“Presentation At the Temple” by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1455 “Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign of contradiction (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34)
In today’s first reading we see that Jeremiah regrets his call to be a prophet because it has caused him so much anguish. And yet, when he decides he will no longer be the Lord’s messenger, he discovers he cannot hold the message within himself. He has a burning desire to speak the Lord’s name. It is not possible to truly love God and not be His servant.
In the second reading, St. Paul exhorts the Romans not to be conformed to the ways of the world, but to be converted to a new way of thinking and living in relationship with God. Like Jeremiah, it is in their desire to do the will of God that they will discover the purpose of their lives.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer, die and be raised from the dead. In the previous text, Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, identifies Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But now, using his own logic, he rebukes Jesus because he said he must suffer and die. Jesus tells Peter he is an obstacle to the plan of God because he is only thinking as a man. After this encounter with Peter, Jesus tells his disciples what is necessary to follow him. Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Those are the perpetual conditions for faithfulness to God; from Abraham, to Jeremiah, to St. Paul, to you and me and everyone in between and forever. Those of the Old Testament would not have understood about the cross, but they did understand about denying themselves and placing the will of God first.
Of course it is Jesus himself who defines what carrying the cross means. Jesus, truly God and truly man in obedience, submits his will to the will of the Father. Jesus, the Word of God, who participated in creation, allows lowly creatures to humiliate, torture, and crucify him for the sake of the salvation of humanity. Jesus proves the wisdom of God is beyond our comprehension and that His ways are not our ways. Nevertheless, he expects the wisdom of God to transform us.
As St. Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians, “The message of the cross is complete absurdity to those who are headed to ruin, but to those of us who are experiencing salvation it is the power of God.”
It is for this reason that Jesus makes the cross the condition of discipleship. It is under the weight of the cross; our trials, afflictions and difficulties in this life; that we truly recognize that we need the Lord’s help. Our trials are an opportunity to draw close to God and receive the grace that will sustain us. Our challenge is to not look so much at ourselves and our trials, but to focus on Christ.
The more we look at our suffering, the bigger it becomes and our imagination magnifies it beyond reality. We can spend many anxious moments worry about things that never happen, which reflects our lack of trust in God. In our prayer we may not receive every thing we want, but we will receive what we need; that is a promise from Our Lord. It is a beautiful thing to discover that suffering is not just meaningless pain, but that it has great value in God’s plan and is redemptive.
A few years ago I visited a woman in the hospital who had terminal cancer. Even though she was in much pain in the advanced stages of her illness, she thanked God for her cancer because she said it helped to save her soul. Her illness gave her time to assess the direction of her life and to draw close to God.
The suffering we experience is not only for our purification, but for the Body of Christ. Again St. Paul gives us his insight. In his letter to the Colossians, he says. “Even now I find joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.” Christ’s suffering was perfect and the means of salvation for all humanity, but his suffering was not complete in the fact that he continues to suffer in his body; the members of his Church. And when we unite our sufferings with his they become redemptive.
Of course discipleship is not only about suffering. It is about discovering God’s great plan for us so that we can reach our highest potential for happiness in this life. We do that by not just living for ourselves. Our vocation is not about us. It’s about entering into a personal relationship with God which allows us to discover our gifts and His plan in which we will use those gifts. That requires that every day we spend some time with God. We all have twenty-four hours each day and the way we spend that time says a great deal about our relationship with God.
If we are to become spiritually mature we must frequently deny ourselves. We cannot eat, drink, work, sleep or do anything to excess without harming ourselves physically, spiritually and relationally. When we live only to please ourselves we are an obstacle to God’s plan and to our own happiness.
Every vocation, religious, married or single, finds its beginning and end in God and depends on the grace which He offers us in abundance through the Church and her sacraments. No matter who we are, how old we are or what we have done, we can become a faithful disciple of the Lord because of his goodness and grace, by making a firm decision to believe what he has revealed through the Scriptures and the Church and to follow him as Our Lord. We begin with the sacrament of reconciliation and make a commitment to pray daily and read the Scriptures, make an effort to know and love Jesus, continue to be formed in the faith and to share your faith with others in word and service, and make every effort to overcome sin and grow in virtue.
St. Irenaeus, a disciple of St. Polycarp who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist once said, “The glory of God is man fully human.” We become fully human, fully alive when we deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life!