It appears in the Gospels of Saints Mark, Matthew and Luke, in the pretty much the same words.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus told His disciples in Mark 8:34 and Matthew 16:24. Luke 9:23 adds “daily” after “cross”.
Along with loving one’s enemies, forgiving seventy times seven, and laying down one’s life for one’s friends, our Lord’s explicit admonition to deny ourselves and bear our crosses constitutes the hardest part of following Christ.
Even Jesus, sweating blood in Gethsemane, asked to be spared the cross, though He still embraced it in obedience to His Father and His mission “to proclaim and embody the Father’s unconditional, inclusive love”, as Jesuit composer and theology professor Fr. Manoling Francisco explains.
Last week Catholics commemorated suffering. Last Sunday’s Gospel reading from Mark 8:27-35 set the theme and tone. Jesus spoke of His coming death and rising, and admonished Peter for rebuking Him about it. Then came the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on Monday, and the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows the next day.
If we still missed the message, Jesus repeats it in today’s mass reading from Mark 9:30-37: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
Why should we suffer, but not God?
All very fine, but on further reflection and in the spirit of Jesus asking His Father to let the bitter cup pass Him by, we, the Almighty’s inquisitive if impertinent creatures, dare to wonder why we must suffer in the first place.
The usual reply that Jesus suffered and died, and therefore we His followers should do the same, begs the question. Why let the Son suffer, to begin with, along with billions of other souls through millennia? Many even serve the Lord, for as Saint Augustine wrote, quoting Scripture: “He chastises every son whom he acknowledges.”
And if we earthlings may push the impertinence with heaven a bit more, why should people, including Jesus, have it so rough, while the Father who put us on this fallen, God-forsaken planet sits pretty in the sky?
Why should we go through hell if God in heaven doesn’t?
Well, He does to some extent. “In the suffering of the Son, and in our own suffering, the Father does not look on passively, distant and detached,” says Fr. Timoteo Ofrasio, also a Jesuit professor at the Loyola School of Theology in Ateneo. “He is there: He suffers with us, He makes our suffering His own.”
True, but are heaven’s tears over agony on earth as painful as the agony itself? That may depend on what makes God cry. It’s not just compassion for our pain and His Son’s, great as that anguish may be.
Rather, there is another kind of divine anguish, which only the Almighty Creator can suffer. To understand it, one must first distill what real suffering is.
It isn’t mainly the excruciating paroxysms of the body or soul wounded, walloped and wrenched, for pain isn’t suffering if one chooses to suffer it for one’ objectives.
Take an athlete building strength and skill with back-breaking workouts. “No pain, no gain” means the harsh regimen isn’t suffering, but willful sacrifice for advancement.
True suffering, however, is the unwanted, helpless violation of a being, by calamity, violence, injustice, disease, weakness, or some other force or event bringing distress.
But that definition of suffering seems to make it even harder for God to actually suffer. Can the Omnipotent be violated by force, since no power can lord it over Him?
What helpless suffering can there be for One Who is never helpless?
Yet if somehow, God could be rendered impotent, and the divine goodness, truth, justice, beauty, order, and love that is His very Being are violated with impunity, that would be the greatest suffering in the cosmos, infinitely most agonizing than even the crushing defeat of a once-powerful emperor.
Guess what: Exactly that happens to God every nanosecond of created history.
The crying Creator
As Christians believe, the almighty, all-knowing Creator of all loved the universe into existence, bringing forth every creature that has been, is, and will be by His very act of loving it, her or him.
Every created being is, of course, distinct and different from the Creator; otherwise it would just be another manifestation of God, as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are in Christian theology.
Now, being different from God means not possessing His absolute power, knowledge, and perfection. But creatures still act as we will, even if we go against His will. And that’s the excruciating part of being Creator.
Every second God almighty watches every iota of creation go through countless acts and events of the creature’s existence, letting it, him or her be itself, himself or herself, even if it contradicts His will, and spawns distress, destruction, and all other evil, which is anything bereft of divine goodness, justice, beauty, truth and love.
So it has been since creation’s dawn. The Almighty lets His Being and creation be violated so creatures can be ourselves, not Himself. Like a father watching his baby stumble, whine, break stuff, and do other hurtful things.
So we can be, God lets us be, even when we stray from what He destined us to be. Just as Jesus let the world have its way on Calvary.
So those who wish to follow Christ’s divine way must, like Him, His Father and Their Spirit, love and live with every creature, even those violating God. We suffer and forgive every trespass, always offering the salvation of grace and mercy.
Or in Jesus’s words, we must love our enemies, forgive seventy times seven, take up our cross, and lay down our lives for others. Amen.