24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus was not one to mince words. “So you want to be a follower of mine?”, he asks. All you have to do is “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me”. He doesn’t say, “Take care of yourself, guard your self-esteem, and go with the flow”. Those are signs that you really want to take the easy way out, to “save your life” as Jesus puts it, and it’s a good way to lose it. If you want to get a life worth saving, then deny yourself and take up your cross, lose your life for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the gospel. That’s the prime directive for anyone who wants to be a follower of Jesus, who came for the very purpose that we might have life, and have it to the full.
Notice what Jesus does not say. He doesn’t say, Think up a cross, some good thing you’d rather not do, and then do it as your cross. That would be a self-inflicted cross, and could be a sign that you’d rather put up with any other suffering than whatever God assigns. You wouldn’t be able to say with the prophet in the first reading, I have not rebelled, have not turned back, because you would be choosing your own cross.
Jesus speaks instead of some cross allotted to you and known to you, but not yet accepted, some humble form of suffering which goes against the grain. This is the cross that Jesus invites us to to take up, and in order to do that, we have to deny the self, because the self will refuse a burden like that.
Our evasion of our cross can take as many forms as there are human beings. People can resort to violence, or become addicted to drugs or sex, or spend all their time on their email or the internet. But every human being has a spiritual life to be lived, and deep down, we all know it, because we all have a conscience. Jesus appeals to that conscience when he says that the only way to a full, spiritual life is to renounce all these pseudo-lives.
To the average person, this fully human life can look a lot like death, the death of all we care to live for, and it is indeed the death of selfishness. But from Day One in the garden of Eden, when God set a limit to human appetites, he announced that the pseudo-life of self-indulgence and disobedience was really death. On the day that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they found out what God meant.
And so Jesus declares that whoever wishes to save that pseudo-life – the life of isolation and selfishness, where the whole idea is to say, “I did it my way” – that person is going to lose all the reality and the humanity and the spiritual fullness of life. And whoever is willing to part with lesser things for the sake of the great cause, the cause of Jesus and his gospel, that person will save his life. And it will be a life worth saving.
It’s striking that in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus directs his warning not just to those who live a sinful life, giving in to every sensual desire, but to all who live for self, whether inside the monastery or outside of it. No matter how refined and artistic our personal ambitions may be, to devote ourselves to them is to lose the reality of life; it’s to become jealous or vain, or forgetful of the claims of other people, or scornful of the crowd. Not self-fulfillment but self-sacrifice is the vocation of the follower of Jesus.
Until we learn that by experience, we will go from one desire to another, each one being unsatisfying, and the process will keep repeating itself. But the day will come when the last self-deception will come to an end. The cross of the Son of Man, that type of all noble sacrifice, will then be replaced by the glory of his Father with the holy angels. That glory is love, and those who have borne their cross will discover (as Julian of Norwich put it) that there is some “property of blessed love that we shall know in God, which we might never have known without woe going before”.