Easter Sunday

Taking Up Our Cross. . . Be Not Afraid

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us. 1 JOHN 4:18–19 

There was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” MATTHEW 28:2–6 

“There are no accidents,” insisted Father Benedict Groeschel as he began to recover from the injuries he suffered in Florida. This strong statement of faith is similar to what Jesus told the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25–26)

Not an accident. . . necessary!

Father Groeschel frequently quotes St. Augustine in this regard: “God does not cause evil, but that evil should not become the worst.” So, when a car struck him that January night, Father Benedict’s faith told him that there was a reason for this cross, a reason that ultimately God would reveal in time. This is the power of the cross for the follower of Christ: No matter what happens to us or can happen to us, we are not defeated.

Years ago I worked with someone who told me that her mother had labeled her and her brother as “accidents”—two unwanted, unpleasant surprises. Unwilling to think that a parent would say such a thing, I assumed my colleague’s recollection of her mother’s words was exaggerated. Some years later, I was introduced to her mother. In the course of conversation, the topic of abortion was raised. The woman pointed at her daughter and said, “If abortion had been legalized when I was young, I would never have had any children!” By that time she was an old woman; her daughter, who was divorced, lived with her and was a faithful companion. I pointed out that, had abortion been legalized, she would now be alone. “Wouldn’t that be great!” the mother replied. I left their home feeling very sad for both of them.

Without the gospel message, some people see only accidents in their lives—all of which have prevented them from reaching some dreamed of earthly paradise. They never seem to realize they cannot reach this paradise without help from above.


Coming to the tomb of Jesus that first Easter morning, the women discovered an angel there, the rock rolled away. It was a shocking and unexpected sight. The guards, who were there to make sure that the disciples did not steal the body of the Lord, were also witnesses to this. They were overcome with fear—to the point of being “like dead men.” One experience, two groups of people, two different reactions. One group looks at the empty tomb and rushes to tell what they have witnessed. The other group is paralyzed by the life event. This wasn’t just something that happened thousands of years ago; it happens every moment of every day. Those who see the cross as the end of their life, meet death there; those who believe and place their trust in God, find in the cross life and victory.

St. Peter Chrysologus (the “golden-worded”) was known for his clear and simple style of preaching. About the angel’s appearance at the tomb, he preached, “Pray that the angel would descend now and roll away all the hardness of our hearts and open up our closed senses and declare to our minds that Christ has risen, for just as the heart in which Christ lives and reigns is heaven, so also in the heart in which Christ remains dead and buried is a grave.” For those who do not believe, life unfolds as a series of accidents. When a follower of Christ sees his life in exactly the same way, Jesus calls that person foolish, slow to believe. Someone like that needs to redirect his attention to the cross.


The procession of the cross that begins and ends each celebration of the Eucharist should help us to redefine our lives whenever we witness it. As the Mass begins we join all of our crosses to the cross of Christ, asking the Lord to have mercy upon us for our inability to see. We listen to the Scriptures to once again learn about all the necessary events of our lives, proclaim the Church’s belief as our own, and give thanks to God as we offer the sacrifice that he has provided for us. We then receive the Living God before the cross leads us back into the world! Having received the life of Christ in us, we are better able to extend that love to others.

I was reminded of this again a few years ago, when I met another family who also had an unplanned child. In the presence of the child they said what a gift they had been given—like nothing they could have ever dreamed of asking for, an incredible blessing. Their joy mirrored that of God the Father, who could not contain himself in heaven when his Son walked the earth. He opened up the heavens to exclaim, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). That same Son would experience horrible suffering at the hands of cruel men. Assured of the love of the Father, he knew that ultimately the Father would not let him down. When you and I are finally convinced in the same way that God loves us, we will welcome whatever comes our way in this life and see it with a vision that others will marvel at. On that day we will say, “Alleluia. Praised be God!”

The Power of the Cross  by Michael Dubruiel is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.

