Skip to main content

The Three-dimensional Cross

By 8 September, 2019January 3rd, 2023Gospel and reflection
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by f. Luis Casasús, General Superior of the Idente missionaries.

Madrid, September 08, 2019, Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Book of Wisdom 9: 13-18; Letter to Philemon 1: 9-10.12-17; Saint Luke 14: 25-33.

Every major project starts with estimation of cost. Being a disciple of Jesus is a major project that must start with a balancing of account and a spiritual budgeting. Just as a company planning on a massive building project or a country planning on a siege of war, a would-be disciple is faced with the challenge of planning ahead because definitely it will cost dearly.

This is not difficult to understand. But when we think about ourselves, our reasoning is uncertain. We search for life, not death. We want to avoid what makes us suffer and the cross, unfortunately, does not evoke the idea of salvation. The logic of the cross is not that of the world. Man is born and grows to assimilate that of the world. We do not immediately aspire to pain, but love. However, when love is “lived up to the end” (Jn 13:1) has life as its fruit. That’s why the cross, from a sign of death, becomes the symbol of life.

Until the end of the 3rd century, the Christian symbols were the anchor, the fisherman, the fish but never the cross. It will only be from the 4th century, with the famous discovery of the instrument of execution of Jesus by St. Helena, that the cross will become the symbol of victory on death and all those that cause death. To choose the cross is to choose life. But it is not easy to understand.

This explains why today’s Readings include the Book of Wisdom where we learn that although we spend our lives seeking the answer to the questions about the meaning of life, it is only through faith and trust that we can reach any sort of satisfactory answer. Only God can reveal the answers to us.

The first verse in our Reading from Wisdom today is: Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive of what the Lord intends? From the very beginning of the Book, we are told that it is only through the Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit) that we can attain some element of comprehension and thus wisdom. And Paul later complained: The Jews ask for miracles and the Greeks for a higher knowledge, while we proclaim a crucified Messiah. For the Jews, what a real scandal. And for the Greeks, what nonsense! (1 Cor 1:22-23).

We are too conditioned by the corruptible body that weighs down the mind. As the Book of Wisdom says, if the things of earth are already hard to understand; how will man discover God’s thoughts?

But Christ, as He invariably does, teaches the practical and concrete way to follow him. The Second Reading, when Paul’s invites his friend and the Christians of Colossae not to be guided by human considerations, is a moving example of the contrast between the logic and the justice of this world and the mercy of God. We know that unexpected miracles happen when we try to align ourselves to the divine mercy.

How does the story of Onesimus end? We have no definite news, but the signs are that he has been very well received because, a few years later, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul still talks of Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of yours (Col 4:9). Fifty years later, Ignatius of Antioch recalls a certain Onesimus, bishop of Ephesus… he could be the same person.

Jesus makes three very hard requests, that end with the same severe refrain: cannot be my disciple.

I. The first condition: If you come to me, unwilling to sacrifice your love for your father and mother, your spouse and children, your brothers and sisters, and indeed yourself, you cannot be my disciple.

Jesus of course is not demanding that we literally hate our family, but never to allow human relationships to take precedence and priority over our relationship with God. The most difficult idol to give up is often not wealth or even our will, but our attachment to our spouse, children and friends, especially when such friendships are unhealthy.

Many of us give much time to human relationships but because we fail to ground our relationships in Christ, such relationships tend to be selfish, self-centered, possessive, insecure and manipulative. To hate is to have the courage to break even the most loved bonds when they constitute an impediment to following him. Only when our relationship is rooted in Christ, can that relationship be compassionate, understanding and liberating, since feeling secure in Christ’s love, we do not need to seek to control the person whom we love.

This might lead to dissociate, to oppose in every way what is contrary to the Gospel, even when it means to go in disagreement with a friend, offend the sensibilities of some family, giving up choices of compromise.

We must add that, with this first condition, Jesus is also pointing at the possibility of renouncing our right and natural purpose of creating a family and being mothers and fathers. He is referring to the religious vocation.

This is an attitude Mother Teresa lived from the time she was a little girl. Her mother, Drana, was a strongly religious woman who taught her children to trust in God in all circumstances.

