Shall I Crucify Your King?

As we approach Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we also approach one of the most difficult moments in liturgy: our call to crucify Christ. For the reading of the Passion accounts in these liturgies, there is the option for the Gospel to be read by multiple readers. I would venture to guess that most parishes read the Passion account this way. Thus, it falls to us in the pews to utter those difficult words: Crucify him.

A few years ago, I gave a talk on the Catholic Church and the Holocaust. While it was mostly focused on Pope Pius XII and the efforts of the Vatican, I closed with a reminder to examine our own willingness to stand up in the face of evil.  Ultimately, the Church is not the Pope or the hierarchy. We are the Church. And while we can point fingers or hash out whether the Church did enough during the Holocaust, we ultimately have to face the question: What would I have done? At the end of our lives, we are not going to answer for what a Pope did or did not do, or what our parish priest did or did not do in his life. We will answer for what we did.

This is what we are reminded during the Palm Sunday liturgy. We raise our voices as a Church to cry, “Let him be crucified!” Ultimately, it was not Pilate who killed Jesus. It was our sins that crucified Our Lord.

A story is often told about G.K. Chesterton (one of those “if it’s not true, it should be” stories) that when a newspaper asked for essayists to respond to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton famously answered with two words: I am.

We can create a laundry list of concerns and complaints against our modern culture, point fingers and find scapegoats. But are we looking past our own sins – both of omission and commission? I can do little to change the government, to change the media, to change the tide of the current culture. I can do a lot to change my own life, to change the way I treat those around me, to change my attitude towards my family and friends and enemies. I can love more. I can resist giving into sins. I can pray more.

When we raise our voices this weekend to cry “Let him be crucified,” may it not just be like reciting lines of a play, or said distractedly or inattentively with our hearts and minds elsewhere. Rather, may the words pierce our hearts and remind us of the role we played. May they help us call to mind our sins. Most of all, may they spur us to seek His mercy.

The drama of the Palm Sunday liturgy not only calls us to face the effect of our sins, it also reminds us that those sins have a Savior. Just when we see the horror of sin, in all its manifestations, we also see that our sins will not be the final answer.

“It is precisely in the Passion, when the mercy of Christ is about to vanquish it, that sin most clearly manifests its violence and its many forms: unbelief, murderous hatred, shunning and mockery by the leaders and the people, Pilate’s cowardice and the cruelty of the soldiers, Judas’ betrayal – so bitter to Jesus, Peter’s denial and the disciples’ flight. However, at the very hour of darkness, the hour of the prince of this world, the sacrifice of Christ secretly becomes the source from which the forgiveness of our sins will pour forth inexhaustibly.” (CCC 1851)

“May his blood be upon us and upon our children,” because by his wounds we are healed.

This post was originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

Following a God Who Suffered

Today’s Gospel came at a good time for me, and for perhaps others in the Church too. I have attempted to write a post several times about various topics… my feelings during this latest crisis, my opinions about what we need going forward, my thoughts about the situation in general. But it has been too raw, too confusing, and too overwhelming.

Then I heard today’s Gospel. I was taken back immediately to Caesarea Phillipi, where I stood earlier this summer. Carved in the giant rock face at that place (there are many natural details of geography that make this a fitting and fascinating place for Christ to enter into this exchange with Simon) are the abandoned niches of shrines to pagan gods. One can visualize Jesus walking among the shrines before turning to his Apostles and asking that all-important question: Who do you say that I am?

The answer has become easy – perhaps too easy. You are the Christ. And you are not one among many gods – you are God.

But are we ready for what that really means? It’s one thing to say it. But do we really believe it? And are we ready to do what follows from it?

As I walked around the ruins at Caesarea Phillipi, I looked down at what remains of the Temple of Pan and the Dancing Goats. I think I audibly thanked God that He came in the flesh and founded a Church. I really don’t want to worship Pan and Dancing Goats.

Temple of Pan

But do I want the Church on my terms?

Yes, I do. Just like Peter wanted the Christ on his terms.

Frankly, over the past few days I have struggled with why Jesus chose to do things the way He did. There’s so much … humanity in the Church. So much humanity.

I have struggled over the past few weeks with anger. Probably a healthy dose of righteous anger (the kind that Augustine supposedly said is the daughter of hope), but anger nonetheless. I have not had a crisis of faith, but I have had several frank conversations with God. Today’s Gospel reminded me that if I’m truly going to profess Jesus is God, and abandon the life of worshiping dancing goats, I’m going to have to accept the Church He founded.

