Having had the privilege some years ago of listening to indigenous women in La Paz, Bolivia, reflect on today's Gospel, I can never hear it without remembering their interpretation:
We women identify strongly with the crucified Christ and his sufferings. There is a strong sense of submission in our Aymara and Quechua cultures. Women submit to sexual abuse from their fathers, uncles and husbands, with a strong sense of resignation, thinking that whatever suffering they endure, they do silently and heroically, as their way of carrying the cross with Jesus.
This particular group had come through a process of learning to interpret the Gospel differently, so that their consciousness of themselves as lovable and precious in God’s eyes had been heightened; and thereafter they questioned the wisdom they had received for generations about how submitting to abuse and injustice was the way to identify with the crucified Christ. Gradually, they tested new ways of relating, as they claimed their power, uniting with one another to bring about change for themselves and their daughters.
What these women came to discover was the way in which a misreading of today’s Gospel had obliterated their sense of self and kept them cowering in abusive relationships. How could Jesus, who was so intent on lifting up those who were bowed down and on healing all who suffered, have meant it otherwise for them, they reasoned.
One does not have to go to Bolivia to find abuse justified by such interpretations of the cross. Whether immediately visible or not, such situations can be found in almost every community. A closer look at the context of Jesus’ saying reveals that he is speaking about a particular kind of suffering that his disciples must be willing to embrace: that which comes as a direct result of following his manner of life and mission. Suffering that comes from abuse and injustice is to be resisted and eradicated as fully as possible, as Jesus did throughout his ministry.
Moreover, the saying about denial of self is not referring to giving up certain pleasures, like forgoing chocolate during Lent. Rather, it refers to a disciple’s choice to lose himself or herself entirely in Christ—to take on Christ’s way of life and mission and his very identity as one’s own. This identity does not center on suffering, but on the love of God, expressed through loving service to one another, intent on bringing forth life to the full for all. But not all will welcome a manner of living and loving that undermines systems of domination and submission. The repercussions one is willing to risk for the sake of living and proclaiming the Gospel—that is the cross.
For the women in La Paz, a newfound understanding of the Gospel was born in meetings in which they were able to join in solidarity to share their experiences and reflect together with new eyes on the Scriptures. From this grew their sense of being empowered, beloved by God and able together to confront and end the suffering they and others they loved were experiencing.
True to today’s Gospel, these women indeed found their lives. Jesus increasingly came to understand what lay ahead for him from his own denial of self in finding his true life. How do you find yourself?