The Cross of Christ Unites. . . Us in the Work We Have to Do
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. REVELATION 22:1–2
Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it. MATTHEW 21:43
Dean wanted to be a Trappist monk. While we were in college, he spent many weekends at a Trappist monastery several hours from our school. These were opportunities for both Dean and the monks of the community to consider whether God was leading Dean. Now Trappists are the Marines of monastic life. Until recent times they didn’t even speak much. Those of us who knew Dean well found it rather odd that he would think that God was calling him to be a Trappist. Dean loved to talk. He loved to laugh and play jokes on people. He was the most outgoing person in our college class—in a matter of months he knew everyone in the small town where our college was located.
Fortunately the Trappists figured this out, too, and they told Dean that he didn’t have a vocation to be a Trappist monk. Unfortunately, he didn’t agree with their decision and became very depressed. He felt rejected, but all of us who cared for him were relieved that the monastery had discerned wisely.
Many people end up in the wrong job. It is one of the curses of original sin. “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return from the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17–19). I believe that one of the ways this plays out is that we are tempted to take on a career or vocation that simply doesn’t match the gifts that God has given to us. As a result, many people find their work a burden, something that does not produce fruit in their lives but rather thorns and thistles.
Jesus compares his coming to that of a son of a wealthy landowner who is sent to obtain produce that has been harvested on the landowner’s property. The tenants kill the son, so the landowner gives the vineyard to another group of tenants, who are charged with producing fruit in due season. The problem is this: Without some help, under the curse of original sin we are no more likely to produce good fruit than those who came before us. But unlike those who came before Jesus, we are not left to our own devices. Jesus identifies himself as the Vine, us as the branches; our ability to produce good fruit is conditioned upon our being “in Christ.”
Christian artists throughout history have tied the image of Jesus as the Vine with the image of the Tree of Life, which is mentioned both in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and the last book of the Bible, Revelation. These artists have perceived a connection between Jesus on the tree of the cross and the Eucharist, where Jesus gives us his Body and Blood under the forms of bread and wine (the fruit of the vine)! In the Book of Revelation, the Tree of Life is surrounded on either side by the “river of life,” a reference to Baptism. It is through this river that we die to ourselves and live for Christ. What is this “self” that has to die in order to gain admittance to the Tree of Life? It is the “false” self, the ego that serves false gods.
What many people never stop to consider is that these false gods can mask themselves as virtuous. This way, it is possible for someone to think he is serving God, when in fact he is really serving some false ideal. How can you tell the difference? A true vocation produces good fruit.
About ten years ago, I had an opportunity to make a thirty-day retreat at the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in upstate New York. The grounds of this shrine were covered with statues of every conceivable saint. Since this was a silent retreat, I found myself thinking a lot about the lives of those saints, even talking to the stone figures at times. (They didn’t talk back, but obviously I wouldn’t make a good Trappist monk either!). As I continued to contemplate their lives, I was struck by the fact that each one was unique: no two saints are alike! Some were extroverts, some were introverts, some were aggressive, some were passive—but they all used the gifts that God had given them in a way that made them remarkable people.
It was clear to those who knew him that my friend Dean had not been not called to be silent monk, withdrawn from the world. Why did he want to be one? He told me once that he felt that in order to be holy; he had to be other than what he was— in his case, that meant being like a monk. Many, many people have been tempted to bury their talents in the name of religion. However, we all are the vineyards planted by God. Throughout our lives God sends servants to obtain from us the fruits of our lives. How we respond to them is a good test of whether we are planted in Christ or in our own false self. Dean’s depression was his own crucifixion. He felt that serving God meant going to a monastery. He was trying to do what he thought was good and right; ironically, it was when he wasn’t trying to be religious he was doing what was good and right. Dying to ourselves on the cross of Christ means dying to what others expect and being true to what God wants from us.
The Dream that God Gives to Us
In the book of Genesis, Joseph has a dream (see Genesis 37). The dream is Joseph’s vocation, what God wants Joseph to do. However, that dream was fulfilled by the way of the cross. Sold into slavery for twenty pieces of silver, Joseph was thrown into jail after being falsely accused of rape. There he interpreted dreams for Pharaoh’s cup holder and baker. Years went by before the cup holder remembered Joseph and brought him to Pharaoh’s attention. After Joseph was put in charge of Egypt, his brothers appeared and prostrated themselves in front of him—fulfilling Joseph’s original dream. The cross unites our gifts and our mission, the purpose God intends for us to fulfill. It also frees us from our preconceived ideas about how God’s will should be done, freeing us to use our gifts for the good of all, so that God’s kingdom may come and his “will be done!”
The Power of the Cross is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.