Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Sermon for a Votive of the Holy Cross

(Delivered to a chapter of priests of the Society of the Holy Cross.)

“They offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he would not take it.” (Mk 15:23)

Today, as we celebrate this votive of the Holy Cross of our Savior, I want to talk about something that has been on my heart and on my mind lately—the issue of suffering.

First, let’s consider the Myrrh in that verse. Myrrh is an analgesic, a painkiller. And the main way to ingest it in ancient times was mixed with wine, which tasted very bitter, but was very effective in lowering pain. This was one of the very few mercies shown to the Savior at Calvary. But, as we heard, Jesus refused.

Expositors commenting on this verse tend to emphasize that Jesus refused this potion not so much because it would dull his senses, but dull his mental faculties. That is, Jesus would need all his wits about him at this crucial moment with the world hanging on his every word; he could not afford to be inebriated. But is that really the case? I’m not so sure.

Myrrh (which is still used today in a powder for toothaches) is a mild opiod that was replaced when powerful drugs like morphine came along. Some use the essential oil of myrrh to induce “relaxation.” So there might have been a small chance of intoxication.

One commentator argued that Jesus refused it because it wasn’t kosher. But then, Jesus does drink later on, so that argument doesn't make much sense. It seems to me that the most straightforward explanation is perhaps the most likely—Jesus didn’t want any painkiller on the cross. Which is striking when one considers how deeply Jesus suffered (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) that day.

There was also a verse from the epistle back on Trinity Sunday (Romans 8) That resonated with this idea and stuck with me in my mind. Paul explained to the Romans that when we are adopted into the family of God, we are made his children and receive the spirit of sonship. He said, we become “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17)

Of course, the Apostle Paul knew great sufferings in his ministry. He was imprisoned and flogged multiple times in his journeys and finally beheaded for the sake of Christ in Rome. So he talked about suffering. But not just about his sufferings (he was not complaining), but our sufferings, human suffering.

For one of the basic things about the human experience, however blessed, lucky, favored, pampered, and fortunate life may be, at some point, we will all know sufferings. We experience the pain of loss—of loved ones, of friendships, of jobs, ways of life, of physical abilities, and so on. Not all of us will hurt the same way, but at some point all of us will hurt.

I'm told Blaise Pascal claimed that, ultimately, truth and love are the only things that hurt. Which is odd, because truth and love—those are good things. So I want us to consider that suffering might not always be bad. Or, that even bad suffering can become something of a blessing.

This Spring, I was sharing a few words on that topic with a parishioner who had seen and known suffering up close, taking care of his dying father. I’ll never forget what he said about suffering—“I highly recommend it.”

I’m not sure I can explain it, but when he when he said that, I knew what he meant. As strange as it sounds, that makes sense to me. I guess I had been there with my wife going to the brink of death and then slowly regaining some health. It sounds strange because I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to hurt.

And yet I think about those who have suffered together—war buddies, families who have gone through hardships, disaster, losses—and I’m amazed by the closeness, even the “blessings” of their experience. In the First Letter of St Peter, the Apostle says that if you suffer for the sake of righteousness, you will be blessed (1 P 3:14).

Does God want us to suffer? Paul says we are heirs with Christ if we suffer with him. In the Eucharist, we find a man on the cross who has also suffered as we celebrate the memorial of Christ’s saving passion and death. A eucharistic prayer in Rite Two says, . . . “on the night he was handed over to suffering and death . . .” Another one adds, “a death he freely accepted.”

In his letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes a very mysterious statement: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24) Now it is clear from his other writings that the Apostle firmly believes that the atonement of Christ is complete—there’s nothing deficient about it. So that can’t be what he means. What does he mean, then?

St Augustine of Hippo explains that in God’s providence, the mystical Body of Christ (the Church) is to share in Christ’s sufferings. In ministering to them and serving the Lord, Paul is taking up his cross. Paul realized that the sufferings of this life are a means of drawing closer to Christ. Suffering can sometimes drive people apart, or it can bring them together. It’s not so much that God wants his people to suffer. It’s that he wants us to use the sufferings in life (which we often unleash upon ourselves) in a redemptive way, to draw closer in union with Christ.

How does one do this? By offering your sufferings in union with Christ’s sacrifice. At this and every offering of the great Sacrifice of the Altar, let us gather up the fragments of our lives—our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and our fears, our moments of revelry and of pain—and make them a gift of our very selves to God.

