Opening the Word: Liturgy of the Cross

Upon the birth of our son, we received a children’s book on the life of Jesus. It began with his birth in Bethlehem, as well as some of his teachings and healings. The text concluded with Jesus telling the little children to come to him, treating this moment as the turning point.

There was no death. There was no Resurrection. It was a story that any person of goodwill could embrace.

Undoubtedly, the writers of this children’s text were well intentioned. They imagined it would be difficult for parents to explain to their children that the Word made flesh, the splendor of the Father, was crucified upon a cross.

How should one treat the death and resurrection of a first century, apocalyptic Jewish preacher with 2-year-olds?

But this mistake is one that is deadly for Christians.

Peter falls into the very same trap that the well-intentioned publishers of the children’s Gospel did. A week after proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ, he can’t take the second part of the proclamation: “[H]e must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21).

Peter interrupts. After all, just a moment ago in the Gospel, Peter had been proclaimed the foundation of the Church! Surely, it was time to exert his leadership: “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him …” (Mt 16:22).

Peter thinks he knows better what it means to the Messiah. The Messiah, the Anointed One, is the great king who will bring Israel to her destiny.

She will gather all nations, conquering the Romans (and perhaps the rest of the world in the process). A dead Messiah isn’t a helpful one, at least to Peter.

After strongly rebuking Peter, Our Lord begins to teach once more. To be a follower of the Messiah does not mean gathering political power for some final battle. Rather, “‘whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me’” (Mt 16:24).

For the Gospel of Matthew, this moment, this proclamation, is the turning point. Jesus isn’t just a healer, a great king, a profound prophet. He is the Christ, who has come to put an end to the macabre kingdom of men.

And after all, that’s what we human beings need. How often do we experience the sorrows of the human condition?

As we watch our nation succumb to the violence of abortion and racism?

As we watch our beloved suffer from illness and death itself?

Yet, our response as Christians is to follow the path Our Lord trod.

For as St. Paul notes, the Christian’s vocation is to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship (logike latreia)” (Rom 12:1).

As we conform ourselves to the paschal mystery of Our Lord, we transform the absurdity of the human condition into a sacrifice of love.

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We offer not simply the liturgy found in the Church, but the liturgy of our very bodies.

The liturgy that leads mothers and fathers to give their whole lives to their children.

The liturgy that leads disciples to choose the concrete, embodied practice of love.

The liturgy that witnesses to the dignity of each person.

You know, the liturgy of the cross.

The liturgy of love.

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.