Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
In these last days of Lent, we walk with our Lord Jesus Christ as he approaches Jerusalem and the cross. Knowing full well what awaited him, he freely chose to accept his terrible passion for our sakes. From no other desire than to love us back to heaven, he bore all that suffering, humiliation and abandonment, finally dying on the cross under the burden of all our sins. Yet for Christ, and therefore also, we hope, for all of us, death is not the end, for the power of death and the weight of all humanity’s sins could not hold him. He rose from the dead at Easter, thereby breaking the power of sin and death over each of us.
It is tempting for us to understand Christ as victim only. Our deepest suffering often comes in this way, when we find ourselves powerless and vulnerable against some circumstance or some person who victimizes us. The death or betrayal of a loved one, the diagnosis of a feared disease, the loss of family or position or home – all these things feel like our share of the cross of Christ.
And this is true, of course; Christ is indeed the Lamb of the Passover, whose blood marks the door of our heart and thus saves. In our times of distress, we can and should identify with the suffering of our Savior, and “offer it up,” as we say – by which we mean, not to dismiss or demean the reality of the suffering, but to accept the suffering precisely as part of the cross, and to find in it a deeper union with Christ’s passion and the saving grace that flows from it.
But if Christ is only a victim, it seems to follow that he has power only in those moments of great suffering. We tend to live that way, turning to God for help when we most need it, but failing to acknowledge his gifts when we experience the many blessings of the Lord. We appear to imagine, and too often to act as if, our success and flourishing were by our own efforts, and not by His grace and generosity.
How weak is this faith! Did Christ suffer and die, only to save us from the worldly things we fear? Did he, who died young and horribly for our sakes, promise us that by following him, we would be sure to live long and wealthy lives?
We must rather come to see that Christ was never a powerless victim. “You would have no power over me, if it had not been given to you from above” (Jn 19:11). “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn 10:18). Throughout the whole of his passion, he was not only victim, but also the priest, offering himself to the Father as a sacrifice of infinite worth. Our union with Christ is not union only of our suffering with his, but of our offering our life with his. To bear the name of Christ is to pour out our life’s blood on the cross of our vocation.
Christ freely chose the cross; so too must we. Christ offered his life for the salvation of others; so too must we. Christ died in just this way; so too must we. And Christ rose again from the dead; so too do we, by remaining in union with him.
We have spent these weeks of Lent, trying once again to get back to union with him. Our Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and abstinence, almsgiving and generosity, and seeking out again the sacraments of healing, especially confession, are the means of approaching him. The hardest part of carrying the cross is not worldly suffering, but the death of our pride, selfishness and desire to control that Christ calls us to accept.
But how can we truly share in the priesthood of Christ if we worship self more than God? To live in this way, is it not a lie? Therefore, we must practice, again and again, that dying to self that we call “humility.”
In this Passiontide right before Easter, we are invited to intensify our desire for conversion, for “putting on the mind of Christ” (Rom 12:2, etc.), for true humility. Christ calls us not to flee from the way of the cross, but to follow him, to remain in union with him as he offers himself, the sinless Lamb, for the forgiveness of sins. We must not listen to the world’s false promise of ease, for our Savior gives us no such promise. We must bind ourselves to the cross – not to suffering, but to self-emptying love, according to our vocation – again and again, as often as necessary, so that we do in fact remain there. This is how the Risen Christ shall live in us, and us in him, so that death and sin shall have no more power over us, forever.
Please pray for me, just as I pray daily for all of you. May the enlivening graces of Passiontide sustain you in your journey with Christ, and may his light ever guide the eyes of your heart and faith. The glorious dawn of Easter is nearly here.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City