When I was quite young, someone I loved very much got sick with a disease that attacked all of her. In the space of six or seven years, she went from a bright, sturdy, witty young woman to a haggard shell of her former self, with nothing left – not even words. And then she died.
I remember some cruelly pious people at her wake, quoting Jesus’ words, the ones we hear in today’s gospel, assuring me that she had taken up her cross and was now being rewarded in heaven. And I remember my anger and revulsion, both at them and at God. My feelings were like Peter’s, or even more, like Jeremiah’s: “You duped me, Lord, and I let myself be duped.”
It’s been more than 50 years, but those words can still burn, still call forth some of the anguish that Jeremiah reveals in today’s reading. Still, over those years, I’ve grown to know Jesus well enough to understand that the Word is always worth listening to – even a word as stark and dreadful as that of today’s gospel. There’s always more to Jesus.
Just a few minutes earlier Peter has answered Jesus’ question – “Who do you say I am?” – with grace and faith; now he falls short in the face of an outcome too bitter to accept. How must he feel when Jesus not only rebukes him but also tells him, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”? Bewildered? Angry? Afraid? Judging from my own experience, I’d say yes to all of the above. But I’d also say that Peter and I felt those things at least in part because neither he nor I had yet been able to welcome the more of Jesus.
On that day, Peter hears Jesus talking about his having to go to Jerusalem, having to suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and having to be killed. His big loving heart can’t bear it, and he blurts out his protest. He doesn’t hear, or more likely can’t hear, the other things that Jesus is saying: Jesus’ more. That on the third day he will be raised. That whoever loses his life for [his] sake will find it. That “the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”
All Peter can grasp is the suffering, the death. In a word, the Cross. Terrible and all too familiar.
Like Peter – and maybe like you? -- what I hadn’t heard long ago was that the Cross is the means and not the end. Of course, even as I write this, I know for sure that I knew what Easter was about, at least on one level. But in my little world, and in the culture and the family I was raised in, the Cross loomed larger than the Resurrection because we had lived it every day for seven long years. The action, the energy, the life of Jesus’ rising from the dead had not become part of me. I was too young.
But it’s not a question of age, or even of time, really. Fifty years or fifty days or fifty heartbeats – that life, that more, can and will enter once it finds the crack that allows it. As Leonard Cohen, the Canadian Jewish singer and poet, writes:
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
It seems to me that he’s right. That’s how it is. That’s how it will be. That’s how it has to be, whether for Peter, or for me, or for you. Something – your heart or your distrust or your anguish or all of it -- breaks and the Light gets in. At long last, you can see and know and be at peace.
May it be so for each one of us. Amen.
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA