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This Can’t Happen, Lord

Earlier this year, as the reality of the pandemic set in, and the full extent of of this crisis became more and more clear, the thought that kept coming to my mind was:

“Lord, this can’t happen. You can’t be serious, Lord!”

I have too many plans. Too many expectations. Too much else going on for this to happen right now. Seminary can’t end like this. Ordination plans can’t go on with all this. This can’t be happening!

But it was.

The sheer shock of how much changed in what seemed like an instant was certainly overwhelming for all of us. Perhaps you also struggled with that same kind of broken disbelief: “God forbid, Lord! This can’t be real. This can’t be happening.”

That’s how Peter responded in our gospel this weekend, after Jesus told his disciples that he was going to suffer greatly, be crucified, and killed.

Peter takes Jesus aside and, as we hear, begins to rebuke him saying: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you!”

How often have we done this with the Lord? Whether it was the pandemic, or politics, or some other difficulty or crisis in our life, big or small — Haven’t we at some point taken Jesus aside to set the record straight: “Lord, what are you doing? Don’t you understand? This can’t happen like this!”

As he responded to Peter, so our Lord responds to us:

“Get behind me, Satan! — which means “Enemy,” or “Adversary.” You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

The original Greek phrase can literally be translated: You are a little tripping stone in my way, Peter!

That’s hard for us to hear. Really hard. But what Jesus says is always said in love. 

Think of it this way: Jesus says: “You’re in my way! Get out of my way, you enemy!” Well, where is Jesus going?

To the Cross. Jesus is on the way to lay down his life out of love for Peter. For you and me. For the entire world. Why would Peter want to get in the way of THAT? Why would he ever try to dissuade God from saving him?

Because from Peter’s point of view, and from ours — suffering and dying on a Cross does not look like winning. It looks like total humiliation and defeat.

And there’s something really understandable about Peter’s instinct here. Dying looks like losing. And how could Jesus ever lose? He is the Christ, the Son of God! Peter just confessed this amazing truth and was praised for it: “Blessed are you Simon, son of John! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father has! Therefore, you are Peter! And upon this Rock I will build my Church! The gates of Hell will never prevail against this Church! This Church will never lose!”

And yet, Jesus immediately tells them: Very soon, I will suffer. Very soon, I will die on a Cross. Very soon, I will let myself lose.”

And Peter just can’t wrap his head around that vision. Later in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night Jesus is betrayed, he will try getting in the way again — this time with a sword: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you!”

In other words: “I won’t let this happen! You can’t die, Lord!”

And our Lord replies emphatically: “Oh yes I can! In fact — I must. Put your sword back into its sheath, Peter! Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me? I have come to do His will, not mine! — I have come to put sin to death in Me. Let me go and die, Peter. Don’t hold me back. Don’t be an obstacle to your salvation!”

My brothers and sisters — what swords do we still have in our hands? Do we still think we have to prevent or eliminate suffering in our own lives and the lives of the people we love?

Christ replies to you and me both: “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink this chalice? I want to drink it in and through your life. I have your best interest at heart, even if this is painful. Trust me.”

And here we come to a central Christian mystery:

Jesus died for us, yes — but he didn’t die so we would never need to die ourselves. He didn’t suffer so that we wouldn’t have to.

Maybe we hear this hard truth, and respond like the Prophet Jeremiah in our first reading: “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped!”

Somewhere along the line, Christianity got mistaken for a feel-good religion. Some people come to Church to feel nice about life and about themselves. When they don’t get that warm, fuzzy feeling — when they don’t “get anything out of church” — then they leave. Or maybe go find some other church were they do get that feeling.

But here is the truth:

On the Cross, Christ did not eliminate pain. He united himself with our pain. He is Immanuel: God-with-us. With us in our suffering. With us in our heart-aches. With us in our grief. With us in our family struggles. He wants to be an intimate part of everything we are going through in life.

God IS with us. So the question becomes: Are we with God? Are we uniting every aspect of our lives with Jesus on the Cross?

And that’s what St. Paul is getting at in our second reading this week: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”

Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice! In other words: Unite your sufferings — your very death — to the One Sacrifice of Calvary. 

Place all your anxieties, all your fears, every single trial you’re carrying around — put them on that marble altar, where the Passion of Christ is revealed to us under the appearance of bread and wine.

It’s there, on that altar, that the priest gathers up all of your spiritual sacrifices, and he hands them over to God on your behalf — and then lifts up that broken Host saying: “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him who suffered for us. Behold Him who suffers with us. He has triumphed over sin and death. Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.”

It’s not easy to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice. 

It’s not easy to hang on a Cross.

But without the Cross, there is no Resurrection.

So whatever you happen to be going through right now, your knee-jerk reaction may very well be “God forbid! This can’t happen!”

Jesus understands.

But know this also: The Lord is constantly inviting us to lean in, to take up our Cross, and then follow Him. He wants to carry the Cross in us. He wants to die in us. Lose your life to the Infinite God who infinitely loves you! Trust Him, and He will lead you into Resurrection.

By Fr. Anthony Ferguson

Fr. Anthony Ferguson is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. He is currently assigned at St. Andrew's Catholic Church in Roanoke, VA.

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