Today’s Gospel reading includes one of the most disturbing, even ominous, of all Jesus’s statements:
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
This passage resonates with particular power in the aftermath of viewing Nefarious. For in that remarkable movie, the demon made its meaning plain by asserting the contrary:
“My master designed every tool imaginable to destroy every facet of creation. We failed because of the Carpenter. He was the thorn in our side, our greatest threat. We thought if we could eliminate Him, the world will be ours forever. We had no idea of the consequences. The Cross was our greatest mistake. And we thought we’d lost, James, until my master realized that Man still wants to be his own god, and to worship no one but himself.”
Christ’s crucifixion was the inescapable price of His mission. For all good things have a price, and the price is usually proportional to the benefit conveyed.
Keep that in mind for a few words more.
“To deny oneself” does not mean negating one’s own existence. It means denying the animal impulses that contradict the teachings of Christ, particularly the First Great Commandment:
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. [Matthew 22:37]
But to love God that wholly is necessarily to accord Him His place as the Supreme Being, above whom there can be no one else. Our natural human vanity recoils from this, for each of us sees himself as the center of the universe. It is that facet of our animal selves that each of us must tame to domesticate ourselves to our true and proper Master.
You don’t have to deny all of what the world offers. You certainly don’t have to kill yourself. You merely have to give God His proper place: in your words, your thoughts, and your deeds.
“To take up one’s cross” sounds both more threatening and more unlikely. These days, crucifixion seldom appears on a death certificate. But we do incur suffering. Each man’s suffering is his own, an inescapable concomitant of the gift of life. While we naturally strive to eliminate or minimize our suffering, there are aspects to it that are necessary, and therefore necessary to accept gracefully:
- Our labors;
- Our dissatisfactions with our state in life;
- The pains that accompany aging and unusual effort;
- The unexpected, sometimes unsought, weariness attendant to the acceptance of responsibility.
No one, regardless of his level of wealth, health, or privilege, can escape those things. That which can’t be cured must be endured: gracefully, with a minimum of grumbling, and without the complaint characteristic of the disappointed toddler: “It’s not fair!”
It is through our sufferings that we actualize the virtues of perseverance, fortitude, and hope.
“Following Christ” is the simplest of His dictates: learn, internalize, and remain faithful to His teachings. They aren’t arduous; His yoke and burden really are easy to bear, light to carry. The two Great Commandments express by far the greater part of it:
“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” [Matthew 22:39]
The difficulty arises from our human reluctance to see others as our brothers in Him. For if we are brothers, we owe one another our good will: never to wish that our brother should suffer harm, nor that he should fall to the blow of fate, nor that he should lose his immortal soul. But the many enmities that can arise from human friction, even among the very best of us, tempt us to set the Second Great Commandment aside for a bit of schadenfreude.
There are powerful reasons why the Church has returned to emphasizing the Great Commandments as the heart of Christian morality.
Such a simple explication! Yet priests, ministers, and lay preachers seldom give it the airing it deserves. Far too many of them are intent on promulgating their own gospel: prescriptions and proscriptions that proceed from their personal preferences. But as always, the Redeemer is the true source. Recourse to His words will always wash away the confusions and misdirections men are prone to creating.
Enjoy your Labor Day celebration. Should a drone intrude on it uninvited, set down your beer, make the Sign of the Cross, blast it out the sky – twelve gauge is recommended, though twenty gauge will do in a pinch – and return to your festivities untroubled. And may God bless and keep you all.