The Way of the Cross

Monday, April 12, 2004


The Way of the Cross

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Part Four of Seven

I just served a half day of jury duty today and was let out early because the trials settled before going to us. I won't have to serve again for another three years.

During the jury orientation, we were shown a film presentation featuring Ed Bradley and Leslie Stall of Sixty Minutes on the importance of the jury to our justice system. The film opened with an image of a trial taking place in the middle ages where a man was tied up with ropes and thrown in the water. The voice of the narrator was describing that historically, trial outcomes were determined by methods such as trial by ordeal.

One form of trial by ordeal was to stick the defendant's hand in boiling water. If it healed in three days, he or she was innocent. If it took longer, she or he was guilty.

Another form of trial by ordeal is what we were watching in the action of the film. The defendant was tied up tightly and thrown into a body of water. If the person floated, the person was presumed guilty because of the demonic power allowing him or her to float. If the person sank, the person was presumed innocent.

Obviously, in such a system, nobody would want a criminal charge brought against you. The innocent suffer injustice in such systems.

A judge came to us during orientation and stated that our troops in Iraq are fighting for what we are doing. She stated that the jury system is a cornerstone of democracy that prevents dictators and tyrants like Saddam Hussein and other bullies from taking over.

One of my favorite shows on television is The Practice. I liked it better a few years ago, and the somewhat idealized version of the lives of defense attorneys fascinates me. I confess that I have a bias towards defense attorneys. I sometimes wonder if I should not have studied law instead of theology, or maybe I should still go to law school someday. Were I a lawyer, I would love to be a public defendant (though it doesn't pay much).

In Sunday's meditation, we looked at the absurdity of the cross, and speculated that Jesus, in his humanity, was tempted to despair by Satan's assault on his faith. Jesus may have been tempted to believe that his suffering was meaningless and that death was being thrust upon him before his earthly mission was complete. His cry "Let this cup pass" was a real human desire to live and to avoid suffering. Jesus had no more and no less faith in his own resurrection than is humanly possible, and Satan used the weakness of human nature to try to push Jesus into a lack of trust of the Father. Satan sought to use suffering to bully Jesus into despair by having Jesus executed by the state with religious approval.

Christ kept faith until his last breath that the Father would vindicate him. While Jesus may have known that persecution and even martyrdom were immanent, he probably did not wish to die, nor see his death as central to his mission. While he clearly believed and taught that the resurrection of the dead will happen, he may not have known that his resurrection would occur so soon, and whatever he knew, he knew with human certainty.

Rather than marching to the cross with a sense of mission, he was willing to lay down his life for his cause if necessary, hoping it would not come to that. His cause was to initiate the reign of God, which is a humanistic cause whereby the blind will see, the lame will walk, prisoners will be set free, and the poor will have good news proclaimed to them. If his cause could be achieved without death (and it could have been had Satan not been able to use us as his instruments) Jesus would not have sought to die. Jesus was not suicidal, and he did not live to die!

An interesting theological question asked through the ages that the Church has never developed an authoritative doctrine to address is whether God would have become incarnate if we had not sinned. I believe that it was Augustine who argued that he would have, since to say otherwise is to imply that we force God to do things he doesn't otherwise want to do. I believe that the incarnation event reveals God's love for humanity, and he loved us before, during, and after the Fall. The incarnation would have occurred without the Fall, but the cross is the result of the Fall.

On Monday, we looked at how the meaninglessness and absurdity of the cross was transformed by Saint Paul as he reflected on the events in light of his experience of the Risen Christ. Paul struggled to understand how and why an innocent man bore a curse. He concluded that a righteous man bore the curse of the unrighteous and developed a theology of atonement that went beyond what the historical Jesus probably taught.

Paul conveyed the same loving image of God through his theology of atonement that Jesus sought to convey in his proclamation of the reign of God. Paul likely saw the need for blood sacrifice as appeasing a strict law of justice as interpreted by the power of Satan, the Accuser. The blood of Jesus allowed the just judge, our Father in heaven, to have Satan's case thrown out of court. When we stand before the judge at final judgment, we know he is sympathetic, and we have the Holy Spirit as our advocate, and what Christ has done has demolished Satan's case. Satan is a finger pointing bully trying to drive us to despair by condemning all humanity through rightly exposing all our faults.

