“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23)
Reflections on the Kingdom for Advent by Fr Martin Connor, LC
Contained in Christ’s invitation to his followers (but often missed) is actually a four-stage process to check your realism in the daily following of the Lord through sacrifice.
We can break this invitation up into four parts: (1) “if anyone wishes, (2) he must deny himself, (3) take up his cross, and (4) follow me.”
The first part is “if anyone wishes.” The Latin for “wish,” volere, can also be translated to want or will. A person’s wants often lead to one’s desires or moods at a given moment, to what is in the heart. We need not be afraid for Christ knows our hearts and he proves this time and time again in the Gospel:
“Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘why are you thinking these things?’” (Mark 2:8)
The new man stands or falls by what is in his heart, so inviting Christ into our world to help us untangle our disordered desires is a critical first step. Hence, self-knowledge is a critical part to this spirit of realism.
The second stage of Christ’s invitation is to “deny yourself.” Your desires will not always want to “behave” themselves; they will not always want to follow what the “head” is telling them is true. And so you will need to say, “no,” to them.
Plato compared the disordered desires of our hearts as to a train of horses that need guidance by way of reason. We educate our hearts through the practice of self-control out of love and can do so in variety of ways: faithfully and carefully fulfilling our duties; developing a strong will against all the fickleness of our feelings and emotions; mastering and tempering our character; controlling our disordered emotional reactions; and, finally, renouncing anything that might hinder our giving ourselves to God and to others.
The third stage of the invitation is to “pick up your cross.” Your cross is not my cross. We all have very specific crosses to bear each day that God has allowed.
What am I doing with these crosses? Running from them, denying them, or complaining about them?
Fulton Sheen used to say that there is so much wasted suffering in the world. Am I wasting my suffering on complaining, on the blame game, on not embracing, with love, what God sends me for my sanctification? Christ is calling me to suffer with him.
Finally, the fourth stage is to “Come follow me.” The four stages actually build on each other. Only when we really desire to follow Christ with our hearts and consciously choose Him (stage 1), will we then begin the journey of self-denial (stage 2) and embrace our daily crosses (stage 3). Only when we live the first three stages, can we really say, “I follow Christ” (stage 4).
These stages of spