At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had questioned the disciples about his identity and Peter responded confidently, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). In today’s gospel, we see how poorly Peter understood the true mission of Jesus. He still had to learn that God’s ways are often not our ways.
When we hear the words, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly…and be killed and on the third day be raised,” we recognize the familiar story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But this was a story that the disciples had not even imagined. They expected a political Messiah and a new kingdom of David. They are stunned, therefore, by the words of Jesus. Jesus talked about resurrection indeed, but all they could hear was that Jesus would suffer and die…and that their dreams would die with him.
When Peter tried to dissuade Jesus, he received a sharp rebuke, and was told that he must abandon human plans in favor of God’s way of doing things. And God’s way is first the way of the cross…and then only the blessings of freedom and joy. This does not mean seeking pain, or even awaiting pain; it means simply trying to be a loving, caring person–something that will surely entail suffering, but which will also end in joy and fulfillment, as it did for Jesus.
We are all familiar with the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus and most of us know that in some general sense we must share in that experience. However, it is only when we are faced with the reality of a human life that is fragile and mortal that we begin to share the disciples’ dismay. Death or betrayal or personal illness can suddenly bring home to us the reality of the cross and the need to let go of the dangerous illusion of happiness merely through the success of our human plans.
This does not mean, of course, that we should avoid making plans and working hard for their success. But it does mean that we should not become wedded to those plans to the extent that we cannot imagine success or happiness in some other scenario. Anyone who has lived very long will remember how once cherished plans sometimes had to be abandoned and how something much better often took their place. What we should strive for is an attitude that is both persistent and open to revision. Once we get used to dealing with occasional revision of our plans, we will be ready for the ultimate revision of plans which will be our dying…something that can also be replaced by an outcome that is better than anything we could ever have planned.
In the meantime, we must avoid a false understanding of the meaning of the cross. It does not mean that suffering is good in itself but rather that the suffering that comes from loving is ultimately victorious and thus leads to a happiness that goes far beyond our wildest dreams. Moreover, for those of us who are facing the uncertainties of old age, suffering will simply be part of our trust in God’s promises–something that can be very difficult, but which can also be suffused by the sweet experience of hope. We should often ponder those comforting words of the Letter to the Hebrews: “…let us … persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping oue eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, … and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God” (12:1-2). We need to fix our eyes steadfastly on that illuminated horizon.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.
Image: Kim Metzgar