Recognizing Christ Requires Faith and Simplicity
By Archbishop Francesco Follo
Is 50, 5-9a; Ps 116; Jas 2.14 to 18; Mk 8.27 to 35
1) Recognizing Christ.
The entire Gospel of St. Mark intends to answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” But in the passage that we read today it is Jesus that explicitly puts the question “Who do you say that I am?”. Therefore we are obliged to respond.
In the previous chapters that we have read in the past few Sundays, Jesus did not answer to this question with a definition of himself, but with the actions that manifest what He is by what He does:
• He does make the lame walk. He is the One who gives man the ability to walk through life;
• He does make the deaf hear and the mute speak. He is the one who has the words of life that explain life;
• He does raise the dead. He is the Giver of life;
• He does make the blind see. He is the Light that gives the light which carries us to light;
• He does calm the waters of the sea. He is Lord of nature;
• He does give the bread in the desert. He is the One who nourishes body and soul.
The conclusion we should reach seeing his “doing” should be ” He is the Messiah (in Greek: the Christ).” Unfortunately the people of that time, and many even today, did not grasp the novelty and greatness of Jesus. To the question “Who do you say that I am” the response of the majority is that this “doer” is nothing more than a prophet like those who had preceded him. Then Jesus asks the question to his disciples “And who do you say that I am?” Peter, also on behalf of the others, responds promptly “You are the Christ!” Peter recognizes clearly that Jesus is the Messiah. He gives an answer that is accurate. There is no other answer. Christ, dead and risen, is the one in whom it is accomplished the impossible, the unthinkable, the only fact that can change the course of human history. Without him a man or a woman are “human being destined to death” (Martin Heidegger), while if he or she is “tied” to the Cross, he or she is “untied” from death.
It must be remembered that the response of St. Peter implies a further recognition: that of crucified love. It is the way of the Cross that completes the full speech, making it clear. When the Chief of the Apostles tells him “You are the Christ,” Jesus feels the need to point out that he is the Son of God, who must suffer many things. To the question that today Jesus puts to us “Who do you say that I am?” the complete response is “You are the Christ, the Love crucified and risen.” In fact, St. Paul writes “If Christ had not risen, our faith would be in vain”, and he knew that the cross is not an obstacle to salvation. It is the condition. “The Cross is not a pole of the Romans, but the wood on which God wrote the Gospel” (Alda Merini, 1931-2009, poetess). From Christ on the Cross the world receives a new dimension, that of Jesus and of all those who, following Him, give their lives for the others.
The Messiah invites us to follow him to Calvary, because walking behind his Cross we model our lives on that one of ‘”Lamb that teaches us the strength of the Humiliated that gives lesson in dignity, of the Condemned that enhances justice, of the Dying that confirms life, of the Crucified that prepares glory “(Father Primo Mazzolari, 1809-1959, priest and writer).
Following Christ and believing in Charity, we keep our arms and a heart open like the Crucifix. Of course to do this we have to recognize, like St Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior. Like St. Peter we have to accept the Cross as the “key” with which the Lord has opened the Heaven and closed hell for all those who receive him. The Redeemer took this heavy “Key” on his shoulders. He has felt its full weight and responsibility while its nails pierced his flesh and bound him to it. Christ has given this “key” of the Kingdom to St. Peter, calling him to be crucified with Him and to bring with him the sweet and light yoke on his shoulders to learn the humility and the meekness with which “to untie” humanity from the bondage of the world, the flesh and the devil, and ” to tie” them to Christ in an eternal covenant that will make them forever children of the Heavenly Father. In a poetic homily attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian, this saint imagines that the good thief after his death comes to the door of paradise. On his shoulders he bear his cross. The cherubim with a sword flickering like a flame (Gen 3:24) that blocks the access to Heaven of criminals who are not worthy of eternal joy, hastens. St Ephrem describes a heated argument between the cherubim and the good thief. It ends when the good thief shows the key to heaven’s gate. And what is the key to paradise? The cross, his cross transfigured by the life-giving Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The cross opens the door of life to all of us who believe in Jesus Christ like the good thief. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The life of Christ triumphs in all repentant sinners, even those of the last minute like the good thief.
2) True love, because crucified love.
