St. Peter was riding high. Jesus’ had just asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” While the rest of the disciples stumbled around in confusion, Peter hit a home run. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then, moments later, Jesus blessed him and entrusted him with the keys of his kingdom, giving him far more authority than he could imagine. Whatever you bind in heaven will be bound? Oh yes, Peter was feeling fine.
But then, as they continued their journey, Jesus began talking strangely, predicting his own suffering and death at the hands of the priests and Pharisees. The disciples were worried and puzzled—but Peter was downright upset. What was Jesus saying? He couldn’t mean it. He had just affirmed that he was the long awaited Messiah, the Son of God! Surely he was only moments away from ushering in a glorious earthly kingdom; a kingdom in which, he, Peter, son of Jonah, would occupy a very prestigious position. Jesus couldn’t mean it, and Peter felt he had to set him straight. “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”
Then something happened that shook St. Peter to the core. Jesus, his meek and gentle master, turned to him with an angry fire in his eyes. “Get behind me, Satan!” he exclaimed. “You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Peter was stunned, humiliated, and grief stricken. Had Jesus just called him…Satan?
But Jesus wasn’t finished. He turned to the rest of the disciples who were still reeling from this sudden zeal on the part of their Master. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” Jesus continued passionately. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
As we read this account in Matthew’s Gospel, we are compelled to ask: Why was Jesus so angry? Wasn’t St. Peter simply looking out for him? The answer is quite simple. Jesus loved the cross. His death was not an accident of circumstances or the outcome of a successful plot on behalf of the Pharisees, but rather the longing of his heart. Jesus Christ came to earth for one reason only—to redeem fallen humanity—and the cross was his chosen instrument of redemption. His whole life was like an arrow shot towards Calvary. The cross was always before his eyes.
The disciples, on the other hand, were appalled by the idea that their Lord could be killed. They did not listen to Jesus warnings and calls to sacrifice everything. They were interested only in the easy road, the smooth road. They longed for glory and a high place in the Messiah’s restored earthly kingdom. To them, their journey could end in no other way. The cross? Far from loving it, they were horrified by it, repelled by it.
Jesus looked into their hearts and saw their empty ambition, their pride, their love of comfort, their vain envy of one another. His infernal enemy, Satan, had been cast from heaven for the very pride and ambition his closest friends were now displaying. And it made Jesus angry. He turned to them and assured them that if they did not embrace the cross as he did, they had no part with him. The cross that so horrified them became the one condition of their salvation.
Hiding the Crucifix
Far too often, Catholics are embarrassed by the cross. The crucifix is removed from sanctuaries. The Mass, once known as an unbloody sacrifice, the re-presentation of Calvary, is reframed as a community meal. Priests, we are told, do not offer a Victim to God the Father, but rather preside like congenial hosts at a dinner. Homilies, instead of issuing calls to self-denial, rather exhort us to a mild and tolerant affability. Talk of sin and hell and God’s justice is scoffed at and is replaced by a vague and cheerful universalism.
In short, many Catholics prefer the wide and smooth road. They do not see the bloody sacrifice of Christ as central to the faith—they are horrified by it like the disciples before them. To them, niceness, friendliness, and tolerance are at the heart of the Catholic faith.
Jesus Christ is repelled by this weak-kneed, milquetoast faith, and to it he thunders, “Get behind me Satan, you are a hinderance to me.” For Christ still loves his cross. He still bears in his hands and in his side the wounds that purchased our salvation. To all those who would follow him, he still offers the same condition: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
The Narrow Way
As we begin this Lent, we must again hear and heed the call of our Lord and Savior, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Strive to enter the narrow gate. Take up your cross and follow me.” We must reject easy and comfortable Catholicism, a Catholicism that demands nothing of us. We must not hide the crucifix, but rather gaze upon it, recalling the words of St. Paul, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” We must turn from the sin of our complacency and begin again to embrace the cross, for it alone is the sure way to true joy and life eternal.
I conclude with the stirring words of Thomas a Kempis, in his profound chapter, “The Royal Road of the Holy Cross,” for it summarizes these truths far more eloquently than I could:
The Catholic Gentleman.
Why, then, do you fear to take up the cross when through it you can win a kingdom? In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is highest virtue, in the cross is perfect holiness. There is no salvation of soul nor hope of everlasting life but in the cross.
Take up your cross, therefore, and follow Jesus, and you shall enter eternal life. He Himself opened the way before you in carrying His cross, and upon it He died for you, that you, too, might take up your cross and long to die upon it. If you die with Him, you shall also live with Him, and if you share His suffering, you shall also share His glory.