August 30, 2020; Matthew 16:21-27; 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Brian Doyle was a Catholic writer who died from brain cancer at the age of 60. He left behind him a series of writings that chronicled his spiritual journey in facing that terrible disease. He gained some notoriety for his insistence that it is no help to imagine that a person can defeat cancer. People should not imagine that they can battle cancer and win. He says this because as soon as they take up the attitude of “beating cancer,” they focus their lives on some future date when they will achieve victory and the cancer will be gone. As they spend months and years and all of their energy longing for that day to come, the life that they could be living is slipping away. So, Doyle says that people should not battle cancer, they should endure it. They should face it with all of the energy, creativity, and patience that they can muster. The goal should be not to fight cancer but to face it with ferocious and relentless humor.
Now I think Jesus is saying something rather similar in today’s gospel when he tells us that if we are going to be his disciples, we must take up our cross and follow him. Jesus knows that every life has a cross. It could be the cross of suffering, of failure, or any threat to our happiness. He wants us to know that when a cross enters our life, our purpose is not to defeat it but to take it up. We are not called to fight the cross but rather embrace it.
Our cross could be a family problem that causes us continual pain. Jesus says that rather than denying that cross we should take it up and face it with as much generosity and patience that we can find. Our cross could be a physical limitation or a weakness in our personality. Rather than waiting to live until that limitation is erased, Jesus asks us to take it up and live our life as deeply as we can with courage and humor. All of us face the cross of fear that is connected with the coronavirus. We are afraid to act as we normally would, to live our lives and to exercise our freedom. Jesus says that instead of postponing life until the time when a vaccine is developed, we should take up our fear and make responsible and balanced decisions, so that we can live life as deeply as possible during this pandemic.
Brian Doyle insists that people cannot wait to live until cancer is defeated. When a cross enters our life, the gospel insists that we should not fight it but face it. We cannot postpone living until the cross is gone. That is why we are asked to take up the cross on our shoulders and follow Jesus.