How to make Christ’s message to his disciples about carrying the cross, more palatable?
31st Sunday of the Year (a) 2017
The gospel we have just heard isn’t easy to listen to; right from the beginning when it states: ‘Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to… suffer grievously… and to be put to death…’ And if that wasn’t clear enough for his disciples he adds: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me…” I can’t see his disciples putting up their hands straight away and saying, “yes, count me in. I’ll be your follower”. In fact, doesn’t Peter object to what Christ had said; “This must not happen to you”.
Recently I was made vocation’s director for the Carmelites in the UK. And so I have to think about how we attract young men to the Order. I could begin, like Christ, and tell anyone who wants to join, “If you want to be a Carmelite, a follower of Christ, renounce yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus”. They might ask: “follow him… where?” “Well, just up this hill, I’d say. You will fall a few times but when we get to the top you just lie down on the cross and then I take these nails, ask you to open your right hand, that’s it, just a bit wider, then I take the nail and a hammer and tell the young man, ‘this might hurt a bit…’” You can imagine the reaction of a young man. He would run away. I don’t want to join the Carmelites after all, you’re mad, I’ll join the Jesuits instead”.
It’s not easy to be a vocation’s director. To get the message right. Is there anyway of softening Jesus’ message: that if you want to be a follower of his you have to take up your cross? Of course,we are all asked to be followers of Christ, not just those who want to be priests or nuns. We can find an answer to that question in the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah. Now, Jeremiah was a most reluctant prophet, and you can understand why. He just wanted to live a normal life like everyone else, minding his own business and keeping his mouth shut. However, the Lord had other plans for this young man. He becomes a prophet of God and everything he tried to avoid happening happens: he has to shout at the people because they won’t listen to God. As a result he is riduculed and derided. He says he has become a “daily laughing stock”. Poor Jeremiah, who would want to be a “daily laughing stock”?
Jeremiah, as I said, wasn’t someone who liked to upset people, to tell them off. Yet he couldn’t help it. He said God seduced him, that God overpowered him, that God was stronger than he was. Notice what he says at the end of that first reading: “I used to say…I will not speak in his name anymore. Then there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones… I could not bear it.” Notice that: the fire in Jeremiah’s heart. That’s not any old fire, that’s the fire of love. That’s what the love of God who touches someone deeply feels like: it burns like a fire. And yet it is irresistible. Love is like that. Between love and pain there is a thin line. In fact, and many of you will know this, love and pain often go together. What mother has not suffered pain over her children; when a child suffers she suffers. Would a mother have it any other way? No, surely not. Pain is a price worth paying.
Now look at what the psalmist says about love: “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry weary land without water.” Shakespeare couldn’t have said it any better: “for you my soul is thirsting”. That’s such a strong expression of love: to thirst for someone. “My body pines for you”. Who ever wrote these words knew what love was. It is so deep; it affects not only the body but also that part of us which is deepest. “O God, you are my God, for you I long.” The one who loves God cannot resist Him. Can’t avoid doing what God is asking of them. Again, as the psalmist says in the same psalm: “For your love is better than life, my lips will speak your praise.” That’s beautiful, isn’t it: “love is better than life”.
Yes, love and pain go together. The disciple of Christ will pick up their cross, but they will do it gladly, out of love for God. And the one who wants to become a Carmelite won’t have to be crucified but he will have to follow Christ, he will have to put up with difficulties, with misunderstandings, live with people who can make his life uncomfortable at times, listen to bad jokes, but, if he has the love of God in his heart then he will do it gladly. He will say, like Mary, “fiat voluntas tua”: thy will be done.