I’m going to have to accept the Church He founded … on His terms. And that’s a Church made up of sinners. That’s a Church that often falls short. That’s a Church that will disappoint me at times. But it is also a Church that is made up of saints. It is also a Church that will forgive me. It is also a Church that will give me Jesus.

It is a Church that has what I need to be holy.

Thankfully, the Church doesn’t depend on us. But it is made up of us. And so it’s time to roll up our sleeves and work. It’s time to work towards healing and reformation. It’s time to support the priests who are struggling and laboring for us. It’s time to call our leaders to follow Christ. And it’s time to follow Christ ourselves.

Heck, maybe in some ways, life would have been easier if we were still worshiping dancing goats. But we aren’t called to an easy life. We are called, as He reminded his Apostles again and again, to follow Him.

And we follow a God who suffered greatly. Wrap your mind around that one.

Learning to Carry Your Cross

Five years ago, I was in the middle of a rocky phase of life.  I was moving apartments, there were major changes at my workplace, and a priest who kept me sane was suddenly transferred to another mission.  There was change in my personal world, my work world, and my spiritual world. Lent was still several weeks away, but I felt like I was already living it.

During those days, I realized that while I often prayed “Your will be done,” I really didn’t trust Him. It was a prayer far easier to say than to live.

Just when I thought I couldn’t deal with any more change, two days before Lent began Pope Benedict announced his resignation.  I almost laughed at the absurdity through my tears that day.  Was this really happening?  I thought January had been full of change… now I was even losing my Pope?

I had been in St. Peter’s Square for Benedict’s election and again for his installation.  In the eight years of his papacy, I had devoured every word and followed every trip.  I had a Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club mug years before he was even elected.  If there had been one thing I thought would be free from change at that moment, it was the universal Church. Boy, was I wrong.

I learned that Lent about control and sacrifice. Ultimately, I learned that I liked to control my sacrifices!  I can give up chocolate, not eat between meals, or turn off technology.  These things may really help me grow in the spiritual life. But while there is a lot of good in self-imposed sacrifice and it can be pretty difficult, I’m usually far more willing to impose sacrifice on myself than to accept the crosses I’m given.

If only I could barter with God:  “Um, thanks, God, but I don’t really want what is happening in my life right now.  How about I fast tomorrow instead?  Thanks.” Needless to say, that isn’t the way it works. In the end, the best sacrifices are the ones that we don’t need to seek out and are already being asked of us.  Rather than running away from them, it’s time to pick up our crosses and follow His lead.

Scripture repeatedly reminds us, “Sacrifice or oblation you wished not, but ears open to obedience you gave me. Burnt offerings or sin-offerings you sought not; then said I, “Behold I come.” (Psalm 40, as in the liturgy).  It is not that God doesn’t want our sacrifices, but that He wants our obedience more.  The book of Hebrews applies these words to Christ Himself. Christ gave the ultimate and perfect sacrifice, but what was pleasing to the Father was His perfect obedience in that sacrifice (Hebrews 10:5-9).

The greatest gift we can give God is obedience, and the hardest time to tell him, “Behold, I come,” is when that obedience requires our childlike trust.

Perhaps the greatest sacrifice we make this Lent is not one we choose for ourselves, but one that is found by humbly accepting the crosses that come into our lives every day.  God knew I needed to learn how to trust Him that Lent.  And while I still struggle with it, I know those months helped me learn an important lesson: when all feels shaky around you, your cross is actually the safest and most stable place to grip – because Christ is holding it too.



Originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

Sts. Peter and Paul

One of the most remarkable places to experience while visiting Rome is a small dark room under Vatican hill.  Very few tourists even know of its existence, and access is limited to 250 people a day.   In a city filled with art, this room is bare.  A tour guide shepherds you into the room, and then points through a large glass window.  There, with a light shining on it, tucked in the ancient ruins of shrines and altars dating back to second century, is a plexiglass box, through which you can see their precious contents.

The bones of St. Peter.

The bones lie directly under the main of altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, far below the soaring dome of Michelangelo.   While most people believed the bones were there, their existence was not confirmed until the middle of the twentieth century, when archaeologists began excavating the pagan cemetery that lies under the vast basilica.

It is hard to not be moved when standing in the silence, seeing the bones of the first century fisherman.  The sinful man who denied Our Lord (Lk 22:59-62).  The repentant man who was commissioned to feed the Lord’s sheep (Jn 21:17).  The man named Rock (Mt 16:18).  Here are his mortal remains, far from the land of Palestine.

