Glory to Jesus Christ!
My dear friends, by the grace of God, this week already we will be reaching the mid-point of Lent. Three weeks have gone past already, and three weeks of Lent still are before us, before reaching Holy Week. Time is moving quickly! Let us make haste to hear the word of God and to do it!
Today, we hear in the Gospel about the conditions that our Lord put on those who would follow Him. Three conditions are set by the Lord if we are truly to follow Him – not merely to acknowledge Him, or even admire Him – but to follow Him. Three conditions: The first condition: self-denial. The second condition: taking up our personal cross. And the third condition: actually following the Lord.
Self-denial. Taking up one’s cross. Following the Lord.
First: Self-denial. “If any man will follow me,” our Lord said, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” “Let him deny himself,” He says first.
If we want to follow Christ, we must, by His own command, deny our sinful desires, deny our indulgence of our passions, deny our vain curiosity, deny our impure attachments. In a word, we must deny ourselves. We deny ourselves, limiting ourselves in everything, by all necessary means, in the great and necessary work of curbing our insatiable, lustful, gluttonous, envious, vainglorious passions.
In commanding us to deny ourselves, the Lord calls upon us to renounce all works of pride and selfishness, to turn away from ourselves. But in turning away from self, we are also called to turn toward neighbour. We begin with that simple step. We need simply to look around us and see: who needs our love? Who needs our mercy? Who needs our compassion, our help, our care, our friendship? Our Lord Himself has placed these people near us, knowing today that we would hear His voice. In going to these people with love and help, we simultaneously follow Christ, and following Him, we are at the same time empowered to forget about ourselves, being absorbed in caring for others – for the care we give is not simply ours, but also Christ’s!
That is the first condition: Self-denial.
The second condition: Taking up one’s cross. “Let him take up HIS cross,” our Lord said. He did not point to His own Precious Cross, which He alone bore for our salvation, but He points rather to the cross which is given to everyone in their life on earth. For the sake of following Christ, all of us must uncomplainingly bear our cross of trials, being spiritually awake, carrying the daily burden along the way of grace, just as our Lord did for us. We must carry our own daily duties along the via Crucis.
It is a truth that the path of our salvation leads one through suffering, through sorrow, through temptation, but it is through trial that our faith is strengthened. The path of the cross, which Christ commands us to take, is the path of suffering and of sacrifice. The very Cross of the Lord is become a symbol of love for us, because love is always sacrificial.
True love is when one person sacrifices himself, precisely his self, for the one he loves. Having denied ourselves, we now take up our cross, for we must sacrifice our selves for the sake of Him and loved ones, as He sacrificed Himself for us.
“Let him take up his cross.” The second condition.
The third condition: “Follow me.” “Follow me,” our Lord says – and if we take the first two conditions as having been fulfilled, that we have denied ourselves, that we have taken up our crosses, then our Lord’s instruction to us simply becomes: “If any man will follow Me, let him… follow Me.” That’s what it comes down to.
Our Lord knows the limitations of the human intellect, will, and heart. So He will lay things out for us in ways which seem almost self-evident, but that we genuinely need to be reminded about, need to have it knocked into our hard heads. This is one of those statements. “If you want to follow Me, then you’re going to have to follow Me.” That’s far more profound than it seems at first sight. The concept of following the Lord is simple, but its practice take a lifetime.
But even if a lifetime, our Lord does not leave us to it alone. Our Lord does not merely point out the way. He does not just set us off in some semblance of the right direction. Rather, He goes before us and with us, showing us the way, pointing out dangers, lifting us up should we fall, offering His hand should the way become steep. He will not leave us, but will be with us every moment, in order that we arrive safely at our destination of the eternal Kingdom. We do not walk the way alone. We follow Him.
“Follow me,” He says. The third condition.
My dear friends, the Precious and Life-giving Cross, which we venerate today, is the instrument of God’s victory over evil. The Cross is our banner, our weapon, and our shield. By Christ’s Cross, we conquer all evil, especially those which we uproot from our own consciences. Let us bow before the Holy Cross with our whole mind, heart, and soul, singing the refrain: We venerate Thy Cross, O Master, and we glorify Thy Holy Resurrection!
And as we make the sign of the cross, we declare our decision to follow Him in the path He has indicated to us: Deny thyself, take up thy cross, and follow Me.