Thursday after Ash Wednesday: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Luke 9:22-25.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us plainly that to follow him has a personal cost, that a person must “deny himself and take up his cross daily.” This saying is familiar to most Christians, although if everyone lived according to it, we’d be in a much different world. What is it about this command from Christ that is so difficult for us? And what exactly does it mean? This self discipline is a different command than the more rosy “love thy neighbor” that we are much happier to embrace.
In Luke’s gospel, this comes right after the miracle of the loaves and fishes when He fed the 5,000 (not counting women and children). He is praying alone and when the disciples appear He asks them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” followed by “But you, who do you say that I am?” Then comes Peter’s great statement of faith: “The Messiah of God.” Now, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus proceeds to name him Peter “the Rock” and gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But St. Luke records a markedly different reaction: Jesus “sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone.” His tone is deadly serious as He relates the prophecy of His own suffering: “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.” This is the point that “he said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'”
So, once Christ knows that His beloved Apostles understand who He is, He decides that they must understand the repercussions of that knowledge. There was great expectation among the many Jewish sects over the coming of the Messiah, mostly boiling down to the establishment of a great Jewish nation on earth. Note how this type of expectation clashes with the great corpus of teaching and healing that Jesus had been doing in His ministry. Jesus wants to dispel these secular expectations and prepare them for the reality of what His coming will entail. How thoughtfully and He prepares His Church, not burdening them with too much too soon! Imagine if the first works of His ministry were to tell everyone that He, a person of the One divine God, was coming to die for them because that incredible self-sacrifice would open the gates of Heaven for them once He resurrects and ascends. He would not only sound like an overly self-confident crackpot, His message of humility and fear of God would be hypocritical. No, He had to do His Father’s will according to His Father’s plan. This means that even though He is the Messiah, He must eschew any earthly glory or proclamations to power. The reality is that earthly displays of power and glory are false. This is why we hear Christ tell those He heals throughout the gospels not to tell anyone of what they saw or experienced. As the very Truth itself, He cannot abide His works being proclaimed or twisted for mere earthly means. The deep Truth that he must share is that God’s love — one typified by kenosis, or pouring oneself out, emptying oneself — is the matrix within which we are called to exist.
How gently God reveals Himself and His plan to us! First as a babe in an animal manger, unassuming, nothing to fear. Then, Jesus grows up within the tradition of the Chosen People that God has been cultivating for millennia. He — God Himself — deigns to be taught as just another child the ways of the Jews that He Himself gave to them as commandments and precepts. He patiently listens to and learns the words of the prophets that He, the Word, spoke to those prophets hundreds of years earlier. And when He does start teaching, He affirms every word of the law that has been given to them. Rather than bring down His awesome divinity in displays of fearful power, He draws them to Himself by miracles of healing and words of love. In short, He shows them a vision of the Kingdom in His own humble self. Why does God’s plan unfold this way? Why does He subdue His rightful divine power and take on the frailty of humanity? Because He is love and this is how love works — He loves the humans He created and wishes for them to understand Him and choose to come back to Him of their own accord.
St. Paul writes memorably to the Philippians about this very thing:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8).
Today’s gospel relates the key moment when Jesus lets his disciples know that God’s plan, and love itself, involves pain and sacrifice rather than a shortcut to glory and power. It’s important to remember that Jesus is fully human and fully divine because as a human He shows us that we can make the decision to accept God’s way of love. None of His ministry or Passion and death are accomplished without His human assent to do the will of His Father. I used the Greek word kenosis above as theological shorthand for what St. Paul says, “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” This word kenosis is a very important Greek term for Christianity. Fr. Jean Corbon, OP, defines it in his “Liturgical Vocabulary” in The Wellspring of Worship:
The noun is derived from the verb “he emptied himself” or “annihilated himself” that is used in [St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians]. The Son remains God when he becomes incarnate, but he divests himself of his glory to the point of being “unrecognizable” (see Is 53:2-3). Kenosis is the properly divine way of loving: becoming man without reservation and without calling for recognition or compelling it. Kenosis refers first to the self-emptying of the Word in the Incarnation, but this is completed in the self-emptying of the Spirit in the Church, while it also reveals the self-emptying of the living God in creation. … Our divinization comes through the meeting of the kenosis of God with the kenosis of man; the fundamental requirement of the Gospel can therefore be stated as follows: we shall be one with Christ to the extent that we “lose” ourselves for him.
As Fr. Corbon points out, kenosis is accomplished for our benefit by all members of the Trinity (this is, in fact, the state of their inexhaustibly flowing love), but we are also called to a type of kenosis. This is what Jesus is saying today: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Here is the true “Come to Jesus” moment! Denying oneself is not a simple matter of self-restraint over that second doughnut. The depth of Christ’s own kenosis is involved here: denying oneself is a love-filled endeavor of leaving your own desires behind and filling yourself instead with God’s will.
