to a felt call to increased prayer and fasting. Sometimes it is easy to feel that if we live the rule to the best of our ability, we have done what we should. But if our practice does not flow from a grateful heart, even if we manage to live the Rule perfectly, our sacrificial gifts will carry the stench of ingratitude. How can God be pleased?
…Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-4)
As each day passes I hear of more and more people of faith being asked to carry heavy crosses. I believe this cross-ifying will intensify as the Year of Mercy draws to a close. What is the connection?
“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.” (Baruch 5:1)
These days there seems to be a superabundance of sorrow and affliction. Conflict seems never to be far away. Weariness pervades. Psalm 13 says it all:
How long, LORD? Will you utterly forget me?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day?
How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)
“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39)
I have read that the cross is the inheritance of Christians, the great treasure he has left us in his Last Will. Yet, being human as he was, when faced with our own Gethsemane, we most often echo his words that this cup of suffering might pass us by. Sometimes, the Lord answers our prayer and removes our trial. But there are times, as with Jesus, when the Father asks us to enter into his will, to trust him on this, that there are bigger things at play than we know about. It is at these times that we are asked to embrace suffering as a gift, as a measure and promise of our “sonship”.
(This article was originally written a few years ago in Advent. However, the message certainly has new relevance today.)
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
Advent is given to us as a season of joyful hope. The Christian world anticipates the birth of the Incarnate Word along with Mary, Joseph, and the entire heavenly court. As Christians, we are called to clothe ourselves in the attitude of joyful hope. It is expected. However, the reality may be somewhat different.
Certainly, the daily news gives us little reason to hope, and if our life circumstances have taken a turn for the worse recently, the joyful anticipation of Christmas may seem a distinct impossibility. How can we celebrate when our hearts are broken, our homes are torn to pieces, or our lives are shattered? If we feel bogged in the miry clay in the lowest crevice of the valley of tears, just putting one foot in front of the other requires a miracle. Joy? It can seem as faint and fleeting as the morning mist.