Sunday, June 19, 2016

Great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of selfishness.

Gospel Text: (LK 9:18-24)
Once when Jesus was praying by himself,
and the disciples were with him,
he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
They said in reply, “John the Baptist;
others, Elijah;
still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’”
Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
He scolded them
and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Consider the first command that Jesus lays at your feet today. “Deny your self.” What does the word “deny” mean? Another word for “denial” is “renunciation”. Both words are clearly negative, which lends itself to a common criticism of Catholicism: namely, that Catholicism bears a strand of pessimism or gloominess.

So what’s the reason for the Church’s insistence on negative practices such as “denial” and “renunciation”? In grade school math, we were taught that the negative of a negative is a positive. “Negative two” times “negative two” equals “positive four”. So while it’s true that denial and renunciation are negative practices, their purpose in the Catholic Faith is to reverse course on the negative effects of Original Sin.

In one word, these effects can be summed up as “selfishness”, but the saints who became masters of the Christian moral life and prayer life realized that selfishness comes in many different forms, such as pride, wrath, greed, sloth, lust, envy, and gluttony. So to “deny your self” means to deny your “fallen self”, the false self that results from allowing the effects of Original Sin to coalesce into personal sins, which over time can harden into vices.

Consider, then, the second command that Jesus lays at your feet today. “Take up your cross daily.” How is this command different than the command to “deny your self”? Both seem negative, but each has its own aim. The second is really the aim of the first. The first prepares for the second. If self-denial is pulling the weeds from your soul, then taking up your cross is planting and cultivating the seeds that will bloom there. Or consider an analogy to athletics. Both the months of training and the day of competition are very difficult. Both demand much that’s negative: training involves strenuous workouts, and competition involves tension and anticipation of the opponent’s moves. But the difference is that the practice prepares for the competition, and in the same way, denying our self is rooting out the weaknesses in our soul, in order that we can take up the cross.

Consider, then, the third command that Jesus lays at your feet today. “Follow me.” I hope that those are the first words you hear every morning when you wake up. These are words of encouragement and promise. One way to imagine the meaning of these words is to picture the Fifth Station of the Cross, where Simon of Cyrene walks with Jesus up Calvary, bearing the cross of mankind. This is one way to picture what Jesus is commanding us in today’s Gospel. We are helping Jesus. We are struggling daily alongside Jesus. The company of Jesus, even in the midst of trial, brings far more lasting peace than anything that the comforts of this world can give. Jesus is the best company we can have in this world.

In our Catholic Faith, the more religious word for “company” is “communion”. Being in communion with Jesus, with His Church, and with all the members of the Church, requires grace even more than our efforts (though our efforts are necessary). It’s in order to help our unbelief, so that we might believe more, that Christ gives us His Body and Blood as true food. This Holy Communion strengthens us for the seven days that now lay before us in the world, before the Lord calls us to His altar again. We give thanks for having a God who is gracious, who understands our many weaknesses, and who loves us enough to sacrifice His life for us, so that each day we can find meaning in our own sacrifices.

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