There’s a scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ that always impresses me no matter how often I watch the movie. It takes place just outside the praetorium, Pontius Pilate’s palace, as Jesus and the two thieves who will be crucified with him are being readied for the walk towards Calvary. As the two thieves have the wooden cross sections of their cross tied to their backs and shoulders, Jesus, who is bent over in pain, is presented his cross. How Jesus responds is what gets me every time.
Through the blood and sweat in his eyes, Jesus looks at the cross and then proceeds to embrace it. I don’t mean he grabs on to it as if he was going to use it for leverage to get up. No, he embraces it like a child embraces his mother or a young lover embraces his love. The embrace is so sincere that the “bad thief” expresses disbelief, jeers at him and then proceeds to mock him for wrapping his arms around the instrument of his impending death.
I confess I can’t blame the bad thief for his reaction. In a moment of such horrible fear and despair I don’t know if I would have reacted any differently. Actually, I would have thought Jesus was certifiably mad. Here we are, you and me, at the point of beginning the most agonizing experience of our lives and you decide to cuddle up with the Roman’s version of the guillotine, electrical chair, lethal injection, firing squad… only crueler. Facing the same fear, the same concern, the same challenge, the same horrible cross, Jesus reacts differently. Why?
On the one hand, the bad thief, understandably consumed with overwhelming concern for his wellbeing, sees in that cross the beginning of a torturous trial that promises to be an excruciatingly heavy burden that will cause extraordinary pain, suffering and assured death. In that cross the bad thief sees misery that leads to despair. It is because of this perspective that he reviles it.
Jesus, on the other hand, sees in that cross an opportunity. An opportunity to prove his unconditional love for man. An opportunity to demonstrate to God the Father his absolute commitment to his mission no matter what the consequence. An opportunity to practice what he so eloquently and emphatically preached to the people of Israel throughout his public ministry. Jesus sees clearly that the cross placed before him is the key to unlocking the gates of heaven. It is because of this perspective that he embraces it.
Like everything else with Jesus, there is a lesson to be learned here.
Each of us, on occasion, has been faced with a cross that has caused us great suffering and pain. We have been faced with a challenge that awakens in us great concern or fear. But if we see things from the perspective of Jesus, we can turn every obstacle, every moment of pain and suffering, every cross into an opportunity.
Let me give you an example.
When I was a young scholastic studying philosophy at Fordham University, I was sent to spend a summer in the Dominican Republic. On my way from New York to the DR I had a three-day layover in Miami to visit family. Bishop Enrique San Pedro, S.J. had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and was hospitalized at Mercy Hospital. Because he had always been a hero of mine and one of the many reasons I became a Jesuit, I went to visit him. As I entered the hospital room filled with family and friends I saw him lying there in bed. As soon as he saw me he asked everyone to leave the room because he wanted to speak to me privately. He called me over and holding my hand told me that he was in pain and knew of his impending death. He then proceeded to assure me that he wasn’t scared and told me that he was offering his cross, in part, for my vocation. “Be a good Jesuit,” he told me. He died two weeks later.
How is it possible that lying there on the threshold of death, struggling with unbearable pain and suffering, this man was able to muster up the courage to say and do such a thing? Perspective. He saw in his cross an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus Christ, to unite his agony with that of his Savior’s and give it purpose and meaning by offering it up for a young man’s vocation. Bishop San Pedro understood that by doing this, his suffering was not in vain, but potentially salvific. That’s why he embraced his cross.
Twenty years later, those words, “be a good Jesuit,” still ring in my ears and drive my priesthood.
During this season of Lent, as we accompany Jesus along the road to Calvary, I encourage you to take some time and think about the challenges in your life, the sufferings, the pains, the crosses and see how shouldering them they can be an opportunity for drawing closer to Jesus. Don’t revile them, but embrace them and offer them up for the salvation of those you love and even for those you have a hard time loving. Let you cross be an opportunity for others to be a good young man or woman, a good husband or wife, a good father or mother, a good priest or nun. It’s all about your perspective, the perspective of Jesus.