D. T. Forsythe said, “You do not understand Christ unless you understand the cross.”
While it is so true, the reverse is also true. We cannot understand the cross unless we understand Christ. Perhaps, we can even add that we cannot understand and carry our crosses without Christ in and with us.
Roy B. Zuck tells an interesting story about a boy and the role of the cross in our lives. One day, a boy got lost. A police officer asked him the name of the street on which he lived. The police officer mentioned the names of streets but the list did not include the boy’s street. Then the officer pointed at a tall steeple with a cross and asked the lost boy, “Do you live anywhere near there?” The boy responded, “Yes. Take me to the cross. I can find my way from there.”
For us Christians, the cross of Christ is our way to salvation because it is Christ’s way to fulfill God’s will for our redemption. The cross of Christ has brought us back to the home of our heavenly Father.
In his confession of faith in Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God,” Peter had one of his shining moments, if not the most shining moment, of his life. He gave the right answer to Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?” This answer was revealed to him by the heavenly Father and not by “flesh and blood.”
The Gospel passage today follows Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus. Yet Peter did not fully comprehend the full impact of his act of faith. He continued to see Jesus as the Christ from the human perspective, not from God’s. He was governed by the prevalent understanding of the Messiah as earthly and political.
It was a case of giving the right answer but with a wrong understanding of the said answer. Peter did not know fully well its implications. He needed to be rebuked to continue learning and changing his perspective on what a true Messiah was all about.
In the Gospel, we see Jesus predicting his own suffering, death and resurrection. He also discussed the need for the disciples to follow Him in this path to glory and salvation of all – through suffering and death.
Jesus’ prediction did not conform to the Messianic expectations of the people, which Peter and the other disciples presumably shared. Peter’s reaction against Jesus’ prediction was not just a matter of personal concern for the fate and safety of Jesus. It was a matter of expectations being crushed by the prediction of Jesus. It was a case of refusing to embrace the implications of changed expectations, the result of a new revelation of Jesus about his Messiahship.
How could a suffering Messiah liberate the people of Israel under the oppressive reign of the foreign Roman power? The Messiah needed to be powerful and mighty to do this. Jesus’ prediction was like cold water thrown upon the people’s high hopes for a political and earthly liberator.
Jesus’ prediction necessitates not only a change in the way the disciples saw Jesus as the Awaited Messiah but also in the way they would share in His Messianic role. They were anticipating to share in His expected earthly power and prestige and not in His suffering and failure. Jesus told them that they must also be willing to embrace their crosses in imitation of the Lord.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, says that Peter was actually trying to talk Jesus out of the cross as the path to resurrection and glory. Peter said, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He was convincing Jesus to rebuff the plan that the Father had laid out for Him. He wanted Jesus to take another path that was more in accord to earthly and human judgments and ways.
If in the confession incident, Peter was commended by Jesus, this time he was rebuked by Jesus. In fact, Peter was not only reprimanded; he was called Satan for acting like Satan in the way he was obstructing the fulfillment of God’s plan.
Satan’s role, in the life of Jesus and in the life of every person, is always to serve as an obstacle in the fulfillment of God’s will.
According to St. Augustine, Jesus was reminded of Satan’s attempts to talk him out of the path of the cross in His temptations in the desert. Now, Satan was acting again in the person of Peter, the disciple who had paradoxically just confessed his faith in Him.
In His temptations in the desert, Jesus told Satan, “Be gone, Satan.” This time, Jesus had to tell Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” Peter must not take the role of Satan by being a hindrance to Jesus’ accomplishment of Father’s will. Instead, he must be a true disciple who follows Jesus on the path of the cross. And Peter could only do this by thinking “not as human beings do but as God does.” He had to see with the eyes of God and of true faith in God, not according to his pre-established notions about the Messianic role of Jesus and the values of human beings and of the world.
Once Peter saw things according to God’s plan and eyes, he and the other disciples would consequently realize that the cross was part and parcel of the discipleship of Jesus. Just as Jesus had to suffer and die, the disciples would also be ready to embrace the same possibility and fate for them.
Cardinal Dolan further says that Jesus could never be accused of false advertisement in inviting disciples to follow him. Indeed, Jesus was and is always honest, bold and realistic. Jesus said in the Gospel today, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” No false hopes, no false expectations, no false promises. A disciple must be ready for the cross just as Jesus embraced the cross in obedience to His Father’s will.
According to historical accounts, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in his attempts to mobilize and galvanize the British citizenry during the First World War, said, “All I promise you is blood, sweat and tears.” Indeed, no victory and triumph for the British people in the midst of difficulties without blood, sweat and tears.
Jesus said the same thing to His disciples and He is saying this to us now: “No cross, no resurrection; no suffering, no victory; no pain, no glory.” Indeed, there is no Christianity, no discipleship, without the cross of Christ.
But Jesus was not only realistic, true and bold; He was also credible. He did not ask what He Himself had not embraced or was not willing to embrace. He could demand the cross for and from His disciples because the cross was part of His own life and salvific mission. Jesus truly led by example. The genuine Messiah who was Jesus was characterized by the carrying of the cross as a sign of love and a path to victory and salvation.
We can understand why Satan, who was acting in Peter, was talking Jesus out of the cross. Satan is always afraid of genuine expressions of boundless and sacrificing love. He is always convincing people away from paths that lead to holiness, salvation and the will of God. Satan is a liar and deceiver par excellence.
Satan always tries to delude and misguide us with easy, suffering-free lives, ways and paths that do not lead to salvation and to the true designs and will of God. These maybe in the forms of easy money, power and prestige and quick fixes at the expense of one’s soul, morality and spirituality and the good of the majority.
The cross of Christ is an inescapable part of Christian life and any attempts from whatever sources to dissuade us from this fact are lies. In fact, they are satanic, if we are to use the rebuke of Jesus in the Gospel.
While Satan is always convincing us that the cross is a sign of failure and weakness, Jesus keeps on reminding us that it is a sign of love, victory and salvation. In a world characterized by hedonism, convenience and fast results, people can shun away from the cross that is redemptive.
The Gospel tells us that the cross of Christ remains the primary symbol of Christianity. We say it is the suffering Christ nailed on the cross for our salvation, because suffering without love can be dehumanizing and destructive. Suffering can only be redemptive when love and Christ are present.
Mahatma Gandhi was discussing with some Christian missionaries about Christianity. He asked, “What hymn would you suggest to me which summarizes what you believe in?” The Christian missionaries consulted one another and then said, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
Isaac Watts wrote the said song in 1707. The lyrics of the song state:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.