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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Misreading the cross

Back in the 80s, we were flabbergasted that kids didn’t know that Paul McCartney was in a group before Wings. Then, by the late 90s, it was like, “who was Wings?” It hasn’t, probably won’t for a long time, get to be “Who’s Paul McCartney?”, but that is the way things go. Human memory is short. Meanings evolve, change. In Britain, a flat is what we call an apartment in the States; flats in the states are shoes without heels, tires without air, or black keys on the piano. In Australia, a boot is the trunk of your car; in the US, you can put your boots in the trunk, or give someone the boot out of your car (into the trunk?), or put a boot on a car if it’s parked in an illegal space. Same symbol, “b-o-o-t,” but different meanings. We can probably figure out the etymology of each, find how the symbol-word came to have the meanings it has, by going back to uncover its origin in antiquity (probably the origin of “boot” inasmuch as it pertains to motor vehicles isn’t all that ancient!)

I was thinking about all this today as I listened to the gospel with its admonition about what we call the “cost” of discipleship:
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.”
I had been reading Sr. Mary Boys’s (of Union Theological Seminary's theology department) very insightful essay on the way that the meaning of the cross has changed across the millennia, to the point where it has been, at different times, a form of torture, a symbol of empire, a sword, a threat, and the focus of the charge of deicide against the Jews. While often explicitly rejected by the papacy, nevertheless, in the catholic “imagination” of the peasantry and countryside, the lamentable but pervasive justification for mistreatment, torture, and murder of Jews arose from the charge that Jews had killed Jesus of Nazareth. Her essay deals with the question of whether the cross ought to be laid aside as a symbol because of its history of misuse. Happily, she does not embrace an affirmative conclusion, but she treats the possibility with intellectual and emotional respect. It’s a good read.

It is unthinkable that, in the context of first-century Mediterranean life under the aegis of the Caesars and their heirs, that Jesus or an evangelist or anyone would use the term “take up the cross” in a psychological or privatized sense. The cross was a matter of almost unspeakable shame, terror, and ignominy. It was a form of punishment reserved for enemies of the empire. No Roman citizen could be crucified; only those in occupied nations, and only for crimes of treason, rebellion, or impiety against the god-emperor, were crucified. The two men crucified with Jesus, called “thieves” in some translations of the gospels, were in fact insurrectionists, fomenting public discord, disturbers of the sacred Pax Romana. To think that Mark or Matthew or any NT writer would use “take up the cross” in the personalistic sense we hear it used today (“caring for my mother is my cross”) is just not an option.

“Taking up the cross” is being aware of the cost of choosing to live in the reign of God. Living with Abba as one’s sole ruler will bring one into conflict with whatever powers claim that obeisance of us here, and will inevitably, in some way, if we are truly aware and faithful to the gospel, lead us to the real cross. It’s a kind of witness to how few people really live the gospel, and how many of them aren’t actually Catholic, that so few of us are killed. Me for instance. Like the victims of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, we have been completely assimilated. We think that being a good Christian and being a good citizen are completely compatible. We will even go off to war and kill other Christians, or vote for people who advocate same, or buy stock in companies that work people for slave wages and do violence to the ecosystems of earth and the economy of the world. Sorry. “Taking up the cross” doesn’t mean putting up with the a$$hole in the cubicle across the aisle. It means not putting up with the structures and strategies of human empires that keep people enslaved to each other, hopeless, homeless, hungry, and poor. It means rejecting “trickle down economics” in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It means all of that, and enduring the ridicule and even hatred and violence that befall prophets and whistleblowers who dare speak the word that the emperor has no clothes, nor morals, nor God.

It’s not new at all for Christians to misunderstand the cross, as we heard in Sunday’s gospel. Peter is an eyewitness, with the twelve, to the life, words, and work of Jesus. But it is Peter himself who, even on the very tail of his insight about Jesus’s identity, misses the meaning of it. He has his own way of seeing what "messiah" means. For just coming to that conclusion alone, Jesus has given him credit for insight beyond his own ability to know. But now, when he attempts to impose his meaning of "messiah" on Jesus, who himself has been growing into a meaning for that term and that calling, Jesus calls Kephas (the rock, Peter) a skandalon (stumbling-block), and worse, satanas, that is, someone testing his commitment to the path of God. Jesus, it seems, has come to identify messiah with the "servant of God" who brings good news to the poor, with the "son of man", a human being who restores divine justice to the world in God’s time, with the peaceful anti-king of Zechariah who rides into Jerusalem in humility on a beast of burden. Peter is still thinking “son of David,” a restoration of monarchy, a military victor, a king to stand against and vanquish Caesar with Caesar’s own weapons.

One of the reasons we imagine that Jesus’s calling Peter “satan” was actually ipsissima verba, the actual words Jesus spoke, is the "criterion of embarrassment." That is to say, it would not have been in Peter’s, who was the leader of the Christian community after the death of Jesus and James, best interest to have the text preserved. Likewise the story from two weeks ago of the pagan woman who changes Jesus’s mind about who his ministry was for, about how big God might be, and who should benefit from God’s goodness. This kind of truth-telling might be considered embarrassing or even scandalous in a community that values perfection or sinlessness as possible for human beings, or who imagine perfection does not allow for growth. (If it is natural for human beings, for any life, to “grow,” then is perfect humanity one who grows well, rather than one who just appears, or gets some special kind of map?) So I think we have to deal with this stuff, and not spiritualize it too much. Why do these two stories exist right in the middle of Matthew, and side by side? I think it all has to do with Jesus’s emerging self-identity, and the alignment of that messianic sense with the prophecy of Isaiah, the apocalypse of Daniel, and the natural outcome of facing down the powers of Rome and their Jerusalem collaborators. It wasn’t a mystic vision that allowed Jesus to predict his death: it was the natural order of things. It had happened hundreds of times before.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.
Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

So, I guess it’s OK for us not to be there yet, if it took his own disciples a while — maybe a lifetime — to catch on. That’s why St. Paul’s words in the second reading struck me, strongest at my fourth mass of the day. It’s all a matter of growth. Even Jesus had to grow into the meaning of metanoia, of a change of heart, of personality, so complete that it means turning away from Caesar and walking anew in the empire of God. Even Jesus’s heart had to expand as he wandered, prayed, ate, taught, and interacted with people. And so I heard, like you did I’m sure, St. Paul speaking to me from just twenty or thirty years after the death of Jesus with words that both push me along and console me in my slow progress:
Do not conform yourselves to this age

but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,

that you may discern what is the will of God,

what is good and pleasing and perfect. 

Have a good week. As John Shea suggests, don’t think of difficult people in your life as your “cross” — think of them as opportunities to live in love, to be like God, to enter into agape. Little by little, the cross will make itself known, and it will not be psychological or symbolic. Real wood, real nails, real death sentence, real death. No need to look for it. If we live in the reign of God, the cross will find us. Faith tells us that, when the moment comes, God will be in that moment, and we’ll have enough experience in kenosis and agape in our Christian life that the impossibility of anything but the fullness of life and light beyond the cross will give us the courage to take it up. We’ve been marked with that sign since before our baptism, it is branded on our soul. Seeing it, up close and personal, even horrendous, leering, and full of bravado, will seem somehow familiar, somehow like coming home.