The Readings for Thursday in the 9th Week of Ordinary Time (B2)
si sustinebimus, et conregnabimus :
si negaverimus, et ille negabit nos :
si non credimus, ille fidelis permanet,
negare seipsum non potest.
If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure, we shall also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful:
for he cannot deny himself.
In my days of college rebellion against everything for which I now stand, I went on opening night to see a movie called The Last Temptation of Christ. I remember a lot about that night: the standing in line, the Christian protesters, the news cameras. What I remember most about standing in line outside the Ziegfeld on 12 August 1988 was how wonderful the folks were in line.
I had gone with a bunch of my fraternity brothers and we were standing in the “to buy” line. And when we finally got to the window, the 8PM show was sold out. Did we want to go to the 11 PM show? Yes. Ok. So, after standing in line for over two hours, we were condemned to stand in line for another 3 hours plus. My fraternity brothers all – to a man – asked me to “hold their place in line” since it had been my idea to do this and they all left. Then, the people either side of me left as well and so, there I was, alone on a hot August night in NYC, holding a place in line for over 30 folks. My fraternity brothers came back drunk, loud, and boisterous. The group behind them came back stuffed to the gills. The group in front of me came back with a huge order of sushi for me. And they hoped I like sake. And thank you so much for being a gentleman. I sat with them: we had better seats because a member of that party knew something about the Ziegfeld and we set in the best place to watch a movie in the house. (It was a lesson well-learned for I never sat anywhere else anytime I went back.) At one point, my brothers, realizing I was not with them, began to call out my name: and the whole theater took up the call. It was funny and one of those NYC moments. Come sit with us! No… I’ll sit with my sushi-buying new friends, thanks. I’ll have to go home with all y’all drunks anyway later.
I mentioned the protesters in there… who were angry that someone (a Greek Orthodox someone, no less) could write such a “blasphemous” story and they were angrier still that it would be a movie. They sold more tickets to a B movie than any marketing team could imagine. And there we all were, seeing Jesus tempted to come down of the cross, even in the last bitter moments – giving a new definition to “his life flashed before his eyes.” No spoilers, though… you’ll have to see it for yourself.
But Satan knew – in that movie – what was Jesus’ weakest point: his humanity. For God, the Cross to carry every day was being his being human. Yes, there was an actual cross at the end of the life… but every day, God woke up having needed to sleep, like a mortal. Every day God needed food to keep going. Every day God had to defecate and urinate, had to drink, and breathe. Every day, God sacrificed his full possibility to be what was the best possibility in the will of the Father. He did it out of love for us. He did it unasked (by us) and in most cases (by us) rejected; yet in full accord with the Father’s will, with the Trinity’s love for us mere mortals. What could be more human than to fall in love with another human, to form a family, to have the comfort of a home and good food, and children, and extended relations. What could be more Jewish, than for the Rabbi to get married and be, himself, one of us?
Or to die alone. Rejected by one’s own and by one’s oppressors. Spat upon and tortured, nailed to a crossbeam, abused, mocked and naked, to die alone… What human could call that fulfillment? The human who was also God the Son and knew that was the will of God the Father. Was thus fulfilled in his last act of self-abasement. Jesus’ cross was borne by him from the moment he was divinely conceived in the Womb of the Blessed Virgin. Imagine knowing all things and not even having brain cells with which to communicate to yourself. Imagine being the very fount and source of all wisdom and being only able to scream wordlessly for food. Imagine filling all space and time with your presence confined to a cattle trough, to a latrine, to a woman’s arms and carrying satchel.
And that action of divine self-emptying we are called to replicate. But how many things are there in our life to which – instead of our Cross – we’d rather hold on; rather die than lose?
Like many who experience attraction to the same sex, I’m told that this is my cross to bear. I’m happy it’s so evident to others that I have to bear such a bare-bones cross. It’s so obvious to them that none dare look deeper at my sins to see that if my sexual attraction is my only issue, it’s a very light burden, indeed, to carry. It seems heavy to them because we have convinced ourselves as a culture that sex is the end all and be all of human existence. Married couples (of any arrangement) are expected to count the number of times they have sex as if that was an important marker of happiness. When there is less sex, we assume, it is a sign we are unhappy, and unfulfilled as humans. Even inside the Church, many assume sex is the marker for happiness and agitate for clergy to be married, blaming celibacy, itself, for other sins. The thing that we are to deny – “our self” – gets conflated with one very tiny aspect of the self (sex) and then we are told we can’t deny it at all.
See how Satan is so crafty! Come down off that cross, Little Christ, I’ve got something over here to show you…
But St Paul tells us that we have died with him and so we must endure with him. This is not only that final triumphant death on the cross of wood on Calvary. God died a thousand deaths daily for us: the mere act of human mortality in day to day life, offered out of love for us. The action of so many examples, the loss of so many faculties, the giving up of so much power, the assumption of so much weakness, the forgetting of things that cannot be forgotten, the burial of the immortal, the dampening of the eternal light.
Take up your cross and follow: because I have gone this way before you and, no, it’s not easy, thanks for asking. But, yes, it is an act of divine mercy. Make it to the end and there is no loss. Give up in the middle though, and all, indeed, is lost. Come this way, following me. If you have to give up something, no matter how small, it might as well be the smallest, the least of things.