The Gospel reading today sets the scene for this third and middle Sunday of great Lent whereupon at the end of the Liturgy we venerate the holy and life-giving cross, as we shall do later of course on Great and Holy Friday. However, to understand the importance of this Gospel reading from St Mark, we must also consider the three verses that come before, which tell in a most honest way of the great mistake that St Peter makes in his reaction to the prophecy of our Lord Jesus Christ concerning his own passion and death. These verses read as follows:
And He [Christ] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke this word openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. 33 But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mark 8:31-33)
St Peter’s idea of the long-awaited Messiah is not one who will suffer the pain, humiliation and tragedy of a public execution for crimes he could not and did not commit. This was a true crossroads (in more than one sense) for St Peter, a time, one among many, when he had to look again at the Saviour and change his mind, which, of course, is the literal meaning of “metanoia,” repentance.
It is perhaps even more noteworthy that the Gospel of Saint Mark includes this reference before more general teaching concerning taking up one’s own cross and following Christ because these were the memories of Christ teaching and actions which were set down not by St Mark himself but rather by St Peter who scribe he was. St Peter, therefore, was honest to the whole world about his sins and failures. No spin here, therefore, no redaction, no editing out of the embarrassing bits!
In passing we should note that the earliest witness to the authorship of St Mark’s Gospel is Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis writing in a commentary in about A.D. 140. He said: “This also the Elder used to say: Mark, indeed, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, howbeit not in order, all that he recalled of what was either said or done by the Lord.” St Mark, therefore, John-Mark in the Gospels, was St Peter’s scribe and this appears by St Justin, St Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria. St Mark’s Gospel, therefore, is really and originally the Gospel of St Peter, but not to be confused with a false gospel of the same name written nearly a century after St Peter’s death.
So, to recap: here we have St Peter being brutally honest about his own mistaken understanding of the significance of Christ and the necessity of His voluntary passion and death in order to save humankind. It would not be the only mistake or failure that St Peter was to make from this point onward. We recall his refusal to have his feet washed by Christ at the Last Supper, his triple denial of Christ when the cock crowed in the courtyard and later, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, his failure to understand that the Gospel did not require from Gentiles the exact performance of the Mosaic law.
Each one of these misunderstandings and weaknesses constituted a crossroad for St Peter, a choice of path or direction which he initially missed. However, such was and is the faithfulness of God toward him, that these mistakes and lapses were put right and better choices subsequently made, simply because St Peter had a heart and a life that could be changed. Notwithstanding his passionate nature, and even his impetuosity at times, St Peter had the humility to acknowledge when he was wrong, to go back to those crossroads in his life and get back on the right track.
We can learn hugely from St Peter’s example here. We have many crossroads in our own lives, many points when we need to make a decision as God wills rather than as we often will out of fear or lack of vision. Sadly, many people give up in despair of themselves when confronted with their own failures. St Peter was tempted to do that as well when he resumed fishing rather than his apostolic work after his denial of Christ before the Passion. You will recall that our Risen Lord simply asked him if he loved him, notably three times. Having established that simple truth of mutual love, our Lord put Peter back on the right path to “feed the sheep” to resume his apostolic work notwithstanding his earlier multiple failures.
Will we hear the same words from Christ concerning our love for him and his love for us as being the only thing necessary for reconciliation and putting our life in order at each and every crossroad of decision? This is the only way that we can live our lives, the only chance we shall have - never to abandon the way of the Cross both as the means of our restoration and our own model and calling to serve humanity as Christ served it, sacrificially, lovingly and even unto death.
Can you see now Christ’s teaching in the Gospel today to take up our own cross and follow him, to lose our life for the sake of the gospel thereby saving it and that of many others, is only made possible by our refusal to give up on account of our own failures and misunderstandings? Correct these continually by the inspiration of divine Wisdom and the Holy Spirit and then every road will become a Cross-Road on the way to the Resurrection. This is what it means to venerate the Holy Cross: not just outwardly with our lips but inwardly in our hearts and sacrificially in our lives as true followers of the One who laid down His life for all.