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106 Pressed into His Service

April 6, 2020

Often the right thing to do is the hardest thing to do, and that’s why we don’t do it. But when we don’t, we are missing out on the blessings. In this episode of By Your Life, we talk about the challenge and the grace that comes from taking up your cross and following Him.

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion – April 5, 2020

Welcome to the one hundred and sixth episode of By Your Life. I’m Lisa Huetteman and I know that things have been hard lately. It’s hard to keep positive when our lives are totally disrupted. So, I hope to offer you encouragement today and I thank you for choosing By Your Life.

My goal is to inspire, empower, support, challenge, and encourage you to connect Sunday, with Monday-Friday, in a secular world. It’s my desire to help you live our Catholic faith in a marketplace that has been turned upside down. I hope to offer you practical ways to go forth and glorify the Lord by your life.

In this edition, we’ll reflect on the readings for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. (Cycle A) Lent is coming to an end and to quote  a meme that is being shared around social media, “This is the Lentiest Lent that we’ve ever Lented!” I think that about captures it! Most of us didn’t expect that we’d be giving up so much when we got our ashes and committed to our Lenten sacrifice just 5½ weeks ago. How quickly things changed!

How quickly things changed!

On January 21, we had the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the US in Washington State. By February 21st, the total number reported to the CDC was only 15. By March 21st, the number had grown to almost 24,600 cases and just 10 days later, on March 31st, the number exceeded 186,100 and today, less than a week later, the number is over 266,000. How quickly things changed!

On the political front, before Lent started, Bernie Sanders looked poised to win the Democratic nomination with early success in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. And then on February 29th, Joe Biden, who had previously been written off by the pundits, won the South Carolina primary and just like that, everything changed. Three days later, Biden took the lead in the number of delegates won and those same pundits proclaimed the nomination to be his to lose. Now, just one month later, no one is talking about the election. How quickly things changed!

You could say the same thing about our Scripture readings for Palm Sunday too. How quickly things changed. Jesus entered Jerusalem where a “very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road.” (Mt 21:8) The people cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is the he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.” (Mt 21:9)

Then, within a few days, the same crowd cried, “Let him be crucified!” (Mt 27:22) They mocked him, (Mt 27:29) and then they crucified him. (Mt 27:35)  Those passing by reviled him. (Mt 27:39) The “revolutionaries who were crucified with him also kept abusing him in the same way.” (Mt 27:44) Even Peter, who the night before swore “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you,” (Mt. 26:35), denied him (Mt. 26:69-74), and all the disciples who spoke likewise “left him and fled.” (Mt 26:56) How quickly things changed!

The one constant in change

One thing never changes: God’s love for us and Jesus’ obedience to the will of his loving Father. As our second reading from St. Paul to the Philippians reminds us, “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:8) Jesus’ life’s mission was the Cross, and by the Cross we have been saved. But let’s not forget that this is our mission too as Christian disciples. Jesus called all of us to share in his Cross when he said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mt 16:24)

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. (Mt 16:24)

Take up your cross

Earlier this week, there was a story about a nurse in the Bronx on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Her name is Christina Norstein. The article detailed the struggles she and other medical professionals face each day as they try to do their jobs in unprecedented times. They lack resources, space, and clear policies for dealing with the influx of critical care patients. They lack personal protective equipment to keep themselves from being exposed to the deadly virus. And still, they are pressed into service.

Her story is just one that is repeated every day in hospitals across the country. These professionals not only worry about their patients, they fear they may inadvertently pass the disease onto their loved ones. After working 12½-hour shifts, Christina Norstein leaves the hospital exhausted. Her husband wants her to quit, but she said, “This is what I do.” He wishes she were a coward so they could cower together until this is over. Instead, in order not to put her family at risk, she moved into a hotel. (WSJ 4/1/20 pg. A1) Christina may not recognize the Lord in the least of these (Mt. 25:40) she is caring for, yet she has denied herself and taken up her cross. (Is it just a coincidence that her name is Christina?)

