June 20, 2008

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Jesus and his cross offer a message of encouragement

(Second in a series)

Were you there when he received the Cross?”

St. Matthew’s Gospel says quite simply: “Then he [Pilate] released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified” (Mt 27:26).

Jesus took up the cross and was forced to join a procession of two criminals ­making its way through the busy streets of Jerusalem on the way to execution on the hill of the skulls called Calvary. It was not an uncommon sight in Jerusalem.

The cross, which we recognize as a sign of victory and hope, was in fact a sign of ignominy and disgrace. Jesus suffered the humiliation and embarrassment of being branded as a public criminal who had no control over his human destiny.

After a night of physical and emotional harassment, bloody scourging and mockery, crowned with a painful crown of thorns, he took on the weight of the cross. The ­physical weight alone was overwhelming, but the weight of the sins of all people of all the ages must have been emotionally more than he could bear. And he was so alone.

Anyone who has lived long enough has encountered sickness or tragedy or some other form that the unfairness of life can take. And, in most cases, we can’t help but struggle with the question, “Why me?”

Following behind the two convicted thieves, dragging his cross, Jesus must have been tempted to ask that question. Later, shortly before he died on the cross, Jesus would pray Psalm 21: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He knew the loneliness of human suffering, and so he turned to prayer.

Through the centuries, many spiritual writers have pondered about the reason for the suffering of Jesus: Why did he choose to undergo such suffering? Could he not have saved us in some other way?

Not a few saints have concluded that Jesus accepted the disgrace of the cross as an act of compassion. He chose the cross as a way of being in solidarity with our human family in our frustrating experience of the seemingly pointless and certainly unchosen suffering that comes our way.

There is much food for our reflection at this second Station of the Cross on the way to Calvary. “Victimhood” is a powerful human condition. It can be a power for good or a power for evil.

With God’s grace, we can choose ­consciously to accept the plight of human suffering or tragedy in solidarity with Christ and his exemplary acceptance of the cross. Or we can choose, in bitterness, to play the victim as a way of controlling others who we encounter along the way. It is a great challenge to overcome a tendency to selfishness in suffering rather than ­embracing a generous spirit about it.

As we stand before Jesus, who accepts the humiliation of the criminal’s cross, we can’t help but pray and think about the virtue of courage.

As Jesus took up the heavy wooden cross, he surely realized that he was ­accepting an impossible burden. He modeled courage in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

When in sickness, we reflect about his exemplary courage. We find solace and peace in accepting our own seemingly impossible burdens. Jesus with his cross is a model of encouragement for the sick. Solidarity with him gives some redemptive meaning to otherwise seemingly senseless suffering.

Jesus and his cross also offer a message of encouragement to those servant-caregivers who accompany the sick and the helpless in their time of need. I think of those selfless folks who give so much of themselves in hospices, oncology centers and nursing homes. I can’t imagine such committed caregivers without the support of deep faith and a sense of solidarity with the victory that Christ won for us as he accepted his cross of suffering.

The mystic Catherine de Hueck Doherty affirmed this theme in a few words as she reflected on the refrain, “It behooves us to glory in the cross of Jesus Christ.”

Addressing Jesus, she wrote: “Beloved, whenever one thinks of you at all, one must also think of the cross. You and the cross are inseparable. You have glorified it by your death, spoken of it all your life, and made it a necessity for your followers; ‘Take up your cross and follow me.’ The holy Eucharist is Calvary and Calvary is the Cross and God on it.

“Beloved, why is the world so afraid of the cross? Why is it so unwise as not to see that it is only through the cross that we will find you? We have forgotten you and the cross” (Stations of the Cross, Madonna House Publications, 2004, p. 10).

What we do with suffering depends on prayer; prayer before the cross is freeing. †

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