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Holy Saturday

Day 39 Taking Up Our Cross. . . Be Prepared

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 1 CORINTHIANS 11:27–30 

Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain one, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at your house with my disciples.’” And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the passover. MATTHEW 26:17–19

While I was preparing material for the National Catholic Educators Association convention in St. Louis a year ago, my son came into the room and turned on the stereo. Out boomed the voice of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. It was a tape that had remained in the stereo from the time I had been listening to some of the archbishop’s talks as I compiled a book of Eucharistic

meditations based on his writings. The book was later published as Praying in the Presence of Our Lord with Fulton J. Sheen. The archbishop read from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are feeble and sick, and a number have died” (1 Corinthians 11:30, NEB). The archbishop read it very dramatically, and commented that it was interesting no one ever took that verse into account. Then, without any further remark, he went on to talk about something else.

That night I found myself thinking about the passage, over and over. I knew from previous courses that the meaning of the passage confused many commentators. The next morning, I did a quick study and found that the Greek word that Paul used for “died,” koima?, literally means “fallen asleep.” Thought it often means “death,” it can also mean actual sleep. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that St. Paul once preached a very long sermon, which caused a boy, Eutychus, to fall into such a deep sleep that he toppled out a window. Most of the worshippers presumed he was dead. Paul momentarily interrupted his preaching to check on Eutychus and declare him alive. Paul then went on with the breaking of the bread, in what we would call today the rest of the Mass.

We who are called to the Lord’s Supper have a duty to prepare ourselves for our encounter with the Lord. We must examine ourselves so that we may worthily take up his cross, from the moment we sign ourselves with holy water from the baptismal font. In the Eucharist, our sacrifice is joined to the one sacrifice of Christ at the moment of kairos, God’s “opportune time.”

It dawned on me that Eutychus might have been the inspiration for what Paul was writing to the Corinthians when he referred to “some who have even fallen asleep”!

 Know What You Celebrate 

How often do we attend the Sacrifice of the Mass without really knowing why we are there, or without paying attention to what is going on? This is how we eat and drink without discerning: We grow sick of the Mass, and don’t get anything out of it. We grow feeble in our faith or—like poor Eutychus—we are bored to death! In “The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” the fathers of the Second Vatican Council noted that pastors have a duty to ensure that the “faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by its effects” (SC 11). Unfortunately, when it comes to the Sacrifice of the Mass, those who should know are often as muddled as those who look to them for the answers.

On the day of the Last Supper, when he instituted the Eucharist, Our Lord sent his apostles ahead to make the preparations. They were to tell the “certain one” that his “time was at hand.” The fact that no name is given is interesting. Some commentators have noted that it could be that the Matthew did not want to reveal the name of the individual, to protect them from the authorities; of course, this makes sense only if the Gospel were written much earlier than is commonly believed. Another possibility is that the generic “certain one” is you and I; in much the same way as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” can be the reader or hearer of the word as well as the historical individual. In the Book of Revelation Our Lord says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”  We who are called to the Lord’s Supper have a duty to prepare ourselves for this encounter with the Lord. We must examine ourselves so that we may worthily take up the cross he gives us. In the Eucharist, our sacrifice is joined to the one sacrifice of Christ, it is our entrance into his kairos, “God’s time.”

 Being Prepared

What will we say when the messengers of Our Lord come to us and tell us that the time is at hand, and the Lord wishes for us to prepare for his Passover? Will we open the door of our hearts and welcome him? Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori method of learning, wrote a book in the early twentieth century about the Mass for Children. She began by describing the inside of a church: candles lit, altar cloths set on the altar. Something very special must be about to take place here, she said. Just as the disciples prepared for the Passover, the Last Supper of the Lord, so we must prepare to welcome the Savior before we approach his banquet. Being prepared for Mass is essential to the disciple and follower of Jesus Christ who wishes to be enriched with his teaching and be fed with his Body and Blood. St. Paul’s admonition to examine ourselves is paramount if we are not to eat and drink judgment upon ourselves—but rather partake in the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

The Power of the Cross  by Michael Dubruiel is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.

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Good Friday Stations of the Cross

In 1991, Pope John Paul II introduced a new Bible-based interpretation of the Stations of the Cross. This devotional guide invites readers to prayerfully walk in solidarity with Jesus on his agonizing way of the cross—from his last torturous moments in the Garden of Gethsemane to his death and burial.

Now with full-color station images from previously unpublished paintings by Michael O’Brien, this booklet creates an ideal resource for individual or group devotional use, particularly during the Lenten season.

