12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
12th Sunday / Ordinary / year C
June 18-19, 2016
St. Thomas Aquinas, Ames, Iowa
Fr. Jon Seda
This past Tuesday I was driving through my home town, so thought I should stop in and see my Mom, which I did. It was a nice day, so I also spent some time walking through the cemetery of my home parish. I visited the graves of my Dad, my grandparents, and many people who made up my world growing up.
One of them was a woman named Irene Baker. She was a quiet, meek saint in our small parish. She was a widow, took care of a daughter with special needs who needed her 24/7, and made a meager living sewing for people in our town. She was a close friend of my grandmother. Irene was the driver of the car that was hit by a drunk driver when I was in junior high, which killed my grandmother and another friend. That accident always weighed heavy on her heart until the day she died.
Irene would go to daily Mass, and then stay and do the stations of the cross afterward. In the early church, many people actually went to Jerusalem to do these stations as a pilgrimage. As Christianity spread and grew, this was not possible for most. So this devotion began where people walk with Jesus in his passion and crucifixion, and are now seen in Catholic Churches all over the world.
Why did Irene do the stations everyday? I suspect they spoke to her difficult life and the sacrifices she made to be faithful to Christ. She daily carried the cross, joined her sufferings to those of Christ, and this gave her incredible strength and perseverance.
In today's Gospel, Jesus says something which is stunning. If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very selves, take up your cross daily, and then follow me. Think of how jarring that would have sounded to the people. Crucifixion was state sponsored terrorism. It was a horrible, slow death, and usually they would leave the bodies on the crosses to be picked apart by the animals. During the slave uprising of Spartacus, the Romans lined the Appian way with hundreds of crosses as a deterrent. The clear message is do not challenge power, of this will happen to you.
So it is odd that Jesus would promise the cross to those who would follow him. It would be like a presidential candidate saying if you vote for me, you will be executed. That would make us think twice about who we voted for. I think the important word in the Gospel is daily, which speaks of a lifestyle more than an event. It means a daily denial of the self so that others may live.
Today we often talk about self-fulfillment, in our relationships, careers, and ministries. I suppose this is an okay place to begin, to ask if this or that will be fulfilling. But notice how Jesus never spoke of self-fulfillment. His path to life would be what we might call self-donation. The good life, the rich life, the holy life involves becoming a sacrificial gift to others in some way.
The big, obvious question is why on earth would anyone want to follow Jesus? He kind of snuck this in with the apostles as well. When he first called them by the seashore, he just said, "follow me." And it is incredible that they left everything and did follow him. But now this enters into a totally different stage. Jesus says, oh, by the way, I forgot some details. To follow me means to deny your self and take up your own cross as well. The Christian life is not about self-fulfillment but self-donation.
Jesus himself answers this question at the end of the Gospel. "Whoever loses their life for my sake will save it." This salvation is not just getting into heaven, but also a discovery of the depth and beauty and joy in this life. The paradox of the Gospel is that we find joy only to the extent that we become a gift to others. This will involve an emptying of our self so that we can be filled with divine life.
Perhaps that is why those who suffer the most seem to be those who are the most filled with God. There is a strange beauty to their lives. A few months ago, I read a book called Shirt of Flame by Heather King, which is about the life of St. Therese of Lisieux. There is a paragraph which really struck me. She says:
"When a person dies who existence has been all comfort and ease, we might be envious of the comfort, but we also sense that he or she has missed some essential point. When someone dies who has suffered, on the other hand, we might feel compassion or pity . . . But we also think: Ah, that person truly lived!"
I saw that in Irene's life, a strange beauty in her simple, sacrificial life. I think it was because she daily prayed the stations of the cross that she was never bitter or angry about her life. She had such deep faith and heroic love, that when I visited her grave on Tuesday, I smiled and thought, "Ah, here is someone who truly lived!" I am glad that I will be buried close to Irene. And I hope that with the grace of God, one day I will grow up to be like her.