For when they are offered through, in, and with the sacrifice of Christ, they become an acceptable and pleasing sacrifice to God the Father. We become pleasing and acceptable to God the Father. Then we will find that “these momentary afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17).

But there is more to it than this—than finding a redemptive value in suffering. We are called to be living icons of the Good Shepherd. We stand at the altar in persona Christi, like him, as both priest and victim. Do we not just offer, but lay ourselves upon the altar with Christ? Do we like St Paul rejoice in our sufferings for the sake of our people? As he talked about (Colossians 1:24), we are in a mysterious way making up what is lacking in the sufferings of his Body.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, (Orat. ii, Apolog.) Archbishop of Constantinople, wrote: “No one can approach the infinite God, our high priest and victim, if he himself is not a living and holy victim, if he does not offer himself in spiritual sacrifice, seeing that this is the sacrifice demanded by him who gave himself up entirely on our behalf. Without it, I would not dare to bear the name or vestment of a priest.”

Christ upon the Cross is the irreplaceable model for priesthood and is at the center of the proclamation of the Gospel. Consider for a moment the example of St Paul in Athens. Athens was a “PBS” kind of town. The Athenians ate up lectures and philosophical speculation with a spoon, the way the rest of us digest pizza and football. They enjoyed listening to visiting lecturers and philosophers in their public forum, the Areopagus.

In Acts 17, we find people saying that Paul is promoting some foreign deities—a god named Jesus and a goddess named Anastasis ("resurrection"). They loved hearing new things, and wanted to know more. Paul agrees and addresses the public at the forum. Noticing a great plethora of religious and devotional artifacts—a statue of a goddess here, an outdoor shrine there, a carved idol below, a temple in the distance.

“Men of Athens,” Paul says, “I’m usually a very perceptive person and it occurs to me that you are a religious people. I notice that you have an altar over there dedicated to 'an Unknown God.' I’m going to tell you about that God whom you worship, but do not know.” And Paul proceeded to describe the existence of a Creator as evidenced in their piety and philosophy and poetry.

Some of the people scoffed at a few of his points, others wanted Paul to come back and speak again. But when it was over, Paul left and did not return to speak. Luke says, “Paul went out from among them.” (17:33) One verse later, Luke tells us, “…he left Athens and went to Corinth.” (18:1) A few people in Athens became believers and joined Paul on his mission. But that was it. There were no massive conversions like the ones that followed Peter’s sermon at the beginning of Acts. It seems that no church was founded there at that time. Paul wrote no letter to the Athenians.

What happened? Paul was elegant and polished. He did it like they taught us in seminary. His argument was fully inculturated in the Stoic philosophy of the Athenians. He spoke with their words and on their level. Yet by all accounts, this sermon stood out as a failure in his missions. Perhaps also telling is the fact that Athens is the only place where Paul’s preaching did not provoke some persecution.

Without realizing it, Paul put himself at a distinct disadvantage among them because he addressed them as another peddler of philosophical ideas. They had the intellectual curiosity of a good audience, but it was the kind of curiosity that is content to remain in the abstract, and is unwilling to venture out into a world where ideas change lives. Perhaps there is a parallel to our own day and place.

Paul was not sharing his faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior; he did not proclaim the cross of Christ. He was trying to say that Christianity is not that bizarre after all. “You see, it’s really not that different from what you do here. We just have a name for it—it’s a matter of faith. It’s another interpretation.” And that’s exactly how it was received.

It may have looked like Paul was not just in the world, but of the world. Frankly, I fear that’s how a lot of us look. (I’m pointing no fingers here, and I’m preaching to myself as well.) We need to get weird again. We need to stand out from the crowd. We need to be outcasts again. We need to be hated for his Name’s sake (we will never be loved for his Name’s sake). We don’t just need to change minds, but to change hearts. We need the life-changing message of the cross, and its power over sin in people’s real lives.

Paul sensed that he failed at Athens when he went to the next town of Corinth. Looking back, he wrote back to the Corinthian church, “When I came to you, brethren, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Persecution did not break this man—Athens did.

Again, he wrote, “I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the spirit and power so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Our epistle today was the fruit of his experience in Athens.

