“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” (Mk 8:34-35)
Many of the statements Jesus made while on earth were spoken exclusively to His disciples or to his smaller group of twelve Apostles. However in regard to the quotation above taken from today’s gospel reading, Jesus “summoned the crowd” showing His intention to speak this instance to all mankind.
It is important to emphasize this point because the words spoken by Jesus are so radical in expression and meaning that one may think that they apply only to those pursuing religious life. One can easily forget that these words are for all who would follow Christ, no matter their station in life, as evidenced by Jesus summoning the entire crowd to listen.
In order to fully grasp this instruction of Jesus, we must take note of the sequence of His directive: denial, taking up, following. Many Christians don’t often keep to this order, putting the “taking up” before the self-denial, as if the cross comes first. For example, the Christian might speak of a caregiving role or difficulty with a child, spouse or employer, or a chronic medical condition as a “cross” requiring self-denial. That is, the cross is reduced to a physical difficulty or some personal (exterior) burden. Yet, it is in the interior life that one discovers one’s true cross.
To properly apply the “doctrine of the cross” to the spiritual life we must pay close attention to the steps Jesus presents. Self-denial comes before taking up the cross. This means that we are not to wait until something bad happens or some duty is heaped upon us before putting away our worldly attachments. It is possible that what we think is our cross is not our cross at all as far as the spiritual life goes since what we are carrying may have more to do with our circumstance than with our purposeful self-denial. For example, we might think that some person or condition is our cross to bear, when in truth the cross we need to carry is our lack of patience with that person or condition. In such a case we are called first to deny the temptation to impatience, which then we take up as a cross in order to follow our patient Lord.
In order to put some meat on the bones of our gospel quotation we have placed on our bulletin cover for this 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time a detail of a painting by the French artist, James Tissot, named Simon the Cyrenian Compelled to Carry the Cross with Jesus. This work depicts a scene difficult to behold: Our Lord face first on the ground. Jesus has fallen beneath the weight of His cross and Simon is pressed into service by the Roman soldiers. Simon leans his head and body back as if in hesitation, yet his hands are outstretched not only so as to lift something, but as to receive something. He receives his own cross through denying his doubt and hesitation. He receives his own cross through lifting up the cross of Christ. Let it be so with us – for the sake of the Gospel.
–Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services