If anyone wants to become my disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mt. 16:24).
As we continue our reading of St. Matthew’s Gospel and enter more fully into the Mystery of Our Lord’s identity and mission as the Messiah come in the flesh, we learn in today’s Gospel passage that if we wish to follow Jesus we must do so on His terms, not ours; no matter how well-intentioned we may consider ourselves to be. Surely, this is the case with St. Peter who rebukes Our Lord who had begun to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…and be killed and on the third day be raised (Mt. 16:21). St. Peter is rebuked with these strong words: Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are thinking not as God does, but as humans do! (Mt. 16:23). There can be no authentic Christian discipleship without the embrace of the Cross, for the Cross and all that it implies is at the heart of the Christian faith. There are, it would seem from what Our Lord says to Peter, two ways to approach this mystery: as God does and as humans do.
We who profess our faith in the Crucified Christ acknowledge Him to be the power and the wisdom of God (1Cor. 1:23). As such, Our Lord’s Cross and to some extent, our own crosses are the means by which we come to know God and to experience His power at work in and through us. In the embrace of the Cross we come to know the true nature of God and we make known His saving wisdom. Christ Crucified proclaims self-giving, self-sacrificing love as the means of our fulfillment.
If the Cross is indeed the revelation of God’s very nature, then the Cross is the key to understanding all reality. St John Henry Newman spoke of the Cross as the measure of the world. In the Cross and in Him who hung upon it, all things meet, all things subserve it, all things need it. It is their centre and their interpretation. For He was lifted upon it, that He might draw all things unto Him. (The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World, Parochial and Plain Sermons). In light of these words it is very clear why the Church engages in missionary work. We preach Christ Crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God so that all people may come to know and to understand themselves in the light of God’s truth for the Cross is the way which leads from earth to heaven. Those who embrace it with faith, love and hope are taken up, right up into the heart of the Trinity (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, The Science of the Cross).
If anyone wants to become my disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. The self-denial that Our Lord speaks of confronts the self-love and selfishness that can easily lead us to think not as God does but as humans do. This is why we must never think of a Cross-less Christianity as anything but satanic; for this is what Our Lord Himself calls it. At some point in life, and for some, throughout their life, we all confront the Mystery of the Cross in a manner that is very personal and perhaps known to God alone. The power of this Mystery is such however, that even the worst of situations can become occasions of growth and grace. This is why we must do all that we can to deepen our trust in God’s loving Providence, ever mindful as St John Henry Newman exhorts us, that God has created me [and each one of you] for some definite service. He has committed some work to me that he has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may not know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next…Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am; I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.
Almost twenty years ago on the Feast of our Lady’s Assumption, August 15th, I performed an emergency Baptism of a beautiful baby boy in the delivery room of a hospital. Baby Zechariah’s parents had been told early in the pregnancy that the baby’s brain was essentially underdeveloped and that he would not survive hours beyond his birth. His parents came to see me well before the scheduled birth date and asked if I would be present so that I could baptize the baby. In the course of our conversations they also told me of how they had been advised to terminate the pregnancy so that they might spare themselves so much pain; but they steadfastly withstood this pressure. They told me that this baby would be as much a part of their family as their other children. As soon as he was baptized, baby Zechariah was given to his mother. She held him and she cried as she looked at him as only a mother can. She well knew that this beautiful little boy would soon go to God. I am not certain how long he lived, but a few days later, on a beautiful summer day, we buried him. He was buried in a cemetery close to their home so that when his parents went for a walk with their other children they would be able to visit their baby brother. I am sharing this story with you because this family’s yes to life, their yes to suffering and to the Cross is what builds up Christian culture and civilization where the love of God and love of neighbour are carried even to the point of contempt for self (St. Augustine, De Civ. Dei, XIV, 28). This is what it means to think and to live as God does. St. Augustine observed that all history is a struggle between two loves: the love of self to the point of despising God; and the love of God to the point of despising oneself in martyrdom. This martyrdom is not always accompanied by the violent loss of life. Indeed, most often it implies quite simply heeding Our Lord’s admonition and carrying our cross in union with Him. If anyone wants to become my disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. This is the path that baby Zechariah’s parents followed, and it is the path that we too must follow in the embrace of our own crosses, as heavy as they may be. St Paul explains: Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:12-13). The Spirit he speaks of is both the Holy Spirit and the spirit of sacrifice that defines authentic and mature Christians.
We have said yes to Our Lord’s invitation and here in the celebration of His Saving Passion, Death and Resurrection, in union with Him we present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, [our] spiritual worship (Rom. 12:1). In all humility we ask Our Lord to draw us ever more deeply into this saving Mystery and we pray that the embrace of the Cross will help us to help one another along the path of devout discipleship; that in bearing one another’s burdens, we may generously fulfill the law of Christ (Cf. Gal. 6:2) and make known His wisdom and power.