The answer to the question of why Jesus had to do things the way He did — dying in ignominy on the Cross especially — is that this Way itself is how we realize the Kingdom. It is the Way of God’s Love. Does this mean that we have to be demeaned in order to get to Heaven? I think that’s a question that comes from pride in oneself. What a king thinks is demeaning the handmaid thinks is natural. Pride determines our outlook on what we do. This is the importance of the “deny himself” commandment. We must deny that part of ourselves that is pride, that thinks cleaning the sores from the feet of a beggar is demeaning, that thinks sitting silently and praying for some person who has lost control and is yelling at us is “weak.” If all we have to confront the difficulties and evil in the world is our own sense of who we are, then we’re bound to fight to keep that image of ourselves intact. Consider, instead, if we deny our own sense of who we are and fill ourselves instead with the invincible and inviolable will of God, and His inexhaustible love, then the concept of being demeaned is ridiculous.
A book I am reading with our Lay Dominican chapter comes to mind. It is Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP’s excellent little book Knowing the Love of God, a collection of the spiritual master’s retreat conferences as he preached them to his fellow Dominicans. He has a section entitled “The Personality of the Incarnate Word” that is very applicable to today’s gospel. He discusses the idea of our own sense of who we are, our personality:
Many errors on the meaning of this word, personality, circulate throughout the world. Today many talk in a pompous way about the development of their personality, but, in reality, they are developing only some natural gifts that permit them to be distinguished from other persons, gifts which make their pride grow daily. They believe that to practice renunciation and the so-called passive virtues of humility, obedience, patience, and meekness, that is, to follow Christian morality in its totality, constitutes the annihilation of one’s personality (31).
Garrigou-Lagrange goes on to define personality as “the principle of our reason and liberty,” something that makes us independent agents in the world. Importantly, he writes that personality “enables us to resist the attraction of merely sensible goods according to the judgment of our intelligence and the choice of our freedom.” What he means is that it distinguishes us from creatures who would just gorge themselves on something yummy because we can think about the consequences and make choices that might be counter to simply what is good right now. I find his definition attractive; it brings together human intelligence, freedom, and volition. He then goes on to define levels of personality. The lowest level is like animal life, where people are driven “almost exclusively under the tyranny of their senses and passions.” But, he writes, “Personality can be gradually elevated as the activity of our spirit and will free itself from the purely sensible life. This can be accomplished in the measure that we learn to control the influences exercised upon us instead of passively submitting to them.” The independence of this type of personality involves a “grave danger,” however, because people might think that “the highest development of personality consists in absolute independence” (32). He notes that this is the way of pride and atheism and “is found fully realized in the Devil.”
Garrigou-Lagrange then writes about how the mystery of the Incarnation teaches us something very different. Permit me to quote this great passage at length:
While the great philosophers scarcely caught a glimpse of this, the saints truly grasped the way to the full development of our personality. It consists in losing in some way our own personality in the personality of God who alone possesses personality in the perfect sense of the word. He alone is absolutely independent in His being and actions … [The saints] were armed with a holy hatred of their own ego. They sought to make God the principle of their actions, no longer acting according to the rules of the world or their own limited judgment, but according to God’s ideas and rules as received through faith … They understood that God had to become for them another ego more intimate than their own. They had to realize that God was more “them” than they themselves because He is preeminently Being (33-34).
These passages deserve careful thought and re-reading, to be sure. They provide another way to understand Christ’s words. Perhaps the cross we must take up daily is this work of losing our personality in the personality of God, the work of perfecting our person, which requires a kenosis. Lest we worry that this means the obliteration of our own “self,” Garrigou-Lagrange writes, “In the order of the operations of knowing and loving the saint has substituted, as it were, the divine ego for his own ego, but in the order of being his ego remains distinct from God” (34). This is an important point: we do not ever “lose” ourselves on the level of being. We are who we are. But on the level of what knowledge we accept and how we love and act in the world, we can (by the grace of God) substitute God’s person for our own. We accomplish this by filling ourselves with the Word in all ways — study of scripture, prayer, penitential acts (following Christ’s example), and in the sacraments. This is what it means to “live the liturgy” (which is not just a set of rituals we do at church). We lose that prideful way of knowing and acting that is always corrupt in this fallen world and put in its place the incorruptible way of knowing and acting that Christ gives us. In so doing, we perfect our personalities and ourselves.
We can finally come face-to-face with the seeming paradox of Jesus’s final words in today’s gospel: “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” Gaining the world — the sensible world that we see, feel, touch, eat, buy, etc. — is indeed profitless if we forfeit our “selves.” He is giving us a way to perfect ourselves, not forfeit our selves. The seeming paradox is that he tells us to deny ourselves so as to not forfeit ourselves (i.e., wouldn’t you be forfeiting yourself precisely by denying yourself?), but we can see that the first “self” we deny is the prideful human loner while the second “self” we wish to live forever is the person perfected in Christ. It’s still us, only fit to live in the Kingdom because we have undergone a kenosis in the image of our Maker.
Let’s close this reflection with St. Paul, who lays out for us a concise summary of the Way of Christ: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1-2).