Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
When Jesus foretells His coming suffering and death, the Apostles are, naturally, shocked. Concern, fear, surprise – these are all rational, normal emotions to experience when someone suggests that some form of suffering is on the way. Peter’s response to this prophecy is to wish it were not true. No doubt, Peter believed he spoke in faith: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you!” So strong is His faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, that the concept of a gruesome death at the hands of persecutors is genuinely unthinkable. But this line of reasoning flows from an earthly, worldly concept of the Messiah’s true mission. In order to be the great victor in battle, the Messiah will be sacrificed, will take the weight and punishment of all sin on Himself and by dying and rising, defeat that punishment forever.
In the past, I have written about Peter’s misunderstanding and Jesus’ stern rebuke. To be honest, I have nothing new to add in that way. Perhaps though, a short reflection on suffering and how our struggles and pains can be united to the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross can be helpful. While no one wants to suffer, the simple fact is that each of us experiences some degree of suffering in our lives. To take up our crosses and follow Jesus can seem either daunting or confusing. Daunting, because the cross seems too difficult to bear – a hard diagnosis, a tragic death, an emotional wound that cuts too deeply. Confusing, because we sometimes do not know what cross we have in our lives and thus are unsure of what we are supposed to be carrying. Or, we compare our sufferings to those of others. “Other people have it much worse than I do, so I can’t complain.” Pay attention when that thought plays through your mind. While it may be true that others have it worse than you, that truth should not prevent you from crying out to Jesus for help and grace! To carry your cross is not the same as complaining. To recognize challenging burdens on your shoulders is not the same as whining about them. When Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow after Him, it is with the understanding that the cross looks different in each person’s life. Whatever your cross, carry it, prayerfully showing it to Jesus, who carried it for you already.
Let’s go back to the daunting sufferings. We may experience things that are brought on by our own poor (or even sinful) decisions, sufferings that are entirely self-inflicted. We may experience pain brought about by the sins of others. We may experience struggles caused by morally neutral forces – a natural disaster or illness, for example. In short, there are countless things that can happen that we do not want. “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you!” And yet happen they do. In The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien brilliantly lays out this truth and its solution in an exchange between Frodo and Gandalf. “’I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do, I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.’” As a Catholic whose life and writing was profoundly formed by the Gospel, Tolkien understood that suffering and pain need not be wasted, but rather can be a source of heroic action and virtue. Frodo is not wrong to wish that his time were more peaceful. Nor are we wrong to wish that suffering was absent from our world. Gandalf reorients Frodo’s thoughts, reminding him that a task remains to be performed. The choice belongs to Frodo: to act fearfully and run from the cross, or to act with courage and grace, facing evil and suffering with heroic virtue and perseverance. And so it is for us.
We are allowed to exclaim with Peter “God forbid, Lord!,” and to repeat with Frodo “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Having done so, the spiritual strategy is not to run, wishing things were different, but rather to listen as Gandalf urges us to decide what to do with the time (and suffering) that is given us. Even more, Jesus tells us that we must take up our cross and follow Him. To follow Jesus! This should fill us with confidence! It means we do not have to depend on our own skills or knowledge alone. We do not have to lead blindly. Follow Jesus, the light of the world, the one who has already endured the cross, heedless of its shame. Follow Jesus, the Word spoken by the Father from all eternity. Follow Jesus who knows us better than we know ourselves. Whatever we may wish, whatever suffering we may endure, Jesus never stops calling us to follow after Him. And so we are called to leave behind our earthly way of thinking, to decide what to do with the time that is given us, to take up our cross and follow the lead of our Lord.