Drana’s own faith was not shaken even after her husband, Nikola, was murdered because of his outspoken political beliefs. Instead she continued to teach her other children the importance of following Gods will. By the time she was eighteen, Mother Teresa had become convinced that God was calling her not only to become a nun, but also to serve as a missionary in India. Following what she had been taught by her mother, she accepted the mission even though it meant leaving her beloved family and homeland behind.

The decision was neither easy nor without challenges. Among these was the fact that Mother Teresa’s brother Lazar was horrified that his sister wanted to “bury” herself (as he put it in a letter) in a convent. In addition, her commitment to India placed geographic barriers between her and her original home, and political changes soon made returning to her birthplace impossible. Although she did not know it at the time, her departure from home at the age of eighteen was the last time Mother Teresa would see her mother or sister alive. Even so, she never doubted that she had made the right choice; and throughout life, she honored her mother’s memory by being the servant of God Drana had encouraged her to become.

II. The second, non-negotiable condition is to carry our own cross. Christ is very aware of our difficulties in being perseverant in this resolution and perhaps this is why He gives two examples:

The first short parable is about a man who, wanting to protect the harvest from thieves and animals, decided to build a tower in his field to put a guard. He does not start work without having first calculated the amount needed to complete the work.

The second illustration tells of a king who wants to start a war. He also sits down and evaluates the forces of his army.

The two parables seem an invitation to remind of the seriousness and commitment that the Christian vocation entails. This is something we have to meditate upon every day and also a reality we must make clear to the young aspiring missionary disciples.

The impulses and the initial enthusiasm are not sufficient, constancy in prayer, awareness of which is our cross and the help of a community are necessary to persevere.

What does it mean to take up our cross daily? First, we have to examine what is meant by our Cross.

The different and varying experience of the saints allow us to distinguish three dimensions of our cross.

* First, the trials and tribulations of our life. As a Russian monk said:

These are sorrows, misfortunes, the loss of loved ones, failures at work, every sort of deprivation and loss, family troubles, adversities related to outward circumstances, insults, offenses, wrongful accusations, and, in general, our earthly lot… Neither eminence, nor riches, nor glory, not any kind of earthly greatness will deliver one from them.

These difficulties allow us to live on earth, not as someone in his own land, but as a stranger and a foreigner in a foreign land. As foreigners, we are to seek our return to His kingdom. This was the case of Adam and Eve. They were originally living in Paradise in union with God. But they disobeyed Him and suffered the consequences of death and sorrow and sickness, and were ousted and banned from Paradise.

Enduring our sorrows with faith are what it means to bear our personal cross, well aware that we are bearing our cross in a way that will bring salvation.

* The second dimension of our cross is the struggle against the passions. Saint Paul says: They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts (Gal 5:24). Even more, we are called to give up our ego and pride. Many of us are willing to serve God and others. We join Church or voluntary organizations to render our services for free. In itself, this is a noble thing to do. But one thing that is so difficult for us to give up is our ego. We find it difficult to submit to our superiors or to the will of the community. A frontal opposition to passions is literally impossible. This is what experience confirms and this is why the advice of our Founder has been always to avoid the dialogue and negotiation with our passions or, in other words, to fast from them.

* The third dimension of the Cross is well described by these words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: But do what you want, and not what I want. (Lk 22:42).

Christ as fully man bound his will with that of God. It is as Paul says: I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ lies in me (Gal 2: 19-20). this is It is the beginning of the future state after the resurrection, when God will mean everything to everyone. (1 Cor 15:28).

III. The third condition to be a disciple of Christ is stated at the end of today’s Gospel text: None of you may become my disciple if he doesn’t give up everything he has. This should be the most basic self-emptying virtue that we must cultivate. If we cannot give up material things, we cannot progress to a higher level of giving up oneself. This is only at the elementary level. How much are we still attached to the things of this world, the comforts that we are used to? Indeed, if we are serious about our spiritual growth, we need to take the path of self-denial in material things. It is not that such things are evil in themselves but that we do not want to be under their control. Sharing our resources with others will ensure that we have the freedom to love. Attachment to our wealth is often the cause of hard-heartedness towards others who need our help.

Certainly, the decision to follow Christ involves a completely new relationship with ourselves and with our neighbors and even sometimes against the goods of this world.

Yes, there is a cost to be a disciple of Jesus, but it costs even more to reject Him.