Yesterday, we meditated further on Jesus' humanity and how the cross serves as a sign of contradiction that reveals our own sinfulness. We examined how the words and deeds of Jesus were life-giving and fill the deepest desires of humanity in concrete ways: healing of sickness, expulsion of demons, forgiveness of sins and a message of liberation that has political and cultural consequences even if not directly central to the message. We saw that the power that lead to Jesus' death is the human failing expressed in our desire to control other people.

When we try to control others, we join forces with Satan, acting as a bully. Sometimes, this desire to control can come out in a form of spiritual bullying, whereby we use religious teachings to badger others. We become like the Accuser in self-righteous finger pointing, judgmentalism, and a legalism that aims at tearing others down rather than building others up or guiding our own inner transformation.

In earlier meditations this week, we have suggested that the sayings in the Gospel referring to picking up our cross and rejecting family and sacrificing ourselves may not have been the precise words of Jesus. While there may have been some intuition on Jesus' part that death was immanent, the Gospel writers may have been paraphrasing Jesus' actual words in light of the crucifixion and resurrection event to meet the needs of the community of faith under persecution. What has not been said clearly up to now is that I believe these writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit whether they are conveying the actual words of Christ or not.

Whether Jesus actually said that we need to deny ourselves and pick up our crosses or not, the sayings of the Gospel are true. Like Jesus, when we give of ourselves to build up and empower others, we will face the cross. This is an inevitability. If we love other people, we will be hurt.

While I acknowledge that verses admonishing us to pick up our cross are divinely inspired, I am concerned many times with how I see these verses used in Christian circles. We seem to be heavily tempted to use these verses to justify spiritual bullying, self-righteous finger pointing, and driving others to despair. The verses are often directed more at certain groups of people in the Church than others. We are all called to love, and in loving, we all will be hurt equally.

The Gospel has political and cultural consequences. It may sound strange to suggest that a command to love until it hurts can have political consequences.

Yesterday, I provided examples from two polar camps within the Church. The conservative American Republican who is Catholic can see political implications of the Gospel in the issue of abortion. Love for the unborn child and the desire to defend the dignity of human life has a political consequence. The more liberal camp that may embrace liberation theology can see how the simple act of teaching the poor and oppressed to read can become a dangerous political act in an oppressive political system.

There are times love impels us to confront demonic powers in the world. There are systems and institutions that dehumanize and degrade people. Slavery was a dehumanizing institution. Wars of aggression and state sponsored genocide are obviously evil. Laws restricting religious freedom are wrong. Corporate greed can ruin thousands of lives and the environment. Those who stand up to these institutions will bear a cross.

Love impels us to care for others, to seek to empower others, to do good for others, to listen to others in humility and seek to understand their point of view, to forgive others - to lose control of others and seek mutual relationship instead. This process is often painful but has rewards as well - the resurrection experienced in this life and the next for those with faith.

When we in the Church speak to each other about carrying the cross, I am sometimes concerned at the way the image is used. There are those who speak of carrying our cross in a such a way that a non-Christian would become convinced that being Christian is to be miserable all the time. This cannot be the case. If this were true, the Gospel would not be Gospel - good news!

We do not pick up our cross through acts of self imposed asceticism.

As good as occasional and moderate fasting may be, Jesus did not make fasting central to his teaching. Indeed, he was asked why his disciples don't fast when the Pharisees and followers of John the Baptist did fast (Mk 2:18).

As good as celibacy may be for those who are called to it and can live it in a healthy and life-giving way, Jesus demanded it of nobody, and Paul said it comes from the evil one to demand it of someone (1 Tim 4:3).

Our cross is not something imposed on the self. Jesus did not commit suicide. He was brutally murdered. An act of asceticism or self-discipline is not a cross at all. A self-imposed penance is an act of the will to control our pain, and Jesus gave up control when faced with a cross that was thrust upon him against his wishes. The cross comes to us as an injustice, and it is thrust upon us from without because we love and because we stand up for justice.

The pain sometimes involved in turning away from sin can be a cross, but there is a resurrection in turning to righteousness. A man cheating on his wife knows the misery of living a dual life, and the pain he causes his spouse. As painful as breaking the adulterous affair and being honest with his wife may be, continuing the affair is a worse pain. But seldom is the image of the cross used in this precise manner in the New Testament. More often, the cross is to be carried by doing what is right, rather than turning from what is wrong.

