Confounded by the cross
GOD’S WORD TODAY - Nono Alfonso, S.J. () - August 31, 2008 - 12:00am

In Matt Damon’s controversial movie, Dogma, the mayor of New York inaugurates what he says is the new symbol of the Christian faith: a statue of a smiling Christ with fingers forming the victory sign. This, the mayor says, should take the place of the Cross because the Cross is very pessimistic, even morbid ‑ for indeed it was the Roman form of punishment for capital crimes. What is needed by this generation, the mayor says is optimism, hope, happy thoughts, positive thinking.

In our Gospel reading today, Peter likewise misunderstands Jesus Christ when the latter declares that he will be handed over to his enemies, suffer, and die. More so, Peter must have balked when Jesus preached that whoever wanted to follow him must deny himself and carry his cross. Scholars would say that Peter’s initial rejection of the Cross was because this contradicted the Jews’ long held views of their much awaited Messiah. Their savior was to come in glory, not in the midst of pain or suffering. On a more human level, however, Peter, like many of us, was simply and most naturally repulsed to pain, suffering and everything that the Cross seems to symbolize. Who would want pain or suffering in his or her life anyway?

And yet the Cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith. While Buddhism has the smiling and contented Buddha as its symbol and Judaism has the star of David, Christians are confronted by the Cross. Confounded perhaps. For as many theologians today say, 2000 years since the death of Christ, we still need to be converted into a deeper understanding and appropriation of the meaning of the paschal mystery of Christ. How like Peter today, we are easily repulsed, angered, and even rendered hopeless or faith-less by the crosses we bear individually and collectively — sickness, failures, death, poverty, bad government. The list goes on.

How explain the Cross therefore? If it is the symbol of the salvation that Christ gained for us, how precisely did the cross achieve that? Space does not permit for an extensive theological explanation. Just a brief, simple reflection then. First, as many theologians are now clarifying for us, our salvation is not achieved alone by Jesus’ death on the cross but by his entire life - from his birth, public ministry, death and resurrection. If all it takes to save us is Christ’s death, then he should have just perished early on in Herod’s campaign against the innocents! No, it is his entire life that saves us because his entire life is dedicated, devoted, given to love and love alone. Love for his father and the people his father loved. It is this life offered to love that saves us. True, this love was best demonstrated, exemplified on the Cross, in Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice or total offering of self. As the Gospel says, no greater love there is than to die for one’s friend. The Cross then is not about death, but love. Total, absolute love. Suffering, sacrifice, and death without love is meaningless. But undertaken out of love, all these become redemptive, salvific.

Situated in the context of love therefore, the Cross becomes very meaningful. And practical. For those of us who have strived to love, we know that love becomes real only with the sacrifices we bear for our beloved ‑ parents who work hard for their children, overseas Filipino workers who risk limb and life abroad for their families here. Through our loving, we are saving our families, our world.

The Gospel for today then challenges us to accept the crosses, the sacrifices, the sufferings we bear for love. Because ultimately these lead to our salvation. As Professor Morrie says, in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, love or perish. May we be like Jeremiah in the first reading, seduced by God’s love, despite the hardships he went through. Likewise, as Paul’s challenges us in the second reading, may we be able to offer ourselves as holy sacrifices to God and one another. Finally, may we follow the example of Peter who at the end of his life died on the Cross, for love of his master. May we all courageously embrace the crosses of our lives.

(Fr. Nono Alfonso, SJ is the Executive Director of the Jesuit Communications Foundation. He hosts USAPANG KAPATID, Saturday, 1030pm at DZMM, and HEARTBEAT, Sunday, 1030pm at DZRV.)

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