If you’ve ever watched a football game on television, you’ve no doubt seen a banner in the stands proclaiming the message “John 3:16.” Growing up Catholic and having the Baltimore Catechism drilled into me — something I’ll be eternally grateful for — I had no idea what the John 3:16 reference meant. The nuns had us reading the Bible, of course, but we didn’t memorize passages other than the 23rd Psalm (Thank you, Sr. Macaria!).
I remember looking up John 3:16 as a teenager and thinking “Huh. Well, of course.” God loved us so much that He sent His Son to redeem us. Those who believe in Him will have eternal life. But that’s not the end of the story. And as much as I’m a fan of all the popular Bible verses emblazoned on T-shirts, posters and greeting cards, there’s another verse that’s key to being a follower of Jesus. You probably won’t see it painted on a coffee mug either. Matthew 16:24 is a stark reminder of what Lent is all about: “Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”
Jesus had just told the Apostles that He would suffer greatly, be killed and then rise on the third day. St. Peter, impetuous as ever, argued with the Lord, trying to get Him to tone down the message. Suffer a horrible death? No way did he want the Master to undergo such trial. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus rebuked him, shockingly. “You are an obstacle to Me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt 16:21-23).
The human tendency is to want to be comfortable in our Christianity, to be coddled and consoled and told we are loved. We don’t like reminders of the call to embrace the crosses in our life. The message of the cross and Jesus’ proclamation that each of us has one to carry is unsettling, as are many lesser-known Bible passages. Following Jesus is the way of the cross, the way of suffering, the road of sacrifice and commitment. Want to be a saint? It’s going to take grace and grit. It’s sort of like being on the football field; there are bound to be bruises, but victory beckons and our Coach will be with us every step of the way.
Is your wife a bitter, difficult woman? Are your children estranged from you? Has cancer invaded your body? Has your dream for a better future been shattered? In a world that favors social-media images focused on moments of joy and triumph, the crucifixion makes us shudder. “God forbid,” we echo St. Peter, and it’s understandable. We don’t want to suffer. The reality is, however, we will. And how we choose to bear it is entirely up to us.
Jesus tells us, “Come to Me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest … for My yoke is easy and My burden light” (Mt 11:28-30). He invites us to carry our crosses and follow Him along the narrow way, but He also invites us into fellowship with Him. The crosses in our lives, the ones that crush us to the ground — we won’t be able to carry them relying on our own strength. We know that any good we accomplish is due to God’s grace, and, if we try, we can feel Jesus’ arms around us as we lean against Him, shouldering the cross He’s entrusted to us. In that embrace is a secret sweetness mostly unknown to a world frightened by suffering.
Notice that Jesus says we must “deny ourselves” before the part about taking up our cross. During these 40 days of Lent, we deny ourselves to toughen up spiritually, to create an empty space where God can enter and transform us, drawing us closer to Him. It’s in that union with Him that we find the strength to embrace the crosses in our lives.
May this Lenten journey draw each of us closer to the Way of the Cross, the way of victory over sin and, ultimately, resurrection to a life of eternal joy.