There are examples of people who picked up the cross in more modern times. Martin Luther King Jr. carried a cross. Gandhi carried a cross. All the martyrs of the Church who have ever lived have carried a cross that earned actual physical pain.

When we stand up for others, Satan will send in his troops and try to drive us to despair.

To love until it hurts is what it means to pick up the cross. Picking up the cross and exercising self denial is always what happens when we do good for others. All Christians know this, but we don't even tend to think about it much while we do it in everyday life. A mother makes some sacrifices to stay home with a sick child. She does this because she loves her child, and it is the right thing to do. Her sacrifices are a participation in the cross. As the child grows and matures, the mother will know the pain of separation when the child seeks independence. This too is a participation in the cross. On simple day to day things, we know that love means sacrifice, and the point is not to hurt oneself, but to help another.

When we love another, we open ourselves to being hurt by the other or by what happens to the other. This is our cross, and this is what we are called to carry in big moments and small moments.

I don't want to under-emphasize the small moments we pick up our cross. Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, once said that marriage is the sacrament that saves the most people. He even speculated that it is through marriage that non-Catholics are saved. In the day to day sacrifices we make to enjoy a happy marriage, we are carrying our cross.

Jesus was remembered by the New Testament authors as sharply rebuking religious leaders who "lay up heavy burdens on others, but do not lift a finger to help them carry it." Jesus sharply rebuked those who ignore the weighty matters of the law such as love and justice, and "strain at gnats while letting camels go by." (cf ch 23 of Mt's Gospel)

For Jesus, it appears that the entire law and prophets can be summed up in the great commandments of loving God with our whole hearts and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Indeed, Jesus seems to imply that these two commandments are so intertwined that we express our love of God through our love of neighbor. Thus, he also taught the entire law and prophets could be summed up in the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you.

I am very leary of telling someone else that they need to bear some cross unless the pain I am asking them to endure benefits others in tangible ways, the way Christ's actions benefited others in tangible ways.

Religion, theology and spirituality are often made too abstract. A religion that proclaims God incarnate and crucified and encountered in the physicality of simple bread and wine, water and oil and touch....such a religion is a celebration of the concrete historical reality of the present world. Everything Jesus said and did gave immediate joy in concrete ways to those around him. Even the next life will be a resurrection of the body, so we need to learn to do physical good for one another.

In conflict situations, such as a conflict between justice and mercy, or a conflict between authority and those without authority, or a conflict between scripture, tradition, and/or reason it seems that Jesus always gives a "preferential option for the poor". He always takes the side of the marginalized or the weaker party. With all that has been said this week about the cross, I am expressing how clearly it seems to me that in the cross, God has revealed he is not usually on the side of power and authority. He is more often on the side of criminals and outcasts.

If Satan is a prosecuting attorney and a bully, we need to have the mindset of defense attorneys or trial lawyers who fight for the little guy. By doing so, we become like the Paraclete, and we share in the mind and mission of Jesus.

If we cannot point to concrete harm to another person done by another's actions, I don't think we can rightly call those actions sin. If we are doing good for others or joining others to fight for real justice, and we encounter opposition, disappointment and challenge, we are bearing the cross.

In the development of Sacred Tradition, it appears to me that the Holy Spirit has constantly guided the Church to only define infallibly through extraordinary magisterium those things that are life-giving and fulfilling to the human person. The Sacred Tradition of the Church continues Jesus' radical humanism.

For example, the doctrine of the incarnation says that humanity is the absolute center of God's attention and love. God became human, rather than an angel, or a monkey or a dolphin. One can argue that by joining creation, all creation is sanctified, and I would accept this as a legitimate development of thought. Nevertheless, the incarnation starts with affirming human dignity. This was one of the earliest infallible definitions of the Church, and much of the Trinitarian debates of the first six centuries centered on making the full humanity of the incarnate God clear.

Indeed, when one looks at the challenges to the doctrine, there were far more serious and deadly challenges from those who de-emphasized Christ's humanity than those who made mistakes on his divinity. Those who made mistakes on the humanity of Christ often did horrendous things to other human beings or to themselves. The Arians were pretty nice people.

Take relatively recent doctrines like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. These came historically at a time when the question of the role of women in the Church is only beginning to be asked in a serious way in modern times. These doctrines also affirm the power of grace and the goodness of the human body - particularly the female human body.