Of course, like St Peter, we too try to remove Christ from the Way of the Cross. It is the temptation that comes from the devil. It is an attempt to divert us from the path outlined by God (the Way of the Cross) to replace it with a route drawn up by the wisdom of men, what is often referred to as the common sense.
Christ has unmasked and overcome this temptation, and his life was a constant yes to God and a no to the tempter. Jesus defeated the devil. But the devil tries to get from the disciple what he failed to obtain from the Master: to separate the Messiah from the Crucified and the faith in Jesus the King from his throne that is the Cross.
After stating his identity and having unmasked the presence of temptation, Jesus turns to his disciples and to the people and very clearly offers them his way. There are no two ways, one for Jesus and one for the disciples, but only one “Who wants to come after me must deny himself and take up his cross.”
The cross is symbol and icon of virginal love. It is the more authentic synthesis of the received and donated love, of crucified love. In fact, nothing like the cross gives the certainty of being loved from ever, forever, totally and unconditionally. The true face of God is the one of the Crucified (Jurgen Moltaman). If we present Christ to the world with its true face, people can feel him like a convincing answer and are able to follow him and his message, even if it is demanding and marked by the cross.
It is true that the cross is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1.18 to 24) and that it is difficult for each of us to understand it and accept it. But if we look, for instance, at the example of the consecrated virgins in the world we are helped to understand, accept and live the cross.
Love lived virginally is a crucified love not because it is a mortified love, but because it is a “sacrificial” love, namely made sacred by the total gift of oneself to God. Virgin love is the love of Christ, who “practiced” a crucified love. For love Jesus experienced progressively emptying himself up to the cross. If we want to love as Christians, we need to know it and do like Him. This way of love puts the other before me and the Other (God) above me. The cross is the greatest sign of the greatest love, and virginity is the crucifixion of themselves to give themselves to God, to be nailed to his love embracing Christ on the Cross.
The consecrated virgins are a significant and high example that God’s love is totalitarian. You must love the Lord “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength” (Mk 12, 30). These women show that a body and a heart chastely offered do not take away from God, but make the human being closer to God more than the angels are (cf. Eph 1:14) and that Christian life is a progressive configuration to the crucified and risen Christ. In fact, as Christ’s love for us led Him to the cross, our love for Him ingrains in us his wounds of love. Love purifies us and configures us in transfiguring us. It should be noted that compliance with the painful crucified Christ has the ultimate goal to bring the Christian to the joyful compliance with the risen Christ. Virginity is not simply a waiver, but it is the manifestation of fierce love for God and for the neighbor. It is a love that transforms the lover into the Beloved. Virginity lived as crucifixion is to bear witness that Love has won through the gift of self. Virginity lived as resurrection is to testify that the Bridegroom is really present in everyday life and his condescending presence gives full and complete joy (see Jn 3:29). Virginity is freedom, it is a sign of a perfect love that has no impatience, envy or jealousy, and that, radiating joy, ensures peace.
Saint Augustine of Hyppo
Sermon XLVI. [XCVI. Ben.]
On the words of the gospel, Mc 8,34 “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself,” etc.
1). Hard and grievous does that appear which the Lord hath enjoined, that “whosoever will come after Him, must deny himself.”1 But what He enjoineth is not hard or grievous, who aideth us that what He enjoineth may be done. For both is that true which is said to Him in the Psalm, “Because of the words of Thy lips I have kept hard ways.”2 And that is true which He said Himself, “My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”3 For whatsoever is hard in what is enjoined us, charity makes easy. We know what great things love itself can do. Very often is this love even abominable and impure; but how great hardships have men suffered, what indignities and intolerable things have they endured, to attain to the object of their love? whether it be a lover of money who is called covetous; or a lover of honour, who is called ambitious; or a lover of beautiful women, who is called voluptuous. And who could enumerate all sorts of loves? Yet consider what labour all lovers undergo, and are not conscious of their labours; and then does any such one most feel labour, when he is hindered from labour. Since then the majority of men are such as their loves are, and that there ought to be no other care for the regulation of our lives, than the choice of that which we ought to love; why dost thou wonder, if he who loves Christ, and who wishes to follow Christ, for the love of Him denies himself? For if by loving himself man is lost, surely by denying himself be is found.
