Homily, Eastertide Sunday 3A
As I was the youngest in my family for a very long time, I never became very good at picking out gifts for other people. I just wasn’t expected to for many years, so by the time my nieces and nephews started arriving, I was in over my head. Fr. Cimpl still makes fun of me for giving one of my nieces a little Christmas tree that I had here at the office for one of her birthday parties. Apparently the lights on it had stopped working as well. My other siblings are much better at giving presents. For the baptism of our nieces and nephews, one of my sisters often gives them a wall cross that looks like it’s made out of kids’ alphabet blocks—you may have seen one before—the blocks spell out “I ‘heart’ Jesus” and “Jesus hearts/loves me.”
A very nice gift to hang in a child’s nursery, but I often think of how far removed it looks from what the actual and original experience of the cross was for those in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus. Most of us grow up seeing crosses or crucifixes pretty much anywhere, in churches and in our homes, in cemeteries and in greeting cards. The cross has become a great sign and reminder of God’s love for us, but to understand why the Apostles and disciples seemed to struggle so much in coming to terms with what happened to Jesus, it’s helpful for us to keep in mind the original meaning of the cross.
For those in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ, the cross was the most shameful form of public execution. To be hanged naked for hours, on a hill where everyone in the city and in the surrounding areas would be able to see. The more modern gallows or electric chair would be much more humane. And those who died upon a cross were always seen as cursed by God and by man. It was unthinkable that the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for and expecting all this time, the chosen and perfect One sent by God to redeem Israel, it was unthinkable that the Christ would die upon a cross. No one besides Jesus Himself was expecting it, so it’s not surprising that a few days later we have these two disciples on the road to Emmaus talking about the crucifixion and then saying, “But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel,” taking as fairly obvious that anyone who dies on a cross is thereby disqualified from being the Messiah. The reports that he had risen from the dead seem only to add to their confusion.
Now before we think that we would have caught on a lot sooner than these disciples, let’s think of all the times that we’ve experienced crosses in this life, illnesses, setbacks, tragedies, corrupt systems that seem to be stacked directly against us, and how many times do we almost immediately start to question, “What have I done to deserve this? God must be punishing me for something. He must not love me like I thought He did. Why would God put someone He loves through all this?”
You see, most of us, like the disciples before us, just can’t wrap our minds around the mystery of suffering, how any good can come from it. Most of us believe, whether consciously or unconsciously, in what is called the prosperity gospel or the theory of retribution, that those who do good and are faithful to God should enjoy God’s blessings and protection, even in this earthly life, and that if those blessings of health or wealth or prosperity are taken away, it’s because we’ve done something wrong, or God doesn’t love us like He used to. So for Jesus to die upon the cross seemed to be compelling evidence that He wasn’t actually as perfect or as innocent as everyone thought.
So how does the Cross of Christ change for us from being an undeniable curse into being the greatest of gifts? Only real faith and a radical shift in our perspective can allow us to persevere in seeing God’s love amid the crosses of this life, to see God’s love for us expressed in a special way even through our sharing in the trials and sufferings of Christ. For the first disciples, it took the power of the Holy Spirit to open their minds to the meaning of Scripture. It took the power of Christ’s Resurrection to lift them up from their fears. I know in my own life, I used to be afraid of becoming too holy, drawing too close to God, because I saw how much the great Saints have suffered throughout history, but the love of God transforms our sufferings. So what’s holding you back from giving yourself completely to Christ? What comfort or convenience do we still love more than we love God?