There is a true story in the u-tube of Dana Jebson a 27 year old girl who shared how when she was one year old, her father decided that he really didn’t want a family because he wasn’t ready and took off. However, Dana added, “When I was four years old, my father was diagnosed with cancer. His entire value system changed and he wanted to come back into my life to be a great father; I accepted him back.
He then actually became the absolute best father that I could possibly have. But, when I was ten, his cancer became terminal. And to give back what he had given me, I took care of him for about a year before he eventually died. My relationship with my dad was really really special and I think about him all the time. I am absolutely blessed to be a splitting image of him.
Three years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Uganda. I had no idea what to expect. There I met up with many children who did not have a father or mother or family. It was an entire civilisation ravaged with AIDS and these poor children were left to fend for themselves. However, they were so strong in overcoming anything and were also so wonderfully giving and caring for one another; they would all crowd together and lift each other up no matter the circumstance and help each other. Through them I realised, “What do I have to feel bad about or to ever feel sorry for myself!?” I soon fell in love with them.
In particular, I fell in love with Agnes, a little girl of ten who lived in a small clay hut. Agnes had lost both her parents from AIDS; she reminded me of how I too did not have a father. Agnes has a little brother who has no name. I told her through a translator that I would pay for her to go to a boarding school. Her face lighted up and I have never seen a smile so big. She immediately ran into her hut and dug up a bunch of roots as a way of thanking me. It didn’t take much from me, but it made a world of difference to Agnes. It meant everything for her. It was just an incredible experience. It just completely changed me. I came back a completely different person.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, in today’s Gospel, Jesus says to His apostles, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for My sake will find it.”
The “Cross” is never easy to understand and even more difficult to accept. This is mainly because none of us want pain in our lives. This was precisely why Peter told Jesus that He should not suffer . . . and when Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me Satan,” He was telling him, “You should not tempt me the way that Satan tried to tempt me to give up when I was in the desert. When we are experiencing pain in life, it is very tempting to give up trying and to give up the cross.
However, the story of Dana Jebson and Agnes that we just heard show us a different dimension of what the cross of Jesus means. The daily cross that Jesus wants us to carry is not so much that He wants us to suffer pain in life. The essence of the “Cross” of Jesus is about love; compassionate love; not pain.
The “cross” of Dana was to accept her father back into her life when he was dying of cancer and to care for him and love him fully and totally again even though he deserted her at the age of one. The cross is more than enduring pain; the cross for Dana was to forgive and love her father again and unconditionally. This was never easy for her, but eventually over the six years of her life with her dad, they developed a relationship that Dana described as an “absolute best father who was really really special to her. . . and she thinks of him all the time.”
The “cross” for Dana too was to go beyond her pain of her past life and feel the deep compassion for Agnes, the Ugandan girl and others who had suffered so much like her without any parents. In loving her father unconditionally, and in being able to feel the goodness of all the suffering people in the poor village in Uganda, Dana was herself further transformed by them.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, when we shun the “daily crosses” that Jesus says is necessary for us to take up, if we want to be a follower of His, we are actually turning away from God’s invitation to us to love those who have hurt us unconditionally.
Let us not for a moment think that it was easy for Dana to accept her father back and love him unconditionally. Let us also remember that it was traumatic and tragic for Jesus, the Son of God to have suffered and died for us as a public criminal on the Cross. Let us be realistic and not deny that to love unconditionally is going to be agonising and for some of us humanly impossible. The deeper the hurt, the more difficult it is to love unconditionally. However, we too must remember that the more difficult it is to love unconditionally, the more graces Jesus will give us to fulfil His father’s Will.
If Jesus were to proclaim that the gift of eternal life and resurrection is without the need to carry our daily crosses, it would be like saying that we can love someone deeply without the need to make any sacrifices to show our love for the person. This is a contradiction of what love is about. If there is genuine love, there must be painful sacrifices and humble acceptance of the person we love who is not perfect; so are we! This is precisely how Jesus loves us; unconditionally to the point of laying down His life for us even though we remain imperfect and sinful in our daily living.
If someone or your spouse were to say to you, “I love you very much, but is always giving reasons after reasons for not having time for you and the family or is holding on tightly to his money or never helped out in the needs of the home and is all the time concerned about his own comfort and enjoyment of life, you would rightly question whether your spouse truly means what he says when he says, ‘I love you very much.’”
However, if someone or your spouse were to be a person who is totally selfless, caring and concerned about you and the family regardless of how much sacrifices he has to make and how painful it is for him to forgive you for the wrongs that you have done to hurt him, then you can without doubt say that he truly loves you very much. As it is often said, “Actions speaks louder than words.”
Similarly, if we say we want to be a follower of Jesus, but we do not wish to make the needed sacrifices of carrying our daily crosses and are not willing to change our lifestyles to the ways that He has taught and shown us, then how can we call ourselves His follower? To be a follower of Christ means that we are called to be like Him who was willing to carry His Cross and even die for us.
Are we willing to die for Christ as He died for us? When St Matthew wrote his Gospel around 80 AD, it was during the time when Christians were persecuted and many were martyred for their faith. So, Jesus’ question, of asking them whether they were willing to carry their cross and follow Him to His death was a very real option. Thousands did and died for their faith.
As for us, it would be unlikely that we will be martyred for our faith. However, we are called to carry our crosses daily and make all the needed sacrifices that God Wills of us, if we want to be His follower. The true story of Dana Jebson has shown us that it is possible to love unconditionally. And if we do so, as she did, our lives will be transformed; healing will take place and our broken relationships can even develop into intimate and special relationships as she had with her father, who had originally disowned her. And because Dana was able to love her father unconditionally, she was also able to empathise and allow the suffering children in Uganda, especially Agnes to melt her heart when Agnes gave her the biggest smile and showed her, her deepest gratitude; and from these she was transformed deeply.
As I conclude, I would like us to ask ourselves, “Which areas in my life do I find to be a hindrance in my love for the Lord? Is it my self-centeredness that ignores people’s needs or my pride that refuses to forgive or my attachment to my wealth, comfort and other blessings that God has given me that stagnates my relationship with the Him? Which ones of these is Jesus wanting me to change for the better by carrying my cross daily so that I can be His true follower?
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.
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