2 Timothy 2:8-10; 3:10-12 / John 15:1-7
Images of St Peter of Verona do not generally sit well with modern viewers. There he stands, in full Dominican habit, adorned with a halo and, at least in the earliest images, standing like his fellow saints in a field of gold. What makes this odd, however, is the cleaver embedded in his head, the very instrument of his murder, his martyrdom, still stuck in his skull. We don't know what to say. Either such a vision is too grisly, too horrific, making a lie of the real tragedy of the brutalization of those persecuted and killed for the faith. Or else, we think it comic, ludicrous, risible. We wonder what kind of spirituality, what kind of faith would put stock in a heaven where wounded heroes still walk about with weapons lodged in their bodies.
But, then, what about our crucifixes? We craft them lovingly of the best we have — of wood and paint, of marble and precious stone, of silver and gold, and especially in this Eastertide we surround them with beautiful and sweet-smelling flowers. How can we laud and hold up the broken body of the Lord affixed to the awful Tree when he reigns in heaven where death has no more dominion over him? On the other hand, how can we show as beautiful what was in so many ways brutal and ugly, a miscarriage of justice played out through the ruthless and systematic abuse of a helpless man?
The Christian faith, however, insists that it is not our vision of Christ and the saints, but the vision of the world that is confused. For the world, suffering and flourishing are incompatible. A life is only human, only fully alive, insofar as it is not marked by the scars of this valley of tears. The world fears that, even if there should be a glorious life beyond this one, a cosmic future of paradise when the last star has cooled and gone dark, pain and suffering will still stand in judgment over an eternity of bliss.
St Paul, on the other hand, tells us that all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Jesus himself reminds his faithful that everyone that does bear fruit in his life in Christ, the Father prunes, purges, so that he bears much fruit. A life truly alive, the mark of a life well lived, a life which can be said to have flowered into full bloom, will not be untouched, but marked with its own scars of suffering, its own cleaver, nails, or crown of thorns.
But why is this not bad news? Brothers and sisters, while we wait for the coming fullness of God's redeeming work in Christ, God does not wait for us! He is already at work, not in spite of our sufferings, but in and through them, and if we let him, he will make of us vines unimaginably fruitful with the wine of the New and Everlasting Kingdom from grapes grown on the branches of our lives, crushed indeed in the winepress of sadness and suffering, but not for that reason bittersweet.
The Christian vision is neither masochism not vulgar comedy. It is the sure and certain hope that the way of the Cross is the way of Life, and that where Christ has gone before, we need have no fear to follow.