Could a fisherman from Bethsaida ever imagine he would find himself in Rome?  From the shores of the Sea of Galilee to being killed in Nero’s circus and buried on Vatican Hill.  From completely unknown to having one of the most glorious churches in the world built over his grave.  From a sinful, rash, passionate man to a saint in heaven, who is celebrated two thousand years later.

Even after meeting Jesus, when his life was drastically changed, Peter could never have predicted his own fate.  Christ reminds him that his life is no longer his own:  “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’” (Jn 21:18)

Likewise Saul, an observant Jew, a promising scholar of the Law, never would have dreamed while studying at the feet of the famous Gamaliel that he would be accused of betraying Judaism and be killed for preaching a new Way (Acts 24:14).  Zealous against this new religion, Saul was an unlikely candidate to be the greatest preacher the Church has ever known.  But thus was the call of Christ (Gal 1:13-15).

St. Peter and St. Paul did not seek their fame.  They weren’t seeking to be remembered in 2016 in a far away land called America.  And yet they are remembered to this day.

Peter did not run for office.  If anything, he ran from office.  The Romans have a beloved story where St. Peter, fleeing the city of Rome and the wrath of Nero, meets Christ on the Via Appia.  Christ is headed in the opposite direction, towards the city.  “Quo Vadis, Domine?”  Peter asks.  Lord, where are you going?  Christ responds that he is going to Rome to be crucified a second time.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

Peter returned to Rome.

These two men could not have known the future – but they knew the present.  And they knew that Christ would give them strength for the future, even if it was a future they had not chosen for themselves.

Like Peter and Paul, we stand for a Way that is contrary to the ways of the world.  We stand for a Truth that is contrary to public opinion, the secular culture, and even some policies of our government.   We didn’t choose this battle.  But the battle is here.

The future is unknown.  What will be asked of us?  We don’t know where this battle will lead, but we know where it stands right now.

It is still possible to walk through the Roman Forum and walk the path that Peter the fisherman walked.   One can stand on the hill where the Temple of Jupiter once stood- the most important Temple in Rome.  Overlooking the Forum, it stood watch over the center of the known world.

Now when one stands on that spot, your vision is directed elsewhere.  Instead of east, you face west.  And looking out over the modern city of Rome, your eyes rest on the glorious dome of St. Peter’s.

The Colosseum and the Roman Forum stand as stark reminders that worldly victory is fleeting.  Nero thought he had won, when Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded.  Instead he had crowned them with the glorious crown of martyrdom.

May we have the courage to accept the unknown future and the trust to accept the call of Christ.

The Cross: Absurdity or Power?

The title of this Holy Week post comes from First Corinthians. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that the Cross is a stumbling block for the Jews and a folly to the Gentiles.  While praying with the Scriptures, I paused over this idea.  What about for us in 2015?  Is the Cross an absurdity or a stumbling block for us?  I think it is, but not in the same way it was for Paul’s audience.

As Father Barron points out here, for Paul’s audience, the very image of the cross and the idea that it was holy or a sign of power was absolutely ludicrous.  We, by and large, have lost that shock.  We have become desensitized, if you will, to the Cross.  It is such a common symbol, we have forgotten how radical it is.  We refer to the Cross as a sign of victory!  Think of the hymn “Lift High the Cross” …  “Led on their way by this triumphant sign…”  Or the last verse, “So shall our song of triumph ever be / Praise to the Crucified for victory.”

What? Victory?  Triumph?

During the time of the Romans, the cross was so horrific that the Roman philosopher Cicero wouldn’t even describe it directly in his writing. The whole ordeal of crucifixion was meticulously planned by the Romans, who had perfected the process of execution.  They would place the crosses near city gates or along busy roads so that everyone would see the victims’ extreme pain and their long hours of agony. To those living under Roman rule, the cross was a sign of oppression, meant to discourage uprisings or disobedience. It was a sign of terror, of suffering, of humiliation.

And now that sign has been transformed — from a sign of brutality and oppression to a sign of victory and love.

Do we realize how radical the Cross is?

We forget the scandal of the Cross. We forget how shocking it is. And as a result, I think we forget the enormity of what He did for us.

So is the Cross is a stumbling block for us?  I don’t think it is in the same way it was for Paul’s audience.  The sight isn’t shocking. The symbol doesn’t remind us of oppression or horror.  The idea isn’t shocking anymore (although it should be).

You know what is the stumbling block for us?  The reality of it in our own lives.  When we come face to face with the Cross- with suffering, with emotional, psychological, or physical pain, with struggles that don’t make sense, with trials that don’t seem fair… that is our stumbling block.

“Why is there suffering in this life?”

It is the age-old question. And guess what?  I don’t think there is a satisfactory answer.