Furthermore, there are areas where the Church acted in ways that did not affirm human dignity, and we very clearly came out later and admitted mistakes were made, apologized and set out to correct ourselves. Slavery is a prime example.

Think of some of the key issues being debated in the Church today. These issues have not yet been ruled on with an infallible definition by extraordinary magisterium, though the ordinary magisterium has been quite clear so far.

People talk about women's ordination. Here we have women who want to do good for people. They want to serve the Church in what all Catholics would consider a great way - the provision of the sacraments. There is absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that the Church needs more good priests. Even many opponents of women's ordination do not question the sincerity of these women's desire, nor their ability to do very fine ministry.

Let's apply the golden rule. It seems obvious to me that it is an injustice if someone other than a bishop, such as the state, told me that I am not permitted to do good deeds for the service of God and the Church in a capacity for which I have the talent during a time there is a need for my service. If it is immoral for someone other than a bishop to do this, why is it moral for a bishop to do it?

But instead of the golden rule, the opponents of women's ordination seem to want to appeal to crazy theological schemes that are not rooted in anything the Jesus of history actually seems to have taught.

The argument is made that Jesus did not ordain women. This is highly questionable since he first revealed his resurrection to Mary Magdalene, and the New Testament makes explicit mention of women such as Junia and Phoebe holding ordained positions in the post resurrection Church. The only way to call these women non-ordained is to resort to the notion that Jesus ordained no-one (and there are liberals who prefer this argument to saying women were ordained).

Furthermore, even if Jesus did ordain men exclusively and the early Church did not ordain women, are we bound by this? Is this what Jesus actually taught - that structures, customs and disciplines will never change until he comes again?

With absolute certainty we can say that Jesus never ordained a non-Jew. According to the New Testament, Jesus never drove a car. Jesus never had to answer a question about abortion or contraception. Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. Jesus never did a lot of things, and we are not bound by exact imitation of every detail of his earthly life.

Jesus started a movement of people who believed with him that God loves us all equally, and that God wants our deepest desires met. If a woman wants to be a priest, and she has the talent to serve the Church well as a priests, that is all we need to know.

It appears to us liberals that it is spiritual bullying to deny her desire! It is potentially a sin!

The pain women who seek ordination feel is a cross.

Look at the issue of married priesthood. If a priest says he wishes to be married and to continue as a priest, he is told that he needs to accept the cross of celibacy. This is absurd. Marriage is good. It is so good that it is a sacrament. The Jesus of the Gospels would never deny a desire to do something good to anyone. Even if he truly said there will be Eunuchs for the sake of the reign of God, he never imposed it on his disciples. Peter was married, and he was our first Pope. We know from Paul that Peter took his wife with him on mission and had a human right to do so (1 Cor 9:5)!

Jesus did not impose punishment on himself, and he did not encourage his followers to impose punishments on themselves. The cross was thrust on Jesus as an injustice because he stood up for little people against those who had power.

Ministerial priesthood is a calling from God. Marriage is a calling from God. God has called certain people to both vocations, and we know this with absolute certainty because Jesus, himself, chose the married man, Peter. To deny a man called to marriage the right to actually marry is not what Jesus would do. And to deny a married priesthood is not what Jesus did!

Look at the way The Catechism speaks of homosexuality in paragraph 2358: "These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition."

The condition is described as a cross, and it is for many people. I don't think anyone would freely chose to be permanently homosexual if it were left to choice in a homophobic society. Liberals would say that homosexuals that chose to stand up against every form of discrimination will encounter the cross as they are opposed. Liberals see a goal at the end of the cross that gives meaning to life for the homosexual person. The battles you fight for equity today will benefit those in your condition tomorrow.

Conservatives admonish the homosexual to pick up the cross by living in perfectly chaste celibacy, even if the homosexual feels no calling to celibacy. This is a life-long commitment to repression and suppression with no apparent benefit. While some homosexual people may have a genuine calling to celibacy that is life-giving and freeing for them, there are many others who find perfectly chaste celibacy akin to spiritual suicide.

