To some he will say, “Come, you are who blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). To others he will say, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). What determines in which direction the Son of Man will send us? What determines whether we will be counted among the sheep or among the goats? The measure of our love.
As such, yesterday’s feast calls to mind the day of our own individual deaths. Earlier this month, on the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, Saint Ambrose said to us,
We should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death. By this kind of detachment our soul must learn to free itself from the desires of the body. It must soar above earthly lusts to a place where they cannot come near, to hold it fast. It must take on the likeness of death, to avoid the punishment of death.
Enlightened as we often like to think we are, these words of Saint Ambrose strike us as harsh, even morbid.We push death far from our consciousness. In so doing we fail to realize that, in the words of Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, “when one faces death, the supporting foundations of one’s life come to light” (Happiness, God and Man, 97).
Knowing the difficulty of this necessary task, he asks, “What is the remedy?”
The remedy is Jesus Christ, he who “has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (I Corinthians 15:20). By virtue of our baptism into Christ, of our baptism into his death (cf. Romans 6:4). Saint Paul goes on to say that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). For this reason, we must, as Saint Ambrose says, take on the likeness of death.
If we live with a daily desire for death then the supporting foundations of our lives will come to light. The measure of our love will be revealed and we will learn – if only slowly – the truth of the Lord’s words: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Of course, part of the measure of our love is seen in the manner in which we carry the cross as it comes to us, keeping in mind the words of Saint Paul: “Now 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).
As the winter months set in, my arthritis is afflicting me all the more, focusing on the backs of my hips. My energy is low once again, especially in the mornings, and I will admit it is difficult to find joy in it. Yet that is what I must do. If only I would suffer it well, my arthritis can be a true path to holiness. It would be easier if I didn’t know that the arthritis would all but disappear if I simply switched climates, but that might be part of the beauty of it.
As I pondered this yesterday, I found myself reading Basil Cardinal Hume’s Hope from the Cross: Reflections on Jesus’ Seven Last Words (which I highly recommend). In it, he addresses the question of rejoicing in one’s sufferings:
If we kiss the crucifix, we shall discover him who suffered like us and for us. That kissing can, sometimes, more easily be done when words seem empty and meaningless. It is a way of saying, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” and often it is the best way, perhaps the only way. Relief from pain and sorrow may not be immediate; indeed, we may be called to walk further carrying our cross, but the yoke will be sweeter and the burden lighter. Of course we cannot, and must not, rejoice in the pain. That would be doing violence to our instincts and to our nature. We are not made for pain; we are made for happiness. But recoiling from the cross, as it natural, we can yet rejoice in the carrying of it, but it must be for his sake, I mean, to be like Christ, and so we with him, he in us and we in him (71).
The cross, he says, has something to teach each of us.
All of us experience moments of despair and suffering. We may be sick or handicapped; we may realize that we are old and unloved; we may have been deserted or let down; we may be out of work and losing our pride. At times of great distress and confusion, thinking may only add to the pain, and praying will be impossible. Then the only helpful thing, the only possible thing, is to sit or to kneel looking at the crucifix, the image of Christ dying on the cross. We may indeed have to share the darkness that was in Christ when he prayed that psalm from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” We can do no more than just look at the crucifix – but we can do no better, for then it will give up its “secret.” It will speak to us – in our misery – of hope and of encouragement. There is no tidy, rational explanation for the crushing burden of suffering. We cannot work out easy answers about why it should be. God gave us instead not an answer but a way to find the answer. It is the cross that will reveal it, but it has to be a personal discovery. You cannot begin to see pattern and purpose unless you have known the cross and blindly let Jesus lead you from despair into hope (42-43).
The secret of the cross is that it is the way to eternal life, for by sharing in the cross we will also share in the resurrection of the Lord. Let us, then, implore Christ our King to strengthen us with his grace so that each of us may carry our cross – in whatever form it comes – out of love for him and for our fellow sheep.