I would like to help all of us recapture some of the relevance and the full impact of the Gospel. This is needed because, once again, we just heard two among its craziest, most outlandish affirmations and we did not even blink; we took them in with the same contained reaction that we seem to display before any other verse of the Gospel: Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10: 38-39)
If I were to advertize in all available media outlets that, on a certain day next month, all should go to New York because I will make the Statue of Liberty disappear, not a single person will take me seriously. However, if David Copperfield made the same pitch, he would get a very impressive turnout.
Here is my point: if Jesus had uttered those two sentences in the course of his public ministry, he would have been met with a blank stare of bewilderment; or a smirk of pity; or, perhaps, some in his audience would have felt cold chills running down their spines…
However, we have to realize that it is the Risen Lord, victorious over all evils including our worst enemy, death itself, making those two statements, while present and active in the life of the early Church. In the course of his public ministry Jesus must have conveyed the same two concepts, but in ways that remained obscure until numerous other crosses, similar to his, were erected to crucify many of his followers, who had embraced them in the glow of his triumphant resurrection. They chose to “lose” their lives for him on real crosses or in other horrific ways, to “find” it through the assured share in his resurrection.
The Acts of the Apostles offer the best evidence of how existentially, at gut level, the first generations of believers were convinced and felt that the Risen Lord was actively present in their midst. Practically the whole book of Acts unfolds with constant interaction of the Risen Lord with his Church. Here are some of the more relevant passages:
- Acts 2:47… And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
- Acts 11:21 The hand of the Lord was with them and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
- Acts 11:24 … And a large number of people was added to the Lord.
- Acts 12:17 He motioned to them with his hand to be quiet and explained to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison, and said […]
- Acts 13:49 … and the word of the Lord continued to spread through the whole region.
The Risen Lord was so present that he revealed his whole Gospel to St. Paul: For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:12)
By comparison, do we begin to feel the weight of the tragedy that we might be living as members of this present-day, post-resurrection generation of disciples? Regardless of how often we heard these two statements, by now, they might be unable to penetrate the thick layer of spiritual insensitivity that might have built up around our minds and hearts on account of what interests us and fills our days—and, alas, our nights as well…
The overlooked tragedy in the living out of our Catholic Faith might be that so many well-intentioned believers are trying to take up their cross and follow Jesus without being firmly rooted in his resurrection! If the resurrection is not the backdrop of every single scene of our life, any little cross, any marginal disappointment, any miniscule trial becomes something fierce enough to possibly turn us into sour-faced, disappointment-struck, self-pitying wretches whom everyone would try to avoid.
In that very sad, dreadful setting we would fail miserably in our baptismal task of being priests, prophets and royalties. Even very charitable people would have trouble seeing the features of Jesus on our mournful faces. Then, how could we be impelled by the Holy Spirit to do our share in renewing the face of earth? How could we convince anyone that we have embraced and are living out the Good News? If our eyes are not fixed on our future participation in the resurrection, our attempts at “saving” our life would be futile.
As it is, these two familiar statements force us to realize that the cost of discipleship is high indeed. It seems to me that, once again, the Lord God is challenging us to toss aside any naive illusion that Christianity can be a simple question of culture, tradition, good habits like Holy Mass every Sunday, first Holy Communions, Confirmations, church weddings and funerals. Nor is discipleship a garment that we wear to church on Sunday and that we take off the rest of the week when we are all engrossed in the many demands of life in this competitive and mostly heartless world.
The Risen Lord doesn’t want to compete for a corner of our heart. He wants it all! He demands it all because in him our love for our parents, siblings, children and any significant person in our life is purified of all dross of self-interest, lust to possess and die-hard hubris. If we are mindful of what, out of love for us, the Lord endured on the cross, the thought of his victory would be such that we would radiate infectious, uncontainable joy regardless of the real situation which we might be presently facing. Conversely, the single most sought-after thing by everyone is true, lasting joy. If we are not interpreting every event of our life in the light of the resurrection we would allow the challenges of life to needlessly crush us while all the joy-inducing words whispered by Jesus in our hearts would fall on deaf ears. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. (John 15:11)
Far from embracing our cross, we would have a hard time rising above the inevitable miseries that are imbedded in our fallen nature to receive Jesus himself by receiving one of his disciples, one of his prophets or any righteous person in our community. We would be so wrapped up in meeting our needs that we would not even notice the little ones who would appreciate a cup of nicely chilled water to quench their thirst.
Unless, day in and day out, we live with the unshakable hope of a share in the resurrection, the Holy Spirit has his work cut out with us to steer us away from self-serving concerns and towards adopting the attitude of Christ himself by thinking of others before we think of ourselves and by placing their well-being ahead of ours (cf. Philippians 2: 1-5).
Therefore, we ought to revisit those two pause-inducing phrases about the cross and about finding life through a full participation in Jesus’ sufferings. May the Holy Spirit assist us with his sweeping power so that the certainty of the resurrection can be such that we will rejoice in our sufferings endured in union with Christ. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church. (Colossians 1:24)
This would indeed be more than an eye opener; it would be a game changer enabling us to take up our cross and follow Jesus with an ever-increasing feeling of joy invading us fully because we would have found true life.
And we would take to heart what St. Peter urges us to do: But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. (1 Peter 4:13)