There is a tradition I came across in Bosnia, where a couple getting married bring a crucifix to the church. The priest says a prayer of blessing over the cross and when the wedding is over the couple bring the cross to their new home and place it in a prominent position. The idea is that they will come before the cross in their sufferings and difficulties and ask Jesus to help them. They will not run away from their problems, but face them and ask for God’s help to work through them and most importantly, that Jesus Christ be at the center of their home. One of my sisters did this at her wedding.
Today we are being constantly bombarded with the message that you shouldn’t have to suffer, that you should have everything your way, that you shouldn’t have to make sacrifices, sometimes even for your children. This is the complete opposite of what Christ teaches us, which means we have to decide who we are following. Am I following the way of Jesus Christ, which is difficult but so worthwhile, or am I following the way of the world, which tells me only my fulfillment is important? This has also become a modern mentality with marriage. If things are not working out, then move on, but that is not the teaching of Christ. Sometimes marriages don’t work out, but divorce and separation should be the last possible resort. It always troubles me when I hear a couple who are not long married, going through difficulties and the word divorce is already being used. The problem is that it has become part of our thinking. Currently in the US, one in four marriages break up within five years. That means that marriage is in crisis in this country.
The word sacrifice is at the heart of what we believe. Jesus sacrificed himself for us. He gave everything. We are called to sacrifice ourselves for each other. A husband and wife are meant to lay down their lives for each other and sacrifice themselves for their children. I am meant to sacrifice my life for the people God asks me to serve. That means that it is not about me being fulfilled, but about me giving of myself.
Moses said the same thing to the people in his time, after he had been given the Ten Commandments. He said, “Choose today whom you wish to follow. Choose life or death, blessing or curse. Follow the Lord or not, but make up your mind.”
In the book of Revelations, Jesus uses very strong words. He says:
Here is the message of the Amen, the trustworthy, the true witness… I know about your activities: how you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other, but since you are neither hot nor cold, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth’ (Rev 3:14-16).
In another translation it says, “I will vomit you out of my mouth.” That is very strong language. The Lord was not afraid to shock us and he still isn’t. He simply wants to make us wake up to reality. In order to grow, our focus must be on the Lord and not just on our own fulfillment.
Christianity is unusual in that it does not try to run away from suffering, or to rise above it, in any way. Rather it teaches us that suffering is part of the path that brings us to God. This is something we have always found difficult to understand. Two thousand years ago it was just as hard to understand. Peter is horrified when Jesus announces to them that he is going to suffer and be put to death and he tries to talk Jesus out of it. He says, “Lord, this must not happen to you. People won’t believe you, people will turn away from you. You are to be the King and all people will bow down to you.” And Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan (enemy) for the way you think is not God’s way, but man’s.” Jesus was saying to him, “You don’t understand this, but it has to be this way. If you want to follow me you will suffer too.” Suffering has its place, even though it makes no sense to us.
When we suffer we often cry out to God, “Why have you done this to me? I shouldn’t have to suffer.” I used to hear this all the time when I worked in the hospital. People say, “Fr., why has God done this to me, what did I ever do wrong?” as though this was a punishment. We forget the line from Scripture that says, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Does this mean that we shouldn’t try to get rid of suffering? Of course not. We should do everything we can to help those who are suffering and to make our world a better place, but we will never be fully rid of it, it is simply part of this life.
Perhaps what is most important is why the Lord asks us to follow this path. It seems to be some kind of doorway we have to pass through, which helps to form us as people, and which brings us closer to God. It is not just suffering for the sake of suffering, which would be sadistic. The death of Jesus led to his rising from death and winning eternal life for all people. That’s what we have to remember. If we are allowed to suffer, it is because through it, God will lead us on to something much greater, although we may not see this until the next life. Padre Pio used to say that if we understood how powerful suffering was, we would pray for it.
We say that we are followers of Christ? Do you have a crucifix in your home? If you don’t, maybe it’s time you got one. By having a crucifix in your home where people can see it, you are saying “I belong to Jesus Christ.” I believe in what he has done for me; Jesus Christ is Lord for me.” We have no reason to be ashamed of what we believe in. Acknowledging the way of the cross is also a recognition of the world to come. If there was nothing after this life, then the way of the cross would be meaningless. But what it is saying is that the struggles we go through and the sacrifices we have to make in this life are worthwhile, because they are leading to something greater. That’s why we keep our eyes fixed on the world to come. If that is our ultimate destiny, then everything we have to sacrifice to follow the Way of Jesus is worthwhile.
Recently I was watching a documentary about how they caught Joaquin Guzman, “El Chapo,” the drug lord who ran the Sinaloa cartel. What was so sad about him and the others caught up in these drug cartels, is that they invested so much in gaining everything for this life. They were found with huge quantities of cash and jewels and they were prepared to kill and butcher others to get it. They don’t seem to have any sense of the purpose of our life here on earth. Apart from being evil, it is also very sad. Ironically, many of them also had big chapels built in their homes. What a contradiction!
“Unless you take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.”