“I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is My distress till it is over” (Lk. 12:49-50).
The fire Jesus referred to was not the Holy Spirit, whose grace would change and transform our souls. The fire He desired to kindle was the love that came from His Heart on the Cross.
Jesus was truly distressed as He saw so many look upon the Cross as a curse. He took what was considered the personification of the wrath of God and made it a means of Redemption, a solace in times of trial, an anchor in time of sorrow.
In the time of Moses all those who were bitten by the serpents as a punishment from God were healed by gazing at a brazen serpent suspended from a standard (Num. 21:9). The very thing God chose to chastise His people He also used to heal them.
This prefigured what was to come, for Jesus took suffering, the very thing that was held as a curse from God, a sign of His chastisement — and desired it, caressed it, and offered it back to us as a means of healing.
Jesus knew that once He, the Son of the Father, was stretched out upon the Cross, all men of faith would obtain the strength to endure the sufferings the Father permitted in their lives.
In the Garden of Olives He asked that the chalice of suffering pass from Him, and three times the answer was negative. He wanted to show us that suffering does not come into our lives without the permission or Will of the Father.
Jesus knew suffering would not pass from any of us after His Resurrection and He made sure we understood its role in our lives. Throughout the Gospels He promises us suffering and persecution, and He asks that we accept it with Joy.
He called all those who suffer “blessed” when they overcame their natural weaknesses. He promised Heaven to those who suffered interior and exterior poverty. To those who preferred God to themselves He promised Union with the Father.
To those who put their feelings and resentments aside and forgave, He promised Mercy. To those who struggled to maintain peace He promised sonship. And to those who suffered because they loved Him, He promised Joy.
Before all these fruits would be manifest, some kind of suffering was necessary. His own suffering would have been powerful enough to destroy suffering from the face of the earth, but He did not choose this course. He preferred to continue permitting suffering and make Himself the example for all men to follow.
He made it clear that suffering would be part of our lives when He said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are overburdened and I will give you rest.” He then explained why we should accept the burden of work and injustice, by adding that our crosses were really His Cross — His burden. “Shoulder My yoke and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.”
We are not to be without pain. Pain is Jesus suffering in us, but we are to look to Him for strength and courage. We are to learn this ability to shoulder our cross by gazing at Him and being gentle and humble in heart.
When we are gentle our crosses do not anger us or cause us to rebel. When we are humble we lovingly accept whatever the Father sends us. We see His pruning hand in everything we do or suffer. Only when we accept the sufferings in our lives with gentleness and humility will we be the recipients of the reward to follow — “You will find rest for your souls.” Lest we forget that our sufferings come from Him, He said, “Yes, My yoke is easy and My burden light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
When we keep our eyes on Jesus, our sufferings are easier to bear. The realization that nothing happens to us that is not good for our souls, and that in reality He also suffers what we suffer, makes the yoke of pain a light burden.
A yoke placed between two oxen kept each one from going his own way. Yoked together, the load was easier to carry and the will of the farmer fulfilled. Jesus used the word “yoke” because when He places the burden of the cross upon our shoulders, He Himself shares the load. He has a definite plan in mind, a purification in view — one that is necessary if we are to live with Him in the Kingdom.
We do not know what fruit the Divine Gardener desires to harvest, but we may be sure that with the Providence of the Father behind us, and His Son beside us, and His Spirit within us, our share of the burden is small indeed.
St. Mark tells us that Jesus told His disciples one day “that the Son of Man was destined to suffer grievously.” He was to be rejected and put to death. Peter’s human nature rebelled at the thought of suffering, and believing Jesus to be Lord he desired that He use His Power and change this course of events.
Like all of us, Peter felt God should change man’s free will and forever obliterate suffering from the world. Jesus rebuked Peter severely and said, “Get behind me, Satan! Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s” (Mk. 8:31-33).
There are not many of us today who think in God’s way. We think very much the way the world thinks of suffering.
There are many kinds of suffering that we can alleviate — sickness, inner resentments, injustice, and other evils. However, with all our compassion and intellectual astuteness in lessening pain, we are still overburdened with suffering in some form or other.
After Peter’s cowardly statement, Jesus turned to His disciples and the people and said, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” In renouncing ourselves we must put aside our own ideas of how things should be and humbly accept the things we cannot change.
The acceptance of the cross is the condition of following Jesus. We are so concerned with our daily lives, our bodies, and our pleasures that the thought of mortification, suffering, pain, and penance makes us cry out in despair and discouragement.
This constant preoccupation with ourselves was criticized by Jesus. “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for My sake and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it” (Mk. 8:34-35). We shrink from suffering in any form. We desire to protect ourselves completely from pain, disappointment, and even death.
But Jesus reminds us that if we possess the whole world and lose eternal life it is a sad exchange. We think that gaining the whole world would be a blessing indeed, and yet Jesus expects us to be willing to give it up entirely for His sake, to count it as nothing.
Human nature desires comfort, security, unbounded happiness, perfect peace, and harmony. We prefer leisure to work and take the line of least resistance in any decision.
Jesus asks that we impose some suffering upon ourselves. He asks us to lay aside resentment and to love our enemies. He asks that we:
- give alms and not tell anyone of our good deeds.
- conquer our thoughts.
- be humble when we feel slighted.
- be content with the bread of today.
- fast and be cheerful.
- store up treasures only in Heaven.
- have complete trust in God and not in ourselves.
- see only our own faults and consider our neighbor’s frailties as slight.
- not judge anyone.
- not swear or curse.
- have faith to move mountains.
- give up everything for His sake.
These counsels and many like them entail self-imposed suffering, sacrifice, and penance. Christianity is truly for the strong and courageous. It is not a pietistic balm for the consciences of men.
One day Jesus said to an astonished crowd: “Do you sup pose that I have come to bring peace to the earth; it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword.” He then explained how children would be set against parents and parents against children (Matt. 10:34-36). This kind of dissension would be inevitable because Jesus required a total dedication of self to Him. So many people and so many things make demands upon us that giving ourselves to God completely causes cries of outrage to rise from friend and foe.
Lest we take His words as symbolic, Jesus added, “Anyone who prefers father or mother to Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone who prefers son or daughter to Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:37).
In order to cover every other area of sacrifice, be it house, land, or possessions, He told them, “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow in My footsteps is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:38).
The Cross Jesus carried all His life was hewn for Him by injustice, the greed of the ambitious, the selfishness of evil men, and the hatred of those in power. Even those who followed Him and considered themselves His friends were often a disappointment. But He did not rebel; He harbored no resentment.
He saw everything as the Father’s Will, and in the Garden of Olives He stressed the Father’s Will as the basis of His Sacrifice. The Father did not prevent those evil men from venting their wrath on His Son. Though He did not ordain their actions, He did permit them and used their malice for a greater good.
Jesus wanted us all to know that He could call on Legions of Angels to assist Him, but He would not. He was making a path for all of us to walk in, and that blood-stained road would lead us all to His Father.