ONE of the greatest questions I’ve faced in my personal walk with God is why I seem to change so little? “Lord, I pray every day, say the Rosary, go to Mass, have regular confession, and pour myself out in this ministry. Why, then, do I seem stuck in the same old patterns and faults that hurt me and the ones I love the most?” The answer came to me so clearly:
The Cross, the Cross!
But what is “the Cross”?
THE TRUE CROSS
We tend to immediately equate the Cross to suffering. That to “take up my Cross” means that I should suffer pain in some way. But that is really not what the Cross is. Rather, it is the expression of emptying oneself out completely for love of the other. For Jesus, it meant literally suffering unto death, because that was the nature and necessity of His personal mission. But not many of us are called to suffer and die a brutal death for another; that is not our personal mission. So then, when Jesus tells us to take up our Cross, it must contain a deeper meaning, and it is this:
I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. (John 13:34)
Jesus’ life, Passion, and death provide for us a new pattern that we are to follow:
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus… he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Philipians 2:5-8)
St. Paul underscores the essence of this pattern when he says that Jesus took the form of a slave, humbling himself—and then adds that, for Jesus, it involved “even death.” We are to imitate the essence, not necessarily the physical death (unless God grants one the gift of martyrdom). So, to take up one’s Cross means to “love one another”, and by his words and example, Jesus showed us how:
Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven… For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest. (Matt 18:4; Luke 9:48)
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matt 20:26-28)
MOUNT CALVARY… NOT JUST TABOR
The reason I believe many, including myself, who pray, go to Mass regularly, adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, attend conferences and retreats, make pilgrimages, offer rosaries and novenas etc… but do not grow in virtue, is because they have not really taken up the Cross. Mount Tabor is not Mount Calvary. Tabor was only preparation for the Cross. So too, when we seek spiritual graces, they cannot be an end in themselves (what if Jesus never came down from Tabor??). We must always have the welfare and salvation of others at heart. Otherwise our growth in the Lord will be stunted, if not negated.
The Cross is not performing all these necessary devotions, even though it seems we are doing something heroic. Rather, it is when we become a true servant of our spouse or children, our roommates or companions, our fellow parishioners or communities. Our Catholic faith cannot devolve to a sort of means to self-improvement, or to only subdue our troubled consciences, or simply find equilibrium. And grant you, God does respond to us in these quests, nonetheless; He does bestow His mercy and peace, His love and forgiveness whenever we seek Him. He sustains us insofar as He can, because He loves us—just as a mother feeds her crying infant, though the child has only its own hunger in mind.
But if she is a good mother, she will eventually wean the child and teach him to love his siblings and neighbour and to share with those who are hungry. So too, even though we seek God in prayer and He nurses us with grace, like a good mother, He says:
Still, the Cross, the Cross! Imitate Jesus. Become a child. Become the servant. Become the slave. This is the only Way that leads to Resurrection.
If you are perennially struggling against your temper, lust, compulsiveness, materialism or what have you, then the only way to conquer these vices is to set upon the way of the Cross. You can spend all day long adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, but it will make little difference if you spend your evenings serving yourself. St. Teresa of Calcutta once said, “The time spent by my sisters at the service of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, allows them to spend hours of service to Jesus in the poor.” The purpose of our prayers and spiritual efforts, then, can never be to transform ourselves alone, but must also dispose us “for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” Eph 2:10
When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well… In this way we undergo those purifications by which we become open to God and are prepared for the service of our fellow human beings. We become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Spe Salvi (Saved In Hope), n. 33, 34
JESUS IN ME
It’s never just about “Jesus and me.” It’s about Jesus living in me, which requires a real death to myself. This death comes precisely by laying upon the Cross and being pierced by the nails of Love and Service. And when I do this, when I enter into this “death”, then a true Resurrection will begin within me. Then joy and peace begin to blossom like the lily; then gentleness, patience, and self-control begin to form the walls of a new house, a new temple, which I am.
If water is to become hot, then cold must die out of it. If wood is to be made fire, then the nature of wood must die. The life we seek cannot be in us, it cannot become our very selves, we cannot be itself, unless we gain it by first ceasing to be what we are; we acquire this life through death. —Fr. John Tauler (1361), German Dominican priest and theologian; from the Sermons and Conferences of John Tauler
And so, if you have begun this new year encountering the same old sins, the same struggles with the flesh as have I, then we must ask ourselves if we are really daily picking up the Cross, which is to follow in Christ’s footsteps of emptying ourselves in humility, and becoming a servant to those around us. It is the only path that Jesus left, the only pattern that leads to Resurrection.
It is the only Way in Truth that leads to Life.
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12:24)
Loving and serving others involves sacrifice, which is a form of suffering. But it is precisely this suffering that, united to Christ, produces the fruit of grace. Read:
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