That I May Share His Sufferings: The Courage to Contemplate the Cross
“The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected … and be killed and on the third day be raised.” At other times when our Lord tells His apostles about His suffering, rejection, and death, we hear that they did not understand and were afraid to ask. Simon Peter on this occasion (cf. Lk 9:18-24) especially found it an unthinkable prospect. Probably a basic truth of the faith that we don’t “get,” or that we don’t understand deeply enough, is what Christ’s death means for us. We struggle to connect the cross with glory, death with life. But we need to understand these truths so that, by applying them, we might begin to experience a type of resurrection in our lives.
It is common for spiritual people, people who are serious about prayer, to move gradually from a superficial understanding of truths of the faith to a deeper penetration into their meaning. Sometimes it is so deep that we feel as though we never really understood them before. It happens with challenging truths that we hear often, such as: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life within you; you must forgive your brother from your whole heart; as you did it to the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me. And there are many other teachings that we have memorized but which do not become interiorized all at once.
One of them is certainly what we have heard today—not only that the Lord must suffer and die so as to rise again, but also: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.” Jesus gives us to understand that unless we understand that and apply it to ourselves, all is lost. We have no other means of salvation outside of following Him and losing ourselves for His sake.
St Josemaria Escriva says that in order to “understand better the meaning of Christ’s death…. We must get beyond clichés and external appearances.” A cliché is a saying that is true, but which has been so overused that it has lost the force of its meaning. In order to experience the full meaning of the Lord’s passion we have to have the courage to delve deeper into it by losing our lives for Him and bearing our crosses in union with Him.
I say we must have the courage to do this precisely because we may want to stay comfortably on the surface of the passion—to be moved merely in our feelings, to feel sad, even to cry, and then to think that we have shared a great deal in Christ’s sufferings. We cannot rest content with thinking human thoughts and feeling human feelings and then imagining that that fulfills my vocation as a Christian contemplative. As St Josemaria continues: “We must approach him sincerely and with the interior recollection that is a sign of Christian maturity. The divine and human events of the passion will then pierce our soul as words spoken to us by God to uncover the secrets of our heart and show us what he expects of our lives.”
It takes courage to contemplate Christ in His passion, courage to receive Him in Holy Communion, because God expects something from us: an increasing conformity to Him in self-giving and self-emptying as we follow the deeper glimpses into His mysteries that He shows us from time to time. In our prayer, Jesus continues to reveal to us a thousand ways in which we may die to self and to the world, so that we can love in ways that are selfless and unworldly. This is a kind of minor resurrection that the Lord wants us to experience even in this life.
Learning to contemplate and to suffer in union with Christ is where we begin to experience our own resurrection. Suffering in union with Christ, we become free to love and to be loved in God’s way. Standing at the foot of the cross, our Lady saw all of Christ’s sufferings and her own in this light: This is how God loves, how God loves me, how God loves the world. This contemplative illumination did not take away her suffering, but enabled her to see it for what it was: redemptive.
Blessed Columba Marmion shows how Jesus refreshes those contemplative souls who suffer with Him: “When we suffer, when we are in pain, in sadness, in weariness, in adversity or difficulties, and we come to Jesus, we are not delivered from our cross, for ‘the disciple is not above his master,’ but we are comforted. Christ Himself has told us that He wills us to take up our cross; it is the indispensable condition for becoming a disciple—but He promises too that He will refresh those who come to Him … in their sufferings.”
We often turn away from the opportunities to share in Christ’s passion, to carry our cross, even though we know better—even though we know the Scriptures, the events of the passion, the crucifix. The courage to contemplate these grave realities with a sincere desire to lose a little more of ourselves so as to gain Christ urges us over the threshold from mere ideas to effective conversion of our ways.
The fact is, if God takes something into His hands and uses it, even using it again and again, then we have to contemplate that thing seriously. When Jesus takes a mallet or a saw in His hand for years on end, we are compelled to contemplate those same, ordinary tools in a different light. God used them to build human furniture and farming equipment. Carpenter’s tools in themselves have no sacred value, unless they are used by God or in the service of God.
There is nothing about a cross in itself that is holy, but when Jesus carries one upon His shoulders and is nailed to it and so uses it as the instrument of our redemption—it is transformed, and we must contemplate it in a new light. Here is God at work with human tools, redeeming us. We see God suffering in the flesh, taking a cross upon His back, and now the ancient cross of the Roman empire must change in our mind to become the tree of life. The carpenter’s tools don’t change; the cross is still a cross. But God’s purposes have renewed them.
Our Lord calls us through the Cross, the Cross of Christ and our own, to make of all things an offering of love. If He can transform the instrument of execution into something exalted upon church steeples, enshrined in private homes, worn over the heart, and used as a symbol of blessing, then so can all of the misfortunes and evils of life be transformed into occasions for new life and new love.
Judging from centuries of artwork, devotion, pilgrimage, and spiritual reflection, we know that the contemplation of holy Christians has always lead them to see every step of the way of the Cross as significant—like the hammer and the saw of the carpenter’s workshop. The slow, agonizing footsteps of a condemned Man were transfigured into the one path of glory, His and ours.
May we allow the truth to set us free: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8-11).
© Fr. John Henry Hanson, 2013.