2. The first destruction of man, was the love of himself. For if he had not loved himself, if he had preferred God to himself, he would have been willing to be ever subject unto God; and would not have been turned to the neglect of His will, and the doing his own will. For this is to love one’s self, to wish to do one’s own will. Prefer to this God’s will; learn to love thyself by not loving thyself. For that ye may know that it is a vice to love one’s self, the Apostle speaks thus, “For men shall be lovers of their own selves.”4 And can he who loves himself have any sure trust in himself? No; for he begins to love himself by forsaking God, and is driven away from himself to love those things which are beyond himself; to such a degree that when the aforesaid Apostle had said,” Men shall be lovers of their own selves,” he subjoined immediately, “lovers of money.” Already thou seest that thou art without. Thou hast begun to love thyself: stand in thyself if thou canst. Why goest thou without? Hast thou, as being rich in money, become a lover of money? Thou hast begun to love what is without thee, thou hast lost thyself. When a man’s love then goes even away froth himself to those things which are without, he begins to share thevanity of his vain desires, and prodigal as it were to spend his strength. He is dissipated, exhausted, without resource or strength, he feeds swine; and wearied with this office of feeding swine, he at last remembers what he was, and says, “How many hired servants of my Father’s are eating bread, and I here perish with hunger!”5 But when the son in the parable says this, what is said of him, who had squandered all he had on harlots, who wished to have in his own power what was being well kept for him with his father; he wished to have it at his own disposal, he squandered all, he was reduced to indigence: what is said of him? “And when he returned to himself.” If“he returned to himself,” he had gone away from himself. Because he had fallen from himself, had gone away from himself, he returns first to himself, that he may return to that state from which he had fallen away by falling from himself. For as by falling away from himself, he remained in himself; so by returning to himself, he ought not to remain in himself, lest he again go away from himself. Returning then to himself, that he might not remain in himself, what did he say? “I will arise and go to my Father.”6 See, whence he had fallen away from himself, he had fallen away from his Father; he had fallen away from himself, he had gone away from himself to those things which are without. He returns to himself, and goes to his Father, where he may keep himself in all security. If then he had gone awayfrom himself, let him also in returning to himself,from whom he had gone away, that he may “go to his Father,” deny himself. What is “deny himself”? Let him not trust in himself, let him feel that he is a man, and have respect to the words of the prophet, “Cursed is every one that putteth his hope in than.”7 Let him withdraw himself from himself, but not towards things below. Let him withdraw himself from himself, that he may cleave unto God. Whatever of good he has, let him commit to Him by whom he was made; whatever of evil he has, he has made it for himself.The evil that is in him God made not; let himdestroy what himself has done, who has beenthereby undone. “Let him deny himself,” He saith, “and take up his cross, and follow Me.”
3. And whither must the Lord be followed? Whither He is gone, we know; but a very few days since we celebrated the solemn memorial of it. For He has risen again, and ascended into heaven; thither must He be followed. Undoubtedly we must not despair of it, because He hath Himself promised us, not because man can do anything. Heaven was far away from us, before that our Head had gone into heaven. But now why should we despair, if we are members of that Head? Thither then must He be followed. And who would be unwilling to follow Him to such an abode? Especially seeing that we are in so great travail on earth with fears and pains. Who would be unwilling to follow Christ thither, where is supreme felicity, supreme peace, perpetual security? Good is it to follow Him thither: but we must see by what way we are to follow. For the Lord Jesus did not say the words we are engaged in, when He had now risen from the dead. He had not yet suffered, He had still to come to the Cross, had to come to His dishonouring, to the outrages, the scourging, the thorns, the wounds, the mockeries, the insults, Death. Rough as it were is the way; it makes thee to be slow; thou hast no mind to follow. But follow on. Rough is the way which man has made for himself, but what Christ hath trodden in His passage is worn smooth. For who would not wish to go to exaltation? Elevation is pleasing to all; but humility is the step to it. Why dost thou put out thy foot beyond thee? Thou hast a mind to fall, not to ascend. Begin by the step, and so thou hast ascended. This step of humility those two disciples were loth to have an eye to, who said, “Lord, bid that one of us may sit at Thy right hand, and the other at the left in Thy kingdom.”8 They sought for exaltation, they did not see the step. But the Lord showed them the step. For what did He answer them? “Ye who seek the hill of exaltation, can ye drink the cup of humiliation?” And therefore He does not say simply, “Let him deny himself, and follow Me” howsoever: but He said more, “Let him take up his cross, and follow Me.”