Holy Thursday

Taking Up Our Cross. . . To Follow the Lord

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. 1 PETER 5:6–9

 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times.” JOHN 13:36–38 

Father Benedict Groeschel spent a month on life support after a car struck him at a busy intersection in Orlando, Florida. He has no memory of that month but his fellow religious have shared with him the outpouring of prayers and sacrifices on his behalf during that time of uncertainty. Father Benedict was in Florida that weekend because he was scheduled to speak to 125 priests at a workshop the following Monday; instead he was confined to a hospital bed. Monsignor Andrew Cusack, who was in charge of that workshop, stood at the podium in Father Benedict’s place and prayed for the friar’s recovery. A month later, Father Benedict emerged from the hospital. At almost the same time, Monsignor Cusack was laid to rest. He had died suddenly upon his return to New Jersey. None of us knows what the future holds.

“Where Are You Going?”

When St. Peter heard that Jesus was going somewhere, he wanted to follow the Lord. Jesus refused, and told the apostle that he would follow later. Peter protested: He was willing to lay down his life for Jesus (again something that he ultimately would do later). Then Jesus dropped a bombshell: That very night, Peter would deny him three times. The final battle to following Jesus is the battle of self. No matter how pure our motives may seem, until we trust in God more than we trust in ourselves, we are doomed to fail. To truly follow Jesus, we must unite ourselves with him and trust him totally. The story of Peter’s ultimate sacrifice in Rome has long been told. When Nero’s persecution of the Christians broke out in Rome, Peter fled. On his way out of the city, he met Jesus on the Appian Way. Shocked to see the Lord, Peter asked, “Domine, quo vadis?” (“Lord, where are you going?”)

Jesus looked at Peter and said, “I am going to Rome, to be crucified again.” Hearing the words of the Lord, Peter turned back to Rome to face his own death. He was crucified upside down, declaring himself unworthy to die the same way as the Lord he had denied. “You cannot follow me now, but you shall follow afterward,” Jesus had told Peter. And he did, when the time was right.

The Greeks had two words for time, chronos for chronological time (clock and calendar time) and kairos for the “right” or “opportune” time. Jesus often made the distinction to his disciples, who thought more in terms of chronological time than of God’s time. When Peter first declared his intent to the Lord, it was not yet time; the kairos moment—God’s time—did not come until Peter had witnessed to the truth of the gospel in Rome. When the Jews celebrate Passover, the celebration begins with a question: “Why is this night different?” In this way they enter into God’s time—when God intervened, did something to change the very course of history.

On the night before he died, Jesus took bread and wine and declared it his body and blood. “Do this in memory of me.” Once again it was kairos time, God’s time, just as it is every time we interrupt the daily grind of chronological time to enter God’s time in the Mass. Everything happens when God wants it to happen. Following Christ is a matter of surrendering to God’s time, of leaving behind our own plans in order to be led by Christ. Our goals and plans are always secondary to what God intends for us. In a letter, Peter told the followers of Christ to be humble, and God would exalt them. No doubt he was thinking of all the times he had been humbled by Jesus’ superior knowledge of him. In time, Peter grew wiser, and came to understand that the only stance of the follower of Christ is “Lord, depart from me for  am a sinful man.” For it is only then that he will hear the Lord say, “Follow me.” “Be watchful,” Peter also tells us. The path is difficult, and our opponent seeks to overtake and devour us like a roaring lion. This is not a journey for the timid or the proud, but a journey for the humble. There is much to fear ahead, but we know of someone who can be trusted to lead us “through the valley of evil.” “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you,” Peter admonishes us. Like Peter, may we learn to listen when the Lord tells us to “let go and to cast your net on the other side.” No matter what perils face us, the Lord will always tell us the way to go.

The Power of the Cross  by Michael Dubruiel is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.

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Wednesday of Holy Week

Taking Up Our Cross. . . In Reverence

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire. HEBREWS 12:28–29 

Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” JOHN 12: 7–8

My three-year-old son has a tendency to be unruly at Mass. He seems to enjoy the power he can exercise over us in a crowded church. On one of his recent outbursts I took him to the back of the enormous cathedral, where, moments later, I felt for the first time that the Holy Spirit might have prompted his behavior. Had he not been acting up and had I not brought him to the back of the church, I would not have encountered two powerful images.

