Today’s readings take up the themes of suffering and salvation. In the gospel reading (Mk 8:27-35), Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” Jesus’ words are paradoxical. In its original sense, a paradox is one that goes against all received opinion. A paradox is something that we don’t think can be true because of how we conceptualize the world. Jesus’ statement is meant to “throw” the disciples, particularly because they have just confessed him as Messiah (Christ or “anointed one”). Many at the time had expectations of a Messiah that Jesus would not meet: a Messiah who would be a political king in the line of David, who would institute God’s reign—a reign of peace. But Jesus does not ascend to sit on a throne. Instead, Jesus is raised high on a cross, and crucified. The community of early Christians is also persecuted afterwards and experiences internal as well as external conflict.
Jesus tells his friends: salvation is not about God’s magically appearing to take over the world so that we can forget about being human. Instead, God comes to engage with what is deeply human and to transform how we are human with each other.
Jesus tells us to take up our own crosses and to follow Jesus. Our own crosses are never ones that we would have chosen for ourselves. Human suffering occurs with such a wide range: people suffer from natural disasters, such as the typhoon or hurricanes; sickness and physical pain; emotional trauma; the heartache of broken relationship; war and violence; grief for loved ones who have died; and so many causes. Although we know that others suffer and can share in compassion for it, there is also a way in which our own suffering is intensely personal, insofar as no one else is experiencing my experience. This “personal” nature of suffering can lead us to turn in on ourselves and away from others.
Jesus recommends against this. Instead, he suggests that whenever we have a cross to bear, we take it up and follow Jesus. What does this mean in practice? First, Jesus reminds us that when we carry a cross, we do it with Jesus and not alone. This idea that human suffering is private or isolating needs to be broken down. No one ought to have to carry their cross alone. Even Jesus gets assistance from Simon on the way, and comfort from many who tend to him. Moreover, there are other people around us with their own crosses, also following Jesus. We are with one another on this path.
Second, Jesus gives us our agency back, in one sense. When we accept that pain and suffering is a part of human life, and engage with what is really happening rather than avoid it, then it can be transformed. We can try to avoid our own pain through a variety of means: shutting down emotionally; taking up addictive behaviors that temporarily distract; or focusing anger or bitterness at what is wrong with others when the real issue is something happening inside of us. Instead, Jesus tells us to take up our crosses, and to decide to face whatever is really happening.
Taking up a cross is the first but not the last action, however. Jesus takes up his cross and is even crucified, but God transforms his suffering. God raises up Jesus. Jesus surrenders into the process, in full trust of God’s capacity to transform what seems not to be capable of being saved. In order to save our lives, we must lose them. Jesus allows himself to be “emptied” as a human being. Yet he finds that this emptying is not just the space of non-being, but rather the creation of a space for new life.
Jesus invites us also into this process of self-emptying. We can surrender control of our lives to God. Surrender does not have to mean total passivity: it often means cooperating with how God wants to transform any given situation. However, there is more than human agency at work, and God often acts in very surprising ways to provide a resurrection.
An unexpected gift of suffering is that it can lead us into a place where we must depend entirely on God’s grace and love. Some kinds of crosses give us no other choice. Our resistance to the totality of God being God is broken down. The gift in self-emptying is that where we allow aspects of ourselves to “die,” God comes in to fill and to animate that space. A surprise is that there is nothing more joyful than letting go of many things about ourselves that we thought were essential, and letting God take over and act in and through us–individually and as a community.
We human beings are like the meeting of sand and water at the seashore; the more that we know we are only “sand”, the more active the Water becomes in and through us. This is not a gift we give to ourselves, but rather a surrender that makes space for God to be the Giver of many gifts.
A last key point in Jesus words concern, why do we take up our crosses? Jesus says that we take up our crosses “for the sake of the gospel.” Some of our crosses must be taken up for the sake of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, strangers, those who are marginalized, and all those for whom Jesus cared. God transforms us not only out of desire to lovingly heal our own individual suffering, but also so that we can participate in the healing of the world. God’s redemptive work is meant to be shared and spread.
No matter where we find ourselves in the arc of God’s action in our lives, we can ask: how do I want to allow God to act in my life, and how do I want that action to be shared with others today?