In the early 1980‘s I lived for six years preparing for priesthood at Holy Cross seminary in Mosgiel. In the late 1990’s when the number of seminarians was relatively low, the seminary was shifted to Ponsonby in Auckland where a new surge of passion for the life of faith has seen significant growth to the extent that the new complex is now too small for the growing number of candidates.
The feast day of New Zealand’s national seminary is today’s feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and this marble statue of Jesus taking up his cross has confronted New Zealand’s diocesan seminarians in pride of place on the seminary sites both in Mosgiel and in Auckland for over a century.
I had booked a train ticket to travel from Timaru to Mosgiel on the day I entered the seminary in February 1980, but happily, the evening before Jack (my uncle, also a priest of the Christchurch Diocese) arrived at my home offering to drive me down. I remember a lot about the journey, including the stop to visit my maternal grandparents in Oamaru, (it was my grandmother’s birthday), a picnic lunch on the beach at Karitane, an early afternoon movie in Dunedin, and the drive through the seminary gates just after 5pm when I was greeted with the image of Jesus carrying his cross out the gates. When I finished my studies six years later I again drove past the statue, this time in the direction that Jesus was facing, heading out through the gates.
My understanding and appreciation of “the cross” has grown greatly, especially in recent years. I had always known that at times life is difficult, and that as Jesus had to carry his cross, so too each of us who seek to follow Jesus have our own crosses. I knew too that Jesus helps us to carry our crosses and every day he eases the burden of our struggles.
In recent years I have grown to appreciate that when Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23), he was reminding us that the many ways in which we might feel burdened with life’s crosses in fact provide the only way that we can grow to full human maturity. What Jesus is telling us is that the cross is not just a difficulty or an obstacle, but that the cross, carried through suffering to death, IS the pathway. A couple of examples might help us to understand this.
A child in the womb has everything that it needs for survival… nourishment, warmth and security. But the time comes when the child is torn from this security in an experience that must feel deathly from the child’s perspective. A twin who watches the sibling depart would call this experience death. The parents call the event birth. From the second twin’s point of view this is a suffering and a separation and there is no possible positive interpretation. An adult understands that this apparently deathly journey from the womb into the world is the pathway to life.
A second example is provided by today’s first reading. You will remember the background: after Joseph (the technicolour dreamcoat guy) is sold into slavery by his brothers and ends up in Egypt, he, through a remarkable sequence of events, is in a position to provide food and security for his brothers when they escape south to Egypt seeking respite from famine for themselves and their father (Jacob) when their homeland was in severe draught. Long story short, years later the Egyptian ruler (the Pharoah) was concerned that the Hebrews in Egypt were breeding like rabbits and needed to be controlled so he confined them to slavery and treated them badly. Then emerges Moses who on direct instructions from God acts to free these chosen people from slavery and return them to their land of promise – milk and honey and all that. The problem was that this journey from slavery to freedom was long and arduous. That’s where today’s first reading picks up and we find the travellers…
“with their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
In fact the people tell Moses that they would rather exist as tormented slaves than live freely in the promised land if the pathway has to be so painful.
I’m not sure much has changed in the 3000+ years since Moses. None of us likes to suffer, but on reflection we do know that at times we have had the maturity and the patience to endure times of difficulty knowing it is the only pathway to a greater reward. The problem comes when we try to live with the presumption that suffering is a sign that something is wrong, and when we run from the journey preferring to remain in the security of prison cells that are nothing more than familiar and stable.
How often when in a Moses moment someone announces a new and untried way forward the community responds with: “we can’t think that way…because we have never thought that way before.”
And the greatest tragedy is that this confined way of thinking is often more common in communities of faith than in many secular environments.