Mid-September brings the autumnal equinox, the end of summer, and usually occurs around the time of Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah. For Catholics and many other Christians, the 14th marks the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, traditionally the beginning of the Great Fast before Easter. Fittingly, today’s first reading is the also that for Palm Sunday, which will be seven months from now. The Gospel also reminds us of the Cross – how Jesus, the man of sorrows, cautioned his followers that they, too, should take up their own cross in order to follow him rightly. That is, to embrace the rejection and likely persecution that inevitably seems to accompany discipleship.
Catholics don’t fast much these days, and Lent is pretty far away from our thoughts as we face the turbulent final throes of a stormy and in many areas, an incendiary season. Much of the world’s attention has lately been fixated on the devastating hurricane, ironically called Florence, that continues to imperil huge swaths of the eastern US seaboard. Other hurricanes are brewing in the Atlantic and are heading west toward the Americas. Less attention has been given to Typhoon Mangkhut, the fiercest storm this year and for many years previously, which killed 36 people in the Philippines and is rampaging across Hong Kong as it heads toward mainland China.
The crosses that hundreds of millions of people must bear today are the manifest effect of global climate change, which is far from being a hoax. But we here in the United States, and elsewhere in the world, are also keenly aware of the apparent upsurge in violence, especially mass shootings, which occur now on a daily basis. [https://www.infoplease.com/us/crime/timeline-worldwide-school-and-mass-shootings] As more and more firearms flood into our cities and towns, this should not be as surprising as it seems to be to many. Natural disasters take many more lives, but there is something particularly ominous about the number of innocent lives, especially those of children, lost to gunfire.
Road rage, bullying, gang warfare, and sectarian animosity account for much of the carnage. So do accidental shootings, the fruit of the growing abundance of firearms in homes. We long for some respite from it all, and not by just turning off the TV news and the Internet newsfeeds.
And so it may seem a little weird to hear Jesus speaking the way he does about rejection and violence as the price we have to be prepared to pay for
discipleship. But Mark’s message about Jesus is clear enough: to be the anointed of God, the Messiah, the Christ, meant to be rejected and put to death by government and religious officials. Many ordinary people would reject him as well. From the beginning, Christians applied other words of the prophet Isaiah to him: “He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” [Isaiah 53:3]
Our faith tells us that God’s will to create goodness out of evil, to bring joy out of sorrow, to bring comfort and hope where there is suffering and despair, must not be deflected by suspicion or cynicism or outright opposition. As Isaiah says in today’s first reading, “I have set my face like flint knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Not in the end. The responsory psalm appointed for today reminds us, more gently that “God keeps the little ones; I was brought low, and the Lord saved me. God freed my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.”
James repeats the same message: faith that does not become evident in good works is simply not real faith. But it is not how the world gauges success that determines how well that faith is realized in practice. It is courageous persistence in the face of opposition and rejection that tests and eventually proves the merit of what Isaiah, James, Jesus, and contemporary witnesses are committed to — especially young people who, like the students I met recently, who organize benefits for those in need or march for an end to gun violence in Chicago. This week I was deeply impressed by TV interviews with several young and not-so-young people who, much like the first responders who sprang into action in New York that sunny and awful day seventeen years ago, have volunteered to travel to the floodplains of the Carolinas or the borderland of the US as well as the Middle East, Greece, Spain, and Italy to help ease the awful suffering of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, many children themselves, fleeing their violence-torn homelands for a better, safer life.
There is an alternative to the cynicism, bitterness, and despair that blights the goodness in the world. The clue is in Jesus’ words to Peter and all of us, just as it lies in the other readings and in the stories of helpers and workers. It has to do with courage. Not sheer stubbornness, much less vindictiveness, but the ability to keep going when opposition and rejection and even outright persecution threaten to destroy our confidence in God’s presence and ever-ready assistance when we try to feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked, comfort those who mourn, and create a world where peace and justice are not just words.
The cross we face may seem huge and heavy, but still we need to pick it up every day. But if I am not mistaken, it gets lighter as we go, because we are not carrying it by ourselves. In the end, we will find it carrying us … in the hands of countless followers of the rejected Christ.