“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matt 16:21-27.
This past week from a distance — we saw on television great acts of bravery on the part of so many police, fire, National Guard emergency teams as well as private citizens in a flotilla of boats and helicopters in Texas and Louisiana.
They were carrying the cumbersome burden or the cross of a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey. I marvel at the work of these people; I’ll return to those courageous souls in a moment.
On this Labor Day weekend, we hear of the Lord’s great work of his ministry, namely that of carrying the cross for humanity with the glory of the resurrection.
In the gospels, Jesus asks some 183 questions, and in Matthew’s gospel alone, he asks 87 questions, of which these two remain most challenging, “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?
At the beginning of our learning in this school year, let’s examine the “questions curriculum” of Jesus.
On Wednesday morning, as I was driving here to Santa Catalina, I listened to Sirius XM radio and an engaging interview with the singer/songwriter Melissa Manchester.
That interview prompted a clear memory of mine and that of Nat Hentoff, a journalist and jazz critic for the Village Voice in New York City. Back in the ’70s, I was enrolled in his NYU graduate course, “Journalism & Opinion Writing.”
Hentoff had plenty of opinions about politics, education, the First Amendment, as well as music. He died earlier this year, and in the many obituaries, Hentoff was described as a “pro-life advocate” and a “free speech absolutist.”
He was a big fan of Melissa Manchester and talked about her in class, and to some extent, she owes her early career to Hentoff’s positive reviews of her work in Greenwich Village clubs. He was an enthusiast of her first recordings of “Midnight Blue” and “Through the Eyes of Love.”
Like Jesus or Socrates, Hentoff always had probing questions. Once he asked: “How many of you find meaning or draw fulfillment from your everyday work or job?”
Then, he asked for a show of hands, “Please raise your hand if you find meaning and fulfillment from your everyday work?”
I sat in front of the class, and I’m a priest and teacher, so I raised my hand to indicate that I found meaning in my work.
As I glanced at those behind me, I saw only three or four hands raised in the entire class of thirty or more graduate students. Blame it on my youth, but I was astonished at how few of my fellow students saw meaning in everyday work.
As the class discussion unfolded, many of the students expressed their doubts about their jobs.
Some expressed meaning or fulfillment came from family members or the ability to secure health care for children, or to earn enough to pay graduate tuition, or possibly to coach a Little League team, or do volunteer work for a significant cause. These were occasions that might be wellsprings of personal meaning for people.
Overall, there was a consensus in the class that there was little or less meaning in the everyday workplace or the day-to-day job.
The message of today’s gospel is a striking contrast, namely, to carry the cross, deny oneself, and follow. It is in this work that we as Christians find meaningful. As Jesus says: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Once the great monk and thinker Thomas Merton wrote: “Our task is to spiritualize the world.”
Whatever work we may do or job we have – there is an opportunity to conduct ourselves so that we may follow Christ. But it’s not altogether an individual act, rather a collective movement of followers, disciples – all journeying with the Lord.
After all, “Take up your cross” may be the least attractive aspect of Jesus’s challenging message.
In his own time and now, this message may not sell in the marketplace of ideas.
Jesus might have said, lay down your conflicts, or ignore your problems, or relax in those moments of doubt or depression. In other words, “Chill out! Throwdown your cross into the deepest sea, and escape!”
So there is no easy grace, or quick solution, or fast thinking when faced with the heavy burden of a child’s illness, the effects of bombing in the war-torn Middle East, or the suffering and displacement in a city like Houston, Texas.
These are crosses that challenge us deeply – and at times call for acts of great courage, careful thinking, and even careful scientific study in the face of natural disasters.
So, here we are. Jesus’s questions compel us to consider taking up the cross, yes, that old cross that you’re lugging around. Or problems that may haunt you and the larger society – such as illnesses like cancer, or the lack of work or issues of poverty and race, or that crisis you cannot escape.
These are vexing matters that you with others can tackle in your personal and professional lives ahead – the very service of the gospel and your opportunity to spiritualize the world with your creative work.
We have a choice. Do I carry the cross? Or do we bring this cross in a fellowship of cross-bearers: sisters and brothers, all following the only one who knows the way home. “Come, follow me,” he says.
Again, “Our task is to spiritualize the world!”
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.