Pressed into service

This invitation to “deny yourself and take up your cross” is played out in our Gospel by Simon, from Cyrene who literally carried His cross. As well-known as his name is, we really don’t know a lot about him. We know that Cyrenaica was a Roman province on the north coast of Africa and Cyrene, its capital city, had a large population of Greek-speaking Jews. Simon may have been living in Palestine or may have come there for the Passover as a pilgrim. Mark tells us he was coming in from the country and was the father of Alexander and Rufus. (Mk 15:21)

Was he a follower of Christ? We don’t know. We do know that he picked up His cross. Did he do so willingly? Maybe, but maybe not. Mathew’s Gospel says, “this man they pressed into service to carry his cross.” (Mt 27:32) In his reflection on the Fifth Station, Bishop Barron said, “At the price of his own suffering, [Simon] was pressed into service. He couldn’t have known it was his Savior whom he served, yet he carried the cross and shared in the suffering that redeemed the world.”

It is most likely Simon was “pressed into service” against his will. Perhaps it was fear and not love that drove him. Even so, it’s not possible that he wasn’t blessed for his service. It cannot be possible that he carried the cross, was spat on and laughed at as he hauled the wooden beam without receiving the grace of God. It is not possible that he wasn’t changed by responding to the invitation to pick up the cross.

Sharing in the grace of the Cross

When meditating on the Fifth Station, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, (now Pope Benedict XVI) said of Simon, “From this chance encounter, faith was born. The Cyrenian, walking beside Jesus and sharing the burden of the Cross, came to see that it was a grace to be able to accompany him to his crucifixion and to help him. The mystery of Jesus, silent and suffering, touched his heart. Jesus, whose divine love alone can redeem all humanity, wants us to share his Cross so that we can complete what is still lacking in his suffering (cf. Colossian 1:24). Whenever we show kindness to the suffering, the persecuted and defenseless, and share in their sufferings, we help to carry that same Cross of Jesus. In this way we obtain salvation and help contribute to the salvation of the world.”

The challenge of denying self

And this is the challenge we face as Christians. We are being pressed into service by the Father. It is our purpose as Christian disciples to serve the Master’s need. Taking up a cross is usually not convenient nor is it something we look forward to. How dangerous it must have seemed to Simon to carry the cross. What about the other plans he had for that day? “But at the moment of truth, the Master had need of him and he responded, and his story is told to this day.” (From Bishop Barron’s reflection of the Fifth Station.)

We too are being asked to deny ourselves and we often don’t want to because it’s not easy. How can we possibly pick up our cross when even Jesus had a hard time with it? His life’s mission was the Cross and three times he asked for it to be taken away. But three times, he denied his will for the will of the Father. (Mt 26:39, 42, 44)

To deny yourself is to disown yourself as the center of your existence. In this “Lentiest Lent we’ve ever Lented”, we’ve been asked to do just that—to put others before ourselves. Some in this crisis, like Christina Norstein and many others like her are responding in charity. My mobile phone company provided extra gigabytes of data for the month at no charge. They did this automatically. I didn’t have to ask. Other companies are offering their customers similar breaks. And then there are others who are using the situation for personal gain. My bank has sent several notices about how I can use my home equity line of credit to pay my bills, and at the same time, I haven’t noticed that they lowered the interest rate in response to the near zero percent Fed rates. Note, there is nothing illegal about that and there is nothing unethical about it either. I know that a bank like any other company has employees to pay. It is just that the contrast speaks volumes about the character of the decision-makers at these companies.

The moment of truth

We aren’t all facing the virus from the front lines. Most of us are denying ourselves just by staying home. But, we all have our own part to play when the Master calls. From the donkey in the reading of Procession with the Palms, to Simon of Cyrene, to Christine Norstein, we all have a choice of how we will respond when the Master needs us. What will you do? What will you do when you are invited to deny yourself and pick up your cross and follow him? Quoting Bishop Barron again, “Your life is not about you. The Master has need for you. (Mt. 21:3) Whether and how you respond is all that matters.”

This is the moment of truth for us all. How will you respond when you are pressed into service? Let’s ask the Lord to help us:

Lord, you opened the eyes and heart of Simon of Cyrene, and you gave him, by his share in your Cross, the grace of faith. Help us to aid our neighbors in need, even when this interferes with our own plans and desires. Help us to realize that it is a grace to be able to share the cross of others and, in this way, know that we are walking with you along the way. Help us to appreciate with joy that, when we share in your suffering and the sufferings of this world, we become servants of salvation and are able to help build up your Body, the Church, and glorify you by our lives.

May God bless you abundantly today, whether you are going out or staying home,  glorify the Lord by your life.

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