How often do our words in the pulpit seem hollow and unmoving? How often do our actions and inactions undermine the message we preach? (And remember, pointing no fingers, preaching to myself.) Do you meditate upon the passion and sufferings of our Lord, looking for ways to take up your cross and follow him?

 In the Imitation of Christ (Bk. iv, c. 10) Thomas à Kempis wrote: “Blessed is he who offers himself up as a [burnt offering] to the Lord, as often as he celebrates or communicates.” How often do you do penance on behalf of your people? How do you share in the sufferings of the poor, the sick, and the outcast? What do you do to identify with the sufferings of your people? We have seen how Christ (the model of priesthood) did just that.

As Jesus said in the Gospel today, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.” (Jn 12:25-6)

Let us be on the lookout for such opportunities. Ask God for them. I’m not saying that means you can’t take an aspirin for a headache. But we know that a part of God’s plan is for us to identify with/share with Christ in his sufferings and priests should be at the crossroads of that.

“They offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he would not take it.” (Mk 15:23)

The first thing we meditated upon in this verse is the painkiller—the myrrh. The second part I want us to consider is the wine. And we'll find out why Jesus refused to drink.

If you remember, there are four cups of wine during the seder meal. Each time the cup is filled, it has a different name. The first cup is called the Kiddush, it is the “Cup of Sanctification.” This is to remember that God called “called us out of Egypt.”

The second cup is called the “Cup of Deliverance,” to remember God’s deliverance through the plagues upon Egypt. And the third cup is called the “Cup of Redemption” or “of Blessing” in which God promises to redeem us with his mighty power.

It was the third cup which Christ gave to his disciples at the Mystical Supper saying, “Take and drink; this is my Blood of the new covenant poured out for you.” St. Paul noted, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16)

And what of that fourth cup of wine in the Passover meal? At that point, the pattern was interrupted when Jesus said, “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on, until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Mt 26:29). The fourth cup was known as the “Cup of Consummation”—the cup in which God takes us as his people.

After sharing the cup of his blood, Jesus left the liturgy unfinished. Or perhaps we should say, the liturgy continued . . . in the Garden, at the cross, and at the tomb. Jesus left the fourth cup on the table because there was another new element in the Seder liturgy; there was a new cup from which to drink; for Jesus, it would be the “Cup of Suffering.”

Isaiah and Jeremiah both foretold that the Messiah would drink from the cup of God’s wrath. The grapes of wrath would be churned in the wine press and the cup of divine wrath would be poured out against sin. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Isaiah prophesied, “It was the will of the Lord to bruise him.” (Is 53:10)

Before they crucified Jesus, they offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he would not take it. “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the kingdom.” He hung there on the tree for about three hours. If you recall, one of the last things that happened before Jesus died was that he looked down and said, “I thirst.”

John’s gospel says there was a bowl of sour wine nearby. So they put a sponge on the end of a hyssop branch, (the same thing used to put the lamb’s blood on the door-posts) dipped it in the wine and raised it up to his lips. And when he tasted the wine, Jesus said, “It is finished.” And bowed his head and gave up his spirit (Jn 19:30).

It is consummated. The Mass has ended. The liturgy is over. He drank the cup of consummation and took his people into the kingdom of God, for the gate of heaven’s kingdom stands at the cross on Calvary.

So the question I’m putting to you today is . . . Are you willing to drink the cup that is your share in Christ’s sufferings? We cannot be priests (offerers of sacrifice) without being men of sacrifice. We have no right to share in the priesthood of Christ while being unwilling to share in his victimhood.

In his Dialogues (bk. iv, c. 59) Pope St. Gregory wrote: “We who celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s Passion should imitate what we are doing. If we look for benefit from the victim which we offer, we must offer ourselves to God as a victim.”

Jesus accepted the cup of suffering and refused the cup of myrrh. Do you sometimes refuse the cup of suffering when it is offered? Do you at times, as it were, accept the cup of myrrh? And does that bring you closer to Christ? Or does it push Christ away?

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials . . .” (James 1:2) As we remember today the life-giving power of the Holy Cross, let us be mindful of the sufferings of the man who was nailed to it—Jesus Christ our great High Priest, and our sacrificial Victim.

“Sweetest wood and sweetest iron, sweetest weight is hung on thee. Thou alone wast counted worthy to bear the King of heaven and the Lord” (Votive Mass of the Holy Cross).