First I noticed the bishop, clad in red vestments, his hands extended in the orans position. It was the image of Christ on the cross. Now, I have been attending Mass all of my life and I know that the priest represents Christ, but I had never seen this as clearly as I saw it at that moment. There was something about the vestments and the outstretched arms that said to me, “This is Christ!”

A little farther back, I noticed something else: a young woman prostrate in the aisle of the church, her forehead touching the floor in adoration. To be honest, my first reaction was one of protest. I’ve been educated in Church circles, and know all about “correct” posture and behavior during Mass. I am also well acquainted with the “Judas game” some well-educated Catholics play at Mass, in which individual acts of worship are criticized for form rather than praised for intent. Instead of worshipping Jesus like Mary of Bethany, who reverently poured out expensive nard upon the Lord’s feet and dried them with her hair; they resemble Judas, who chastised Mary for not selling the ointment and giving the proceeds to the poor.

As I continued to watch the young woman’s prayerful prostration in the cathedral that day, it struck me that what the young woman was doing—whatever her motivation—was beautiful. In a certain sense, it was even prophetic, for it drew me back to what I was doing. In my heart I thanked her for her witness. Both the bishop and the woman in prayer made it possible for me to participate as fully as possible in the Mass that day, holding my son and offering myself with Christ to the Father in my own poor way.

 Reverence and Worship In Earthen Vessels

Benedictine Father Gabriel Bunge explains that the early church fathers recommended prostration—kneeling with the forehead to the ground—to overcome dryness in prayer. When the body expresses the humility and submission of true worship, the mind is better able to be in tune with God. I witnessed this again last year, while visiting a community of priests, brothers, and nuns called the Community of St. John. This community is attempting to revive this ancient practice. Attending Mass at their monastery in rural Illinois, members of  the community all prostrate themselves during the consecration of the Eucharist and again after receiving communion. It was without a doubt one of the most moving liturgies I have ever attended: Simple but reverent, in the presence of other people who were caught up in the consuming fire of God. We live in a strange time. Differences are elevated on one hand and tolerance of these differences is seen as virtuous. Yet this toleration does not often extend to those who wish to worship God, especially in the liturgy. I thought of this again while I was dining as a guest of another monastic community. During the meal, several monks knelt out for some community infractions. There was nothing in their non-unified act that made the dinner less communal. If anything, it made it more real—symbolic of the various roles we all play in community at one time. If we cannot let the smallest infraction or deviation pass—the casual attire of the younger crowd, the Cheerios and sippy cups of the toddlers, or those who come in late or leave early—we cannot worship God very well. Reverence for Jesus should be our instinctive response to his presence, whether in the Eucharist or in another human being. Those who claim to follow Christ, yet lose sight of both his message and his person, fall prey to worshipping an ideology rather than a Divine Person. If we are consumed with self, the consuming fire of God cannot touch us

 The Real Prayer of St. Francis 

St. Francis of Assisi taught his followers to reverence Christ and his cross wherever they might find themselves. The prayer attributed to St. Francis that begins, “Lord, make me a channel of your peace,” was in fact not composed by St. Francis; it was misapplied to him in a prayer book. The true prayer of St. Francis was one he taught his friars to pray whenever they would pass a Church or the sign of the cross made by two branches in a tree. They were to prostrate themselves toward the church or the cross and pray, “We adore you Christ and we praise you present here and in all the Churches throughout the world, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” The cross reminds us of the true Christ, the one in the Gospels who was constantly misjudged by the religious figures of his day. If we are not careful, he will be misjudged by us as well. We need to worship him alone.

The Power of the Cross  by Michael Dubruiel is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.

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Tuesday of Holy Week

Taking Up Our Cross. . . In Abandonment

 Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. ROMANS 13:12–14

 “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one ever sat; untie it and bring it. If any one says to you ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” MARK 11:2–3 

A young Israeli whose family immigrated to Brazil was studying to be a rabbi. The rabbinical school happened to be near a Benedictine monastery, where one day the young man heard the monks chanting the Hebrew psalms. Fascinated, he ventured closer. Wanting to learn more about the men who prayed the psalms so beautifully, one day the Jewish man introduced himself to one of the monks. As their conversation deepened, the monk told the young man of Jesus, the Messiah. Some months later, the student was in Rio de Janeiro when, passing by a large Catholic church, he was drawn to step inside. He walked in and made his way to the front of the sanctuary, where there hung a larger-than-life crucifix. Standing in front of the cross, he said aloud to the crucified Christ, “Tell me if it is true. Are you the Messiah?”

