I think, as a pastor, the issue I wrestle with most is the suffering that is out there. People come to me in their suffering, and that is a great privilege, a holy space. The father in me wants to be able to say a quick prayer and take all the suffering away, but of course, that’s now how this works. And so I have accompanied parishioners, and even my own family members, as they suffer. Suffering, unfortunately, is part of our life on earth, and we all do it at some time or another in our lives.
A lot of us, truth be told, have the same outlook as Saint Peter. We don’t want to think about suffering as part and parcel of our life here on earth. Today’s Gospel tells us that, after leading the Apostles in a little discernment about who Jesus was, Jesus then begins to foretell his own suffering and death. And we know that that suffering and death was absolutely necessary to pay the price for our sins. But Peter, and probably the others as well, didn’t want to think about that. They were still under the thinking about what the Messiah was supposed to be according to Jewish scriptures, and that Messiah wasn’t supposed to suffer and die. So Peter begins to audaciously rebuke our Lord, and our Lord then rebukes Peter.
I think this year, we’ve seen an awful lot of suffering. Many of us have lost loved ones to COVID-19, or have had a loved one pass away from something else during that time, but the pandemic prevented us from accompanying them. Others have lost massive amounts of business during that time or suffered financially from the economic downturn. Even if none of that touched our lives, the pandemic affected the way we live from day to day. Grandparents couldn’t hug their grandchildren. We were not able to travel or visit loved ones near or far. Many couldn’t come to church, even when things opened up a bit, and had to avoid large gatherings or public places of any kind due to a concern about their immunity. We had to re-think absolutely everything we did, and frankly we still are.
This weekend, I think too, about where I was twenty years ago. We all remember that fateful, horrible, 9-11 day, when it seemed like the world was crashing down around us. Nobody traveled in those days either. In those days, we had to re-think the way we did so many things, and we don’t take our safety for granted in the ways we did before that day. We also continue to remember the loss of so many people in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania – people whose lives ended quickly at the start of a workday, and those who gave their lives to help others. There was more than enough suffering to go around on that horrible day.
And all of that is to say nothing about the day-to-day suffering we all experience. The illness and loss of loved ones; the brokenness of our families; the loss of a job or opportunity; the effects of sin and addiction, whether our own or that of those close to us. The list goes on and on. The real truth of life in this world is that there is suffering, and none of us gets a free pass. Even Mary, full of grace, had to watch her Son suffer and die. Even Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and he himself suffered a terrible, painful, humiliating death. None of us gets out of this life unscathed. In some crazy sense, we all are united in the fact that we all suffer, some time and for something.
And so it is in fact audacious and even offensive that Saint Peter rebukes our Lord for talking about suffering. Peter himself will suffer a similar fate as that of his Lord, being crucified upside-down. Every one of us, in some way, has to take up the cross and walk with it, because it is only in doing that that we can make our way to the resurrection.
I remember a time when I was going through a very difficult time in my priesthood. One of my good friends came to visit me and brought me a wood carving of Jesus carrying the Cross. She told me that she hoped it would help me pray through that difficult time and would help me to take up my own cross, as Jesus said we must in today’s Gospel. Her prayers, and those of so many others, buoyed me up during that time, and reflecting on the Cross made me realize that I had to be there right then, and had to trust our Lord to bring me where I needed to go.
And the truth of this, friends, is that we have it a lot easier than our Lord did. We just bear our own suffering; he had to take with him the suffering of every person embroiled in sin in all of time. We have him to help us take up our crosses and to help make those crosses lighter; he had no one except for Simon of Cyrene who helped him begrudgingly. His death had to blast open the gates of heaven; we will just get to walk through it, if we follow him and live the gospel.
Jesus never ever promised to make all our suffering go away. But he did promise never to abandon us, and he did engage in suffering when he chose to come to earth. That, friends, is our salvation. So we have to suffer in this world, we have to deny ourselves and take up the crosses that lay before us. Because that is the way to follow our Lord who beckons us to come to him.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.