24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading: Mark 8: 27-38
The odds are pretty good that most of us will have seen or read Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. You may remember that scene in the first act where Macbeth encounters the witches on the heath and we hear their strange predictions of his rise to power. The dramatic effect of that encounter is to create in the audience a premonition of foreboding and a sense that here is a man unable to escape his fate.
Another example: when Wordsworth says ‘The Child is Father of the Man’ (in My Heart Leaps Up) would we agree that, whether by nature or nurture, what we see in a child truly determines the character of the adult? Will the selfish child become the selfish adult?
Or, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, what about the signature phrase of the Calvinistic undertaker in Dad’s Army’ ‘We’re all doomed’?
Well you can see where this is headed: are we free to make our way in life or are we trapped, locked in by genetic predispositions or other social and cultural factors to an identity and a destiny that is effectively defined for us?
In the Lady Chapel of St Peter’s Cathedral Adelaide is a painting of a young man in bright sunlight carrying a hefty wooden beam and the shadow he casts seems to show a man hanging from a cross. The title of the painting is ‘The Foreshadowing of the Cross’. The gospel this morning can also be read as a foreshadowing and make us feel we are observers of the inevitable and must now watch the action remorselessly unfold.
The drama begins with the question of who Jesus is – and Jesus opens the subject by polling the disciples – what do the people say and what do you say? It is common to read this as Jesus’ way of teaching his disciples about himself but it seems to me that this is also Jesus broaching his own questions about his identity and then coming to terms with what it means to be the Messiah and all that may entail. This makes good sense of the so-called ‘messianic secret’ in Mark’s gospel: we can understand that Jesus would keep things quiet if he had to assimilate difficult information, and as that intolerable knowledge becomes clearer he has also to prepare for what will come.
Is Jesus trapped by his identity as the Messiah? Well, we speculate here –but it looks to me as if Jesus has the freedom to walk away. Peter’s horrified response when he learns what the Messiah must suffer voices the instinct for self-preservation that Jesus must know within himself; the natural desire to escape the cross, and abandon who he is. But when Jesus rebukes Peter we realise that a bridge has been crossed. The decision has been made – if he is the Messiah, so be it, let come what may. Peter has failed as career advisor and counsellor. Jesus has chosen the difficult path and leaving himself for the will of God, steps along the road that leads him to the cross.
Horrific though the cross is as an instrument of torture and death, it is also a paradox: Jesus makes the cross a source of life. In an act of total commitment, by a determined orientation of his will, he set self-preservation and self-interest aside – and faced the horror of the cross. That is a radical act, but maybe it takes such radical acts, such counter-cultural acts, to shake us awake, and arouse us from indifference. By that great self-giving the world changed.
And that is where we come in – when Jesus tells us that our true life consists in taking up our cross and following him. He certainly does not mean that we should be nailed to a cross but that we should take the cross inside us. Even in this season of examinations, or in all the other stresses of our lives, let the shadow of the cross lie over everything – and consciously take within us the life of Jesus. The image of the cross puts the question as to who we are, how we live and who we are becoming. To ‘take up the cross’ is to see the world differently, see our neighbours differently, and certainly not to be so possessed by self-interest. To take the cross within us changes how we respond to refugees, the unemployed and the marginalised, the poor and the homeless.
One priest gives this advice:
“When we cross ourselves let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us at once, how it consecrates and sanctifies us.”
Take up your cross.