When he told me the story and I asked him what happened, the young Catholic priest replied, “I’m here.”

His family had disowned him, but he remained strong in his belief and trust in Jesus, who had answered him from that cross.

Most of us who were raised in Catholic households may not appreciate the price of believing. We take it for granted. When I read the stories of converts, I am moved at the distance some will travel in order to come to Christ.

The early church fathers, always seeking the fuller sense of Scripture, thought that the colt “on which no one ever sat” represented the Gentiles who had not had the Word of God preached to them. By mounting the colt that the apostles brought to him, the fathers saw Jesus as symbolically inviting the Gentiles to take on his yoke. Abandoning ourselves to Christ requires something more than throwing off our cloaks and cutting palm branches. It involves “drinking from the chalice that he will drink and undergoing the baptism that he will undergo.” This can lead to a radical redirection in our lives.

Going Wherever He Leads Us

In the case of my friend, abandoning himself to Christ involved the rejection of his family—as Christ had prophesied would happen to those who followed him (see Mark 13:12–13). For many of us this won’t be the case. However, when we truly open our hearts to the cross of Christ and plead, “Tell me if it is true. Are you the Messiah?” we can be sure he will answer us. I recently worked with fourteen women converts to put together a book, The Catholic Mystique, in which each recounted her entrance into the Catholic Church from other  Christian traditions. Each story entailed Christ pulling them along the path he had chosen for them. What is remarkable about their stories is the abandonment to Christ they share in common. Some of the women were ordained priests or ministers in the churches they had left in order to become Catholic. Many had left behind families and friends, just as my Jewish friend had done.

The person who is truly abandoned to Christ, goes where the Lord calls him or her to go—even if it is “where they would not go.” In a recent interview, British journalist John Bishop asked Father Benedict Groeschel about his future plans for the thriving community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, which Father Benedict had co-founded. Father kept insisting that he had no plans except to be led. When Bishop pressed him, the friar answered all the more insistently, “No plans, just be led.” No one knows what the future holds. Abandoning oneself to the cross of Christ, one does not try to impose “my will” against “God’s will”; rather, one prays daily, “God’s will be done.”

 Lord, Save Us!

When the Lord entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was greeted as the Messiah. On Good Friday, the same crowd offered him up as the sacrificial lamb. We tend to interpret this as the crowd turning on Jesus, and indeed from a worldly perspective that is what seems to have taken place. We can relate to this fickle response. But if we look at what happened to Jesus, we’ll see God’s mysterious plan being enacted. “Hosanna!” the people cried as Jesus entered the city. This is one of the few words in Scripture that is not translated into English (like Alleluia; Amen; and talitha, koum). How does “Hosanna” translate into English? In most English translations of Psalm 118:25, this word is translated “Save us!” It seems that it may have been this psalm that the people of Jerusalem were proclaiming as Jesus entered the city: “Save us, we beseech thee, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech thee, give us success! Blessed be he who enters in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar!” (Psalm 118:25–27). They were crying out to be saved by God and his Christ. Ironically, a few days later they cried out, “Crucify him,” bringing about that very act of salvation. At times we lose sight of how this mirrors the actions of their ancestors, the patriarchs of the original twelve tribes, who sold one of their brothers into slavery—and God used that act of treachery for his own end. Thus at the end of Genesis we hear Joseph proclaim, “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant if for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today”(Genesis 50:20). St. Paul tells us that we are to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”—we are to conduct ourselves as people of light. Too often people try to escape or reject their cross; they flee to the darkness, escape in alcohol or sex, or immerse themselves in anger, all because things have not gone their way. Without the grace of God, this is our fate as well. Yet when we are handed a cross, if we abandon ourselves and trust in God as Christ did, what seems like defeat is in fact a victory! The evil that is done to us, God can mold into good. Then we can sing Hosanna to God in the highest, because the light of God will live in us and we will see everything in his light.

The Power of the Cross  by Michael Dubruiel is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.

