Faith was all encompassing since my father was a member of Los Penitentes, the lay Hispano confraternity devoted to the sorrowful passion of Jesus and his mother, Our Lady of Sorrows. The Penitentes tended to both the spiritual and physical well-being of the community, and Lent was the apex of devotion.
This time brings back many memories. A dark adobe church, the only light being the hundreds of candles lining massive mud walls. The distinct smell of the wet earth comingling with dried incense. The archaic wailing prayers of worship called alabados. These prayers were brought over from Spain in the 1500’s, tinged with Moorish influence, they are still sung today. But the most enduring memory also held an element of fear.
I remember in the dark silence of the Church, looking up and seeing two representations of Christ. One was of Jesus standing before his accusers, beaten, bound and bloodied. The second was of Christ crucified, all the blood, torture and suffering. These representations were not mass produced sanitized versions of Jesus’ suffering. They did not portray a comforting Christianity.
They were 200 year old depictions, carved out of wood by hand, and painted with the colors of the earth. One could trace the life of the woodcarver in the pain of Christ represented. I was terrified of these figures. I certainly did not want to go through that nor look that.
I much preferred the other Jesus, the Jesus whose picture was at my friend’s house. One of my friends, Mark, was a White Anglo Saxon Protestant. His was a beautiful family who graced my childhood with love and friendship. You walked into their home and the only religious ornamentation was a small picture in their hallway of a blond hair, freshly scrubbed Jesus holding a delicate lamb. I liked that Jesus, he was your picture perfect Jesus. I wanted him.
I assume that is the same picture perfect Jesus that Peter wants in our Gospel. But it is not to be. Mark tells us that as he is traveling with his disciples, Jesus is teaching and he tells them that he will suffer, be rejected and killed and then rise again. Can you imagine the look on the disciples faces. They have seen all Jesus’ miracles; and now he is talking about suffering and die. Until this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has told great parables, performed great healing miracles, calmed a storm, fed thousands; he has even walked on water. Who would not want to follow this guy – times are good. The disciples have no idea that Jesus will die on the cross, so association with the cross must have been confusing and the imagery terrifying.
Peter probably notices the disciples’ reaction, and he pulls Jesus off to the side and then seems to speak in an irritated and condescending way. “Master, what are you saying? You are scaring the heck out of them! No one will follow you if you ask them to be uncomfortable. If you want them to believe in you – keep doing the miracles.” As usual, Peter does not understand. Jesus loses his temper, and yells at Peter. Jesus orders him out of the way and to quit thinking like a human. Jesus then turns way from Peter and addresses the disciples and the gathering crowd. In effect; he is speaking to each one of us.
Jesus tells them, you want to follow me, and then you really have to follow me. It requires changing your ways, thinking of others before self, discomfort, sacrifice. Discipleship means taking up the cross, it requires a tremendous amount of love. In this Gospel, Jesus places the price of discipleship squarely in the disciple’s face and squarely in our face.
Faced with the cross, I wonder how many of the disciples thought about leaving Jesus and going back to their daily lives or just get back to fishing. Many of us prefer that God that is always dispensing spiritual and material blessings. It is easy to believe in a miracle working God.
However, Jesus reminds us that discipleship is more than basking in miracles, listening to parables or walking along talking to the Lord. There is a point where the cross has to penetrate the earth, and the point where the cross penetrates the earth is where love radiates outward, toward one another. It requires movement on the part of each one of us.
We do not like the cross because we look at it as individuals, how heavy it is for us, without thinking of those around us. We are not called to be onlookers, we are called to be participants. Next to that old Penitente cross was a note etched on animal hide, written most likely in the 1600’s, it said: Jesucristo nuestra esperanza. It translates Jesus Christ our hope.
A simple poor shepherd in Northern NM understood that through Jesus there was something at the other end of the cross – hope. The highest form of hope is despair overcome.
But notice that the words used were not “my hope” but “our hope.” Taking up a cross means the deliberate choice of something that could be evaded. Taking up your cross means preparing the kingdom for everyone. We are asked to take up the cross not only for ourselves, but for our brothers and sisters who cannot carry the cross by themselves.
I read a story describing an old comic strip. “Two guys would be talking to each other, and one of them says he has a question for God. He wants to ask God why He allows all of the poverty and suffering and war to exist in the world. The second guy responds, “Well, why don’t you ask Him?” The first fellow shakes his head and says he is scared. When his friend asks why, he mutters, “I’m scared God will ask me the same question.”
We do not need political parties, television commentators, theological magazines, or on-line chain letters to recognize that there is injustice in the world. 3 frightened children a day are being led into an unfamiliar room at All Faiths Receiving Home because someone they trusted, violated their trust. Where were we? There are 4000 children in the APS school system who are homeless, Where were we? A women and her children are checking is Barrett House because her husband decided to beat her. Where were we? And why did 13 young women turn to a life of drugs and prostitution that ultimately resulted in their bones being scattered on the West Mesa. Where were we?
Christ gave us his voice and it is our choice to use it. Christ showed us how to carry the cross, but it is uncomfortable, it is provoking, and it requires active involvement. It becomes more than expressing outrage from the comfort of our homes, or simply clicking on a computer screen, or donating to a cause.
It requires heavy lifting, it calls us to go out in the world and give Christ’s hope.
Jesus does not command us to go bring people in those doors, he asks us to follow him, which means walking out those doors and meeting others in their discomfort. It is not pretty work; it is much easier to invite people in, than to go out to them and meet them at their crosses. It takes effort, you get tired, you may get dirty.
It is not comfortable sitting with a homeless person at the shelter, or looking into the eyes of a person standing in line at the food pantry. The cross becomes heavy when you are insulted or ostracized for fighting on behalf of the oppressed. You may feel your shoulders weaken when not be invited to all the fancy parties because you make the plight of the poor, the immigrant, or the soiled your priority.
You will feel isolated and rejected when your voice for justice is the sole voice among your neighbors. But that cross has redemptive power. There can be no serving Christ without serving the people he loved and for whom he died, no love of Christ without loving and caring for the world he came to redeem.
That cross is heavy, when we give instead of receive, when we console instead of being consoled, when understand instead of wanting to be understood, when we love instead of expecting love in return. And we must carry that cross for everyone, not only those injustices that directly affect our own homes or surroundings. We must carry the cross whenever we encounter injustice, abuse and discrimination everywhere.
And we cannot place distinctions or conditions on the cross we carry. We must carry the cross for all our brothers and sisters, for the young and old, gay and straight, conservative and progressive, evangelical and liberal, Christian and non-Christian, Citizen and undocumented.
On of my heroes Bishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil wrote: Come Lord, Do not smile and say you are already with us. Millions do not know you and to us who do, what is the difference? What is the point of your presence if our lives do not alter? Change our lives, shatter our complacency. Make your word flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood and our life’s purpose. Take away the quietness of a clear conscience. Press us uncomfortably. For only thus is that other peace made, your peace.
I finally realized that the battered Christ in that small Church in northern New Mexico is the same perfect Jesus in my friend’s living room. We cannot have one without the other. By taking up the cross we feel the burden, suffer the pain, but in that cross we also know the joy of Easter morning.
During this sacred time of Lent, pray, listen and contemplate how you will make that first step, how much your arms and shoulders can bear. For those of you who are carrying your own crosses, remember, we are your brothers and sisters. We have strong shoulders. Christ calls upon us to be his body, his hands, and his feet. It will be uncomfortable, it will be lonely, but you carry Christ’s name – you are a Christian. Much is expected, but you have been given a spirit of hope to see the other side of the cross. When you walk out of those doors today, remember - the world is waiting.