Sunday Scriptures

Taking Up Our Crosses, We Are Configured to Christ

 by Father Thomas Catania

As it happens, today is the anniversary of the dedication of our Cathedral of St. James in the Diocese of Brooklyn. The event will be observed only in the cathedral itself, but it is apparently God’s idea (if God directed the composition of the Lectionary, and who am I to say He did not?) that all of us should advert to “dedication” and to our own position as the dwelling place of God, the “seat” (cathedra) of God’s spirit, the cruciform image of His Son. (Until recently most churches in the West were built in the shape of a cross.)
By now we are well versed in the true meaning of “church” as the “in-gathering” (by God, a constant act of drawing together toward himself) — remember the Baltimore Catechism called it the “congregation” — of the baptized. “Church” is a people word and an active one at that, with the powerful spirit of God, the driving wind of Genesis 1 and of the Pentecost scene in Acts, bringing together as into one “corpus” those who would live “in Christ.” And I use the word “corpus” advisedly; it means “body,” but it is specifically the term we use to refer to the image of the crucified Jesus on a crucifix. Pierced in the flesh to the wood of His execution, this wretched criminal, “an object of laughter” whom “everyone” mocks, who has been brought to “derision and reproach” (Jer. 20:8), is the “corpus” into whose flesh we are drawn — “blown” by the wind of the Spirit. The image is enough to elicit the very response that Peter makes to Jesus; “God forbid that any such thing should happen” (i.e., to us). It is, apparently, one thing to build a building in the form of a cross; it is less comfortable to be molded into the corpus on that cross.

But what else does the Gospel call for? And where, if not the Gospel, will we find the directions for “how to build a church” — cathedral or chapel? The “congregation of all baptized persons” is made possible only through “the [one true] sacrifice” of the cross. Or, as Jesus puts it in Matthew’s text: “If [someone] wishes to follow me,” that person must “deny his very self and take up his cross.”
These are the words that have elicited endless reflection; they have been the subject of many sermons. I do not pretend to improve on them, but I want to fit them into the image of “dedication,” and then into the image of “church.”

John’s Gospel builds a fairly elaborate teaching around Jesus, the consecrated or “dedicated” one, in conjunction with the festival of Hanukkah, or “Dedication.” There, in Chapter 7, on the “the last and greatest day of the festival,” Jesus says (water being an important element in the ritual of the feast), “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink.”

John refers us to the Scripture: “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water” and will depict that water, which he here interprets as the “Spirit,” flowing from Jesus’ side on the cross. Moreover, John leaves ambiguous whose “heart” the “Scripture” refers to — Jesus’ own or the believer’s. Both are plausible; both are effectively demanded in the logic of the New Testament. The Messianic water of Isaiah 12, alluded to in the Hanukkah ritual of Jesus’ day, is the Spirit that He pours out and that we in turn pour out to others — both He and we from the cross, the sure mark of His (and our) “dedication” to the Father. From this “lifted up” position, Jesus can give glory that is completely His when the Father completes the lifting up in the resurrection. The sign of “dedication,” the cross and the “corpus” on it, is, in the eyes of God, the empowerment of the dedicated one to give life.

And this “corpus” to which we are configured in taking up our cross is, for us, the grounds of new life as people refashioned in the model of Christ; it is the only possible figure of the Church visible, as it were, this side of the realm of God.  For what God can see as the glorified one, the risen Lord, the spectators at Cavalry could see only as the broken one. And so it is with us, “co-crucified,” to use Paul’s word, with Jesus. In a painful act of what we may call reconstructive surgery, God takes us into the “corpus” there to deprive us of the comforts of our “egos,” our supposed (but not real) selves.

We will rage there, like the frustrated Jeremiah, who accused God of deceiving him, who “grows weary” until the truth of him comes out and, his anger spent, he hands his spirit over to God, and, once more to the people to whom he is sent to preach the word. He holds on to his “ego” as though it were his “very” (“true”) self, as though God could not or would not fashion a new heart for him who would go on to announce these tidings: “[God] will write [his covenant] in their hearts, and all of them shall know [God].” Into the broken heart of Jeremiah, too, will come that refreshed bond with the God of life, and His “very” self shall emerge out of his pain. For us, that “very” self is our humanity renewed in the raising of the crucified, but it begins in the dark hour of our dying, not in the body but in the soul.

Even if we are not going to be at St. James today, we are the “cathedral,” the “church” of Brooklyn. In us, God has taken up His seat, and from our cruciform selves comes forth the fresh water of Messianic times. But it comes at a price of our own self-surrender; it comes to be, as we come to be the image of Jesus Messiah, as the transfiguration that is the cross  consecrates us. [hr]

Readings for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
    Jeremiah 20:7-9
    Romans 12:1-2
    Matthew 16: 21-27[hr]
Father Catania is an English professor at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, and an assistant at Holy Child Jesus parish, Richmond Hill.