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Monday of Holy Week

The Cross of Christ Restores. . . Obedience

And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He who says, “I know him,” but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. 1 JOHN 2:3–6 

Truly, truly, I say to you, if any one keeps my word, he will never see death. JOHN 8:51 

Some years ago I attended a religion class at a Catholic college that included several “spiritual talks.” On one particular night the talk was on obedience. I must have heard this particular talk more than once; I remember it too well to have sat through it only once. It was as though everyone had received the same set of lecture notes on how to deliver this new teaching on obedience. First the presenter would go up to the board and write “obedience.” Then he would break the word apart: ob meaning “toward” and oedire meaning “to listen to.” The presenter, who would always seem to have found in this exercise some moment of personal liberation, would then smile and say, “So you see, to  obey is not some slavish exercise, but rather an exercise in listening to someone.” If one were to take a survey of all those educated in Catholic schools over the past forty years, I’ll bet there would be any number of experiences similar to mine. Suddenly a vow of obedience to a religious superior meant only the obligation to listen to him or her before deciding whether to carry out a particular instruction. Lay people adopted similar attitudes toward the teaching of Christ and his Church.

Through such disobedience, the sin of Adam and Eve is committed all over again. I suppose it is no coincidence that I have had to attend more than a few seminars on improving one’s listening skills. Here again, I know I’m not alone. A whole generation of us learned to parrot back phrases to show how well we listened, with unfortunate results. When you repeat the gist of the conversation back to the speaker, the vast majority reacts as though you are being condescending. Those in a slightly more charitable frame of mind assume that the subject of discussion is so boring that the only way you can stay awake is to repeat everything that is being said.

“Not See Death”?

When Jesus says, “If any one keeps my word,” he is talking about obedience. When Jesus says about the Father, “I do know him and I keep his word” (John 8:55), we understand him to mean that he is doing what the Father sent him to do. Similarly, John equates obeying the commandments with keeping his word (see 1 John 2:5). It is pretty clear that the more traditional understanding of “listening” implies doing exactly what God tells us.  It is this kind of obedience that is Jesus’ condition to not “seeing” death. Disobedience was at the heart of the original sin. Have you ever watched a toddler assert his independence by resisting with every fiber of his little being the grown-up who wants him to do something he really, really doesn’t want to do?

Some have suggested that we are born princes but turn to frogs. It seems far more likely that we are born princes who would rather be frogs than members of a royal family. So, our fallen nature works overtime to redefine what it does not want to do in the first place.

“Keep His Word” 

Jesus teaches us that we have to keep his word. Of course, this is the cross for many of us. We’d rather go our own way than follow the way of Jesus, if it didn’t mean having to face the horror of death without hope. When Jesus says that those who keep his word will never “see death,” what does he mean? I studied this passage for several hours. I found that this passage was translated differently in the Vulgate to include the word “forever,” so that the intended meaning would be that the person would still die but not forever. Many commentators simply ignore it. Death is referred to in only one other place in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Luke, where Simeon had been told that he would not “see death” until he had seen the “Lord’s Christ,” or God’s Messiah. Holding the infant Jesus in his arms, Simeon prayed, “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, according to they word; for mine eyes have seen salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29–32).

In the Scriptures, death was portrayed as an angel—and not necessarily a good angel. Remember, death entered the world because of sin, and resulted in separation from God. The angel of death passed over the Israelites to take the Egyptian firstborn when Pharaoh rejected God. So, what was Jesus saying? The most satisfying commentaries interpret the words of Jesus to mean that those who are obedient to the will of God, as revealed through Jesus’ teaching, will never see this angel of death; rather, when their earthly life ends, they will be greeted by the Lord and brought into eternal life. Obedience leads to acceptance into the kingdom; disobedience leads to expulsion from paradise. The secret to obedience is given to us in John’s Gospel, when Jesus teaches that he is the vine and we are the branches. Our life depends upon remaining part of him—which we do by being obedient to his commands and partaking in his Body and Blood offered in the Eucharist. John in his letter says that we can tell if we are “abiding” in Christ by our actions: Are they Christ-like? The power to be like Christ, of course, comes from dying to ourselves and allowing Christ to live within us. This requires more than simply listening to or parroting the words of Christ; this requires a complete abandonment to him. Every day the official prayer of the Church begins the same way, by praying Psalm 95: “Come, let us worship the Lord,” echoes the refrain, inviting us to see our Savior, our Creator, the God to whom we belong. With the invitation comes a warning: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

The Power of the Cross    by Michael Dubruiel is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.

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