Imagine for a moment that you are walking along a hot and dusty road with Jesus and His disciples. You are heading for the villages that surround the Roman city of Caesarea Philippi, just 40 kilometers north of the Sea of Galilee. As the sun beats down on your head, you are longing for a cool drink of water and a bit of bread, perhaps even a moment to rest in the shade of an olive tree. You wipe some sweat from your forehead. Your feet are tired, and your nose is caked with dust. The soft murmur of voices accompanies the gentle sound of the rustling breeze, but you are largely unaware of the conversation, absorbed as you are by your own thoughts and feelings. Suddenly, you are jarred back to reality by the sound of Jesus’ voice.
“Who do people say that I am?” He asks. You pause, replaying His question in your mind as you reflect back on some of the conversations that you have overheard recently, of all the unanswered questions that seem to swirl endlessly about the identity of the mysterious teacher from Nazareth. Jesus repeats the question.
“Who do people say that I am?”
Someone answers, “John the Baptist.”
Another says, “Elijah.”
You muster up your courage and, glancing around at the other disciples, you blurt out, “They think that you are one of the prophets.” Jesus pauses for a moment, thoughtful, and then turns and asks,
“But who do YOU say that I am?” Perhaps His question makes you feel a little uncomfortable; perhaps you haven’t decided for yourself what you really think about Jesus. You are excited to be one of His followers, of course, but sometimes His teachings are challenging. Peter has no such hesitations.
“You are the Christ!” he announces triumphantly. There is a sudden sharp intake of breath, and then silence as everyone considers the implications of his words.
“The Christ, you say.” Jesus pauses for a moment before He begins to speak again, almost as though He feels the need to choose His words carefully. “The Christ is the one who must suffer greatly. Everyone will reject Him: the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. But it will not stop there. The Christ will be killed and then rise again after three days.” You are horrified; everyone is horrified. Suddenly the day does not seem quite so bright; shadows seem to have fallen across the whole group. What does Jesus mean? Could His words be true? Peter, impetuous as always, breaks the silence.
“What are you talking about? You aren’t going to die! This will never happen to you! We wouldn’t allow it; we are here to protect you!” And suddenly Jesus’ face darkens as He turns to Peter, furious.
“Get behind me, Satan! You are not thinking as God does, but as humans do.” Imagine your shock and surprise. Why is Jesus so angry with Peter? Everyone knows that the Messiah, the Christ, is expected to come in triumph as a great king, to gather the nations together and to save the people. If Jesus is truly the Christ, why does He now speak of rejection, suffering, and death? But Jesus is not finished. Turning to the rest of the crowd, He calls out,
“If you want to become my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
The idea of the Cross was as intimidating to Jesus’ followers as it is for us today. To the human mind, suffering is something to be avoided at all costs. We see pain as a reason for fear and sorrow, not as a reason for joy. However, if we look at things from God’s perspective, we see that the Cross was not a sign of scandal and failure, but was in fact the means that God chose to defeat sin and evil. The Cross is not the end of the story but simply the means to the Resurrection. It is a reason for joy, a sign of our Salvation and of our hope in eternal life.
As Catholics, we believe that our difficulties and sufferings – our own personal crosses – are also not the end of the story. They have the potential to help us grow in our faith, to mature as men and women, and to be kinder and better people. While no one looks for pain and suffering in their lives, many of us are grateful for what we have learned from some of our tougher experiences.
We also believe that God allows difficult times in our lives so that we can draw closer to Him. As we turn to Him for strength and consolation, we are rewarded with graces and blessings – not only in this life, but also in the life to come. St. James writes, “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (Jas 1:12). To accept our cross is to trust in God’s Divine Providence, confident that the Father who sent His only Son to die for us loves us so much that He will only allow those sufferings in our lives that will bring about our greatest good.
– Sharon van der Sloot