I'm sensitive to the argument of this latter group because I found that while I was in seminary for six years, trying to live chaste celibacy was leading me to depression. I kept hoping that the feeling would go away or subside, and that I would experience the joy some of my classmates experienced. I eventually discerned that God placed the calling to marriage in my heart. I am heterosexual, and when I chose to marry, I have never felt the same depression since. It's not entirely about sex either. My wife and I have not been able to have sex as frequently as many married couples for medical reasons.

However, I find married life fulfilling due to the intimacy of sharing my life with another person. As Christians, we are called to love. There are pains and challenges in loving my wife rightly, but there is resurrection and joy as well. This is the critical difference. I believe that in doing good until it hurts, we also experience joy and find encouragement from those we help, and those who join our struggle. This is what it should mean to be Church - to share our crosses together.

What is wrong with a homosexual person seeking to share his or her life with another, and why is it wrong for such committed love to occasionally find sexual expression?

The Church is utterly failing to make clear how two adult homosexuals seeking to publicly express a loving commitment to one another are hurting each other or anyone else. I do not see how they are violating the golden rule, and those who get into a huff over gay civil unions seem to be treating others in a manner they would not want to be treated. How can happily married heterosexuals say that marrying the person you love is not important to you? Don't you feel you have a right to marry the person of your choice?

To say a homosexual person is free to marry any person of the opposite gender she or he wishes misses the point. They do not want to marry the opposite gender anymore than heterosexuals want to marry the same gender. If a heterosexual were forced to marry a person of the same gender, we would feel a human right was violated.

The best arguments anyone can come up with are that these two people may be harming themselves since they are going to hell. How can anyone be certain of this? Isn't this making an a priori assumption about something that is impossible for any human being to know with any degree of certitude?

There are those who insist that this couple is somehow threatening heterosexual marriage.

This last position strikes me as absurd. The only heterosexual marriages such a couple would threaten are those people who are truly gay, and entered a heterosexual marriage to hide their sexuality from themselves and others.

Gay marriages are not going to tempt a single heterosexual person to enter a gay marriage. Gay marriages are not going dissuade a single heterosexual person from entering into heterosexual marriage if they feel called to it. Gay marriages are not going to be a catalyst for any heterosexual couple deciding to divorce.

Again, if we apply the golden rule, it is obvious that none of us would like it one bit if we felt called to marriage, found our partner, and then were told it cannot be done because it never has been done that way in the past, and a few verses of ancient texts taken out of context say so.

In my mind, the very desire of someone to comb through the Bible and find proof-texts to try to use against homosexuals is itself a form of spiritual bullying. Why do people even bother to put so much effort into such things?

The same thing goes with whoever first combed through the entire Bible to come up with the sin of Onan and try to apply it to the contraception issue in an isogetic fashion.

We saw this in yesterday's meditation on the cross how the cross reveals sin. Religious bullies will gather around anyone who says that religion is not tool for keeping social order. They will listen intently to such a person trying to trap the person in their own words. There was always a group of pious people gathered around Jesus trying to trip him up.

There are readers of my blog trying to do just that. I can't judge hearts, but I am speaking of the actions. There are those who jump at every opportunity to find fault with what I write, and if they can't find one, they will resort to ad hominem attacks. Truth be told, some of them might even wish they knew where I live. There are those who wish I would quit the Church and go join the Protestants. There are those who may want me excommunicated. I once received an email from a person defining himself as a traditionalist and a member of the SSPX who stated that I would burn in hell, and that the inquisitions should be restored to deal with people like me.

I may be wrong on a whole bunch of things, but on this, I feel certain: Christ came to gather the lost sheep. He came for the sick, not for the healthy. According to 1 Tim 2:4, God desires the salvation of all people. To be a Christian is to have an attitude that would always prefer to include rather than exclude. His attitude would always give the benefit of doubt to an opponent, and seek to forgive and preserve the relationship.

It seems to me that anyone who seeks to see others driven out of the Church or silenced when they aren't hurting anyone is not really getting the full meaning of the cross. I pray one day we all will "get it". We are to be a people of compassion who want everyone to feel included, and who demonstrate this in our actions.

Sometimes the way of the cross involves standing up to religious authority that is treating people unequally or immorally.

At times, love will lead us to have the attitude of one condemned unjustly, to enter into solidarity with those who live such a reality, and to get fired up against the injustice. We must love others till we feel hurt by it.

This is the way of the cross.

Go to Part V: God is With Us!

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posted by Jcecil3 3:51 PM

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