And that can either be a stumbling block, or we can embrace it as Simon of Cyrene did.

You know why I’ve come to believe that depicting Christ on the Cross — of having a crucifix with a corpus on it and not just an empty cross — is vital?  Because we never embrace a cross in our life without embracing Christ.  If we try to embrace the crosses in our life alone, we’ll never be able to survive.  But when we embrace the wood of the Cross, we embrace Christ. And He embraces us.  And that’s the only way suffering is possible.

Suffering is a mystery.  We can’t explain it.  It’s an absurdity.  But once you see it with the eyes of faith, even the struggle to embrace it becomes lighter.

CS Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

And that is the only way I think the believer can wrap his mind around suffering. We can’t explain it, but once you see it with the eyes of faith, the absurdity makes sense.  In the light of the Cross, my suffering can be embraced.  …Maybe never fully understood, but embraced in spite of it.

The world thinks we are crazy. But we know the Cross is victory. We know suffering does ultimately have an answer – Jesus Christ.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I Cor 1:18

Glory 2014

I just finished a weekend of beautiful liturgies, new friendships, messages and music that ignited once again the embers of a passion for truth, beauty, and goodness.  I was one of the speakers for the annual Glory Conference, which brings together young adults for four days in Nashville, TN.

My talk was Saturday morning, so while I had blocked the whole weekend out on my calendar, I wasn’t really expecting to stay around all four days.  My plan was to check out the conference on Friday night to hear my friend Mike Aquilina, then come back for my talk Saturday morning, stay for Mass, and then play the rest of the weekend by ear.   I ended up spending the entire weekend there, soaking up the beauty.

As one of the speakers, I suppose I was the one who was expected to build the participants up, give them truth, energize and encourage them before everyone returned home to Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan, Florida, Kentucky…   I hope I did that, but as is so often the case, the opposite happened too.  They energized me.  They reminded me of the hope of the New Evangelization, the joy of the Gospel, and the beauty of living this radically Catholic life.  I didn’t want the weekend to end- I didn’t want everyone to leave my city.  To witness their joy, their love, their excitement, their holiness… as I reluctantly waved goodbye this afternoon, I marveled at the gift the conference had been for me.  While the four days flew by, Friday also seems like a long time ago.  Holy joy does that – expands time as it expands your heart, so that minutes fly by but can feel like hours.

Thank you to everyone who made the experience possible.  See you next Memorial Day weekend!

My talk on Pope Benedict, Beauty, and the New Evangelization is posted on the audio page.  Enjoy!

Great Suffering, Great Love

The Sunday Gospels in Lent for Year A are particularly poignant and reflective; there’s a reason they may be read at the weekday Masses as well, particularly during Years B and C when they aren’t proclaimed on Sunday. The Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favorite of Jesus’ encounters, and I would love to develop a retreat just around that reading. The story of the man born blind last week gives rise to many questions and points to ponder, especially as these Lenten days approach the darkness and light of the Triduum.

The drama of today’s Gospel seems to rush us even faster towards the holy days, as we experience a glimpse of the hope Jesus has come to give us, as the darkness gives way to light, the despair of death is conquered by the faith of the resurrection.

As I drove to Mass this morning, I was thinking about an aspect of the Lazarus story I had never really thought about before: that Jesus allows Lazarus to suffer. I had always known that Jesus delayed going to his friends at Bethany so that He could show the glory of the Father and do something far greater than heal Lazarus: He could bring him back from the grave. But I don’t think I had really stopped to think about what this meant. It meant He stood by and allowed Lazarus, Mary, and Martha to suffer.

He had the power to alleviate their suffering, and He did nothing.

We don’t know what caused Lazarus’ death – perhaps it was something particularly painful. His sisters had to watch him die. They had to bury him. They had to face life without their loved one.

Jesus could have stopped it. He could have prevented the pain.

Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?

It is not because He did not love Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. They were his closest friends outside of the Apostles.

He chose to allow their suffering so that He could show His love is even greater than death.

Suffering is a great mystery. We know that it is evil, it is a result of sin. But we also know that God allows us to suffer so that we can participate in the mystery of the Cross.

Sometimes we see God allowing people to suffer in our daily life, but we look at the Gospels and only see the healings, the exorcisms, the resurrections. Jesus walked this earth and gave men back their sight, gave women back their sons, healed lepers, raised paralytics from their mats. Why does He stand by and allow my loved ones to suffer?

Lazarus was one of his dearest friends. He allowed him to suffer because he loved him. It’s a great mystery, but one we will face every day.

With the greatest suffering comes the greatest love.