01 Sep How Much Do You Want God?
by Fr. Denis Lemieux
The Gospel for September 3rd, the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A, contains what are probably the most terrifying words uttered by Christ to a human being. Get behind me, Satan, for you are thinking not as God does, but as humans do (16:23).
It’s a terrible thing to hear, don’t you think? To be called “Satan” by Jesus—and yet here it is, and it’s our beloved first pope, St. Peter, on the receiving end of that particular “gospel message”!
What’s that all about? What on earth prompted Jesus to rebuke Peter so fiercely?
This gospel (Matt 16: 21-27) calls us to look squarely at a basic reality that is foundational in our life, that is an absolute and unavoidable necessity in our following of Jesus Christ. And that foundational reality is suffering.
Jesus redeemed us through suffering; he calls us to co-redeem the world with him; therefore we will suffer in being disciples of Jesus.
There is no way around it, no other way to be a Christian. We follow a crucified Lord who calls us to pick up our cross and follow him. There is no other option.
Now, of course we have to be clear: Jesus did not redeem us with his suffering, precisely, but with his love. It is love that is redemptive, essentially, not suffering.
But love in this world which is broken and wounded and hurting and marked by death and loss will always cause us some measure of suffering. If we are to love in this world—real love, the love that denies the self and gives without counting the cost—we will suffer. And that suffering is one with the suffering of Christ.
This suffering can take on so many different forms and aspects that I won’t attempt to list them all—from confronting our own selves, our own deep brokenness and sinfulness and spiritual or emotional bondage, to the burden of service and charity and labor for the Lord, to the entering deeply into the pain and sorrows of the world and of our brothers and sisters, to whatever sufferings of body and mind and spirit the Lord asks us to carry directly as an offering of prayer for the world.
All of this is utterly and inextricably part of our following Christ as his disciples.
It is so crucial in our contemplation of the Gospel that we keep this in view. Peter has just confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, has just been given his mission, his vocation really (you are Peter … ), and then the nature of that mission and its unity with Christ’s mission is revealed: the Passion, the Cross, the Resurrection.
And so it is with us. Vocation, mission, the following of Christ and how that unfolds in our life. It all comes out of some initial blossoming of faith in us. And from that we are called into some kind of apostolic life.
It may be marriage or religious life or priesthood or something else. But we are following Jesus, and he beckons us.
And then, the Cross unveils itself. It gets hard. The marriage goes through a rough time. The religious vocation gets very painful, very lonely, very wearying. The priesthood weighs heavy on us.
Life at a certain point gets very mysterious, very difficult, very painful. It happens in every vocation, in every life that is seriously given over to the following of Christ.
And it is precisely there that so many vocations, so many lives, fall apart. God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen (16:22), well, to me! (It already happened to Jesus, after all.)
But I don’t want this. I don’t like this. This wasn’t what I signed up for! I want out. This is the great moment of terrible temptation, of real trial and testing of the call, of the commitment, of the decision to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
How much do you love Him? How deeply do you desire to follow Him? What cost are you willing to pay for him?
It is only in the moment when the lights go out and all we can see is this terrible cross on a hill, the nails, the wood, and ourselves, that we can answer those questions. That is the only way we find out if we really want to be Christians.
This is a very serious matter. And we look for some other way, some way to fix things up so that we don’t have to do this, don’t have to suffer.
All sorts of ways that we try to be a Christian without the Cross. All sorts of escape routes from Calvary.
This is the great “Satanic” project of our lives, and we have to look deeply into ourselves to recognize where in ourselves we are truly making this terrible mistake.
And it is a mistake, right? Because the Cross of Jesus Christ is his love affair with us, his grand passionate embrace of humanity, of the world, of the whole cosmos.
It is not about suffering; it is all about love. In the midst of our confrontation with the reality of suffering and death, darkness and pain in our life, when the Cross unveils itself and there we are before it or upon it, we have to look so deeply into Christ and the deep meaning of his passion and death.
“The Cross is the marriage bed of Christ,” Catherine Doherty said. Do we believe that? If we don’t, we will not embrace it. She also wrote that “the secret of the Cross is joy.” And “think of your vocation as the glory of the Cross.” And “pain is the kiss of Christ.” And many other beautiful things.
We have to confront these matters and decide where we stand. Really, though, it is not some abstract “matter” of suffering that we have to confront.
It is Jesus himself standing before us here, and so the very struggle with the Cross and the reality of suffering in our lives becomes a place where we are met. Where mercy and love are given us, even as we grapple and duck and flee. Where Jesus our Beloved meets us and is with us.
All of which is to bring us where the Gospel of this Sunday leaves us—in the glory of the Father where we will never taste death again, in the kingdom of the Son of Man.