Thursday after Ash Wednesday: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Luke 9:22-25
It’s not the choice you’re probably thinking about; it’s more fundamental than that. It’s the freedom to choose to live in the light or to live in the darkness, and God guarantees us this freedom. This freedom is carried out in myriad choices we make every day. We don’t think about the consequences of all these little choices, but that’s at the heart of today’s readings.
Moses is blunt: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.” Here we have the Israelites, wandering in the desert, camping here and there, desperate to start a new life. They make the mistakes of mistrusting God, second-guessing Him, and being impatient for answers (sound familiar, everyone?). When Moses finally comes down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he gives them a stark choice. This one choice, to either obey God’s commandments or to “turn away your hearts,” will become their blessing or their curse. In their moment of time, the blessing was to “live and grow numerous” and be blessed by God in a new land. The curse was to perish, have a short life, and a short family line. In other words, the Jews saw the consequences of their fundamental choice (i.e., to live a life of little choices that conform to God’s will) in their lives in this world. Blessings and curses for themselves and their descendants on the earth.
Today’s gospel of St. Luke opens like yesterday’s from Matthew: our Messiah tells his disciples that he’s going to suffer and be killed, then rise on the third day. But the sequence in Luke is slightly different than in Matthew. This conversation happens immediately after Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is. Peter answers him, “The Messiah of God.” Thus, Jesus’s message is hard, if not impossible for them to understand since they’ve inherited the earthly understanding of blessing and glory from their Jewish ancestors. The Messiah was thought to install an earthly kingdom, blessed by God, but an earthly kingdom nonetheless. How could the Messiah suffer and be killed?
But that’s not all. Jesus ups the ante: “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.” I can just imagine the cold sweat and chill down the spines of the apostles, hearing with a fair amount of horror these words. They were coming off of just feeding 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish. Huge crowds were testifying to Jesus as the Messiah, seeing his miracles and believing. These were heady and exciting times for them.
The first thing that jumps out is how Jesus is reframing the blessing and the curse. Specifically, he is exploding the traditional concept of them being experienced in this life, in this world. How can you save your “life” by losing it? More than just a clever linguistic reversal, Jesus is expanding their concept of “life” to extend beyond the grave or the life they experience in this world. This new eschatology forms the basis of all hope for Christians. It orients us to something greater than what we see, hear and touch — something eternal. For the ancients, the eternal was something only gods could experience, but here we have God alive as a man telling us that we, too, can experience the eternal.
But we have to make a choice.
Christ clarified the reward, but he’s also clarified the commitment. (As in all ways, he not only upholds the law but perfects it.) His clarification of the commitment is this: we must deny ourselves and take up our cross daily to follow him. This is no different than the Word of God proclaimed to Moses (same Word!), but the reality of the cross punctuates the eschatological consequences. Why bring up the cross and death as part of our commitment? It’s a way for him to show that death is but a step in a much larger continuing life with (or without) God. Death does not mark an endpoint after which we could say “that person was blessed” or “that person was cursed.” We must instead embrace death as a part of the journey toward God.
Moreover, the way we embrace the cross is important. We must “deny ourselves” and “follow him.” This is important because an atheist could embrace death (even hasten it with suicide) but not be making the choice that Jesus wants us to make. That atheist still believes that death is his or her final moment and is not united with God. This person does not accept God’s invitation to eternal life.
So it’s not simply about being blasé about death. By denying ourselves and following Christ, we fundamentally see death differently. This is a sticking point for a lot of people. Death is scary; death is DEATH, right? Being afraid is natural, but here is where the rubber hits the road in terms of our faith. We believe that there’s an incomprehensible greatness and glory that awaits us. We orient our entire lives to this. We live differently. We deny that our “selves” belong to this world alone. When Jesus asks what profit is there “to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?”, he puts the world in direct opposition to true personhood. True personhood is a spiritual personhood that exists fundamentally in relationship with God. What is death, then, but a step in the path to getting closer to our Creator?
When we hear “he must deny himself and take up his cross daily,” we might be tempted to consider this a sad, crushing, but good-for-you pill to swallow. Instead, I think Christ’s point is ultimately a hopeful and positive one. The last sticking point to address is the “deny himself” bit. Well, now, it seems appropriate that we just started Lent!
Can there be anything more profoundly fulfilling than being selfless? As a married man, I am no happier than I am to see my wife be happy or thrilled with something. If I can do something for her that delights her, then I am very fulfilled. Our sacrament of marriage is a vow to be Christ for one another, and every act of putting the other person first is a step in this direction. Being selfless in our daily interactions with others is one aspect of “denying oneself” that I for one find fulfilling, not something that deprives me of happiness.
A deeper aspect of “denying oneself” is to deny our sense of importance as we stand daily before God. This is better understood as humility. And it’s not a complete denial of self. As Simon Tugwell, OP, writes in Prayer: Living with God, “Humility means recognizing all these [obstacles and competing wills] and not trying to make my will paramount at all costs; it does not mean the simple suppression of my will” (61). We must still be fully human, accept that we have a will that God gave us, but not let that will supersede our desire to do God’s will.
Perhaps the most common understanding of “denying oneself” in Lent is to make a Lenten promise to avoid certain desires, passions, and behaviors. For example, giving up alcohol, chocolate, or TV during Lent. Saints by the hundreds show us the benefits of little denials of our worldly passions: these denials strengthen our spirit, help us avoid bigger temptations when they present themselves, and help us better listen and see God in our lives. An important point is that we’re not trying to lose all emotion or passion for life. Tugwell, in the same book, counsels that “A man whose passions are ordered and harmonious can have a far more richly and intensely emotional life, fully emotional, but always subject to the overall guidance of clear thought and vision” (71). To Tugwell’s point, Christ’s lesson to take up his cross, deny ourselves, and follow him is one that helps us be more fully human, more perfectly ordered both in this world and the next.
It’s not an easy path, it takes discernment and work, but the rewards of making this choice to follow God’s law … can we even describe how glorious?