It was the season of Lent and a teacher was explaining the Stations of the Cross to her Sunday school class. They got to the fourth Station where Jesus on the road to Calvary meets his mother. The teacher explained that even though this incident was not narrated by any of the four evangelists, it was very much part of the tradition of the Church and though they may not have talked to each other, mother and son would surely have spoken just using their eyes. “What do you think they said to each other?” she asked the children in her class. There were different answers. One boy suggested that Mary said, “This is unfair.” Another girl suggested that she said, “Why me?” Finally a sickly little girl raised her thin hand, got up and said: “Teacher, I know what the Blessed Mother told Jesus. She said to him, ‘My son, Keep on keeping on!’”
Why would a mother encourage her only son on the way to crucifixion to keep on keeping on? The mother of Jesus would understand that if Jesus did not go to his cross, he would not be fulfilling the will of his Father, and if he did not do that, his life would have no meaning whatever. The mother of Jesus would know that only in his cross would he find his meaning and only in death would he find new life. This is why she would encourage her son never to give up or give in, but to persevere all the way even to ignominy, self denial, the cross and yes, death itself.
Today’s readings begin with an example of what is called in scriptural writings a lament. The prophet Jeremiah laments about unbearable pain, anger, and misery at unspeakable horrors and uncontrollable events that surround him in his life as a prophet of God’s Word. He is hostile towards God whom he believes has “seduced” or “duped” him, and he is convinced that he will no more mention God or speak in God’s name. Yet, even as he says this, he realizes that he cannot abandon his prophetic mission which is a fire burning in his heart, imprisoned in his bones. He is compelled from within to proclaim God’s word. The Word of God that comes to him, in response to his outburst of rage, is disquieting. He becomes aware that the misery is not going to stop or go away. There will be no respite from his torments and horrors. God simply assures Jeremiah of his presence, to strengthen him to withstand more misery. Jeremiah must continue to believe even in his unbelief, he must continue to have faith even in his lack of faith. He must keep on keeping on.
Peter’s objection to Jesus’ words of his passion, death and resurrection in the Gospel text of today sound like the first part of Jeremiah’s lament: Why must God’s son go to a Cross? Why must God’s son suffer? It would be nothing short of blasphemy for this to happen, and Peter states emphatically that this can never be. Surely there is another way. However, in his response to Peter, Jesus realizes like Jeremiah that it has to be this way. This is why Peter is called “Satan” which here is to be understood as one who intends to take Jesus away from his mission and so the will of his Father. Peter is a stumbling block, and Jesus will let nothing and no one stand between him and his Father’s will. He realizes that God’s word and will for him is so compelling that he cannot but fulfill it. It burns in his heart too like a fire that cannot be quenched. Difficult though it is to go to the Cross and though common sense and reason would rally against it, to the Cross he must and will indeed go.
Inspired by this example of Jesus, Paul in writing to the Romans urges them to imitate the Lord who did not conform to this world but dared to offer his body as a living and holy sacrifice to God.
Often in our lives like Jeremiah and Peter, each of us comes across something that is for all intents and purposes unbearable. Millions of people all over the world do not have enough to eat and are malnourished while others have more than they will ever need. Numerous people have no roof over their heads while others build mansions and palatial homes. A baby dies at birth, another is born deformed. Sooner or later, bearing the unbearable, we realize how little control we have over so much that damages our society and ourselves. Grief, rage, anger, and fear flash to the surface of consciousness and we wonder then about the kind of God that we believe in. Can this be the God of love? Can this be the God who demands justice? Can this be the God who makes no distinction between persons? Can this be the God of the poor and downtrodden? Why must the world we live in be filled with so much misery and pain?
When we are bearing the unbearable and are not able to fully understand it, we need a God who has suffered the depths of weakness, hopelessness, helplessness and even despair as we ourselves do. No other God can be trusted or hope to understand, and this is the Good News of God in Christ. Whatever the unbearable suffering, whatever the uncontrollable events that afflict and grieve us to the core of our being, God has seen it, known it, experienced it and taken it into his own life in Jesus who was crucified, who died and who was raised on the third day. This is why we cannot and must not take suffering out of the Jesus story since it says to us not that God has obliterated or removed everything that is unbearable in human misery, not that God has taken away all cause for pain and anger in human life, not even that God controls all things, but that God is the one who bears the misery, pain and helplessness with us and for us. By bearing the unbearable, God overcomes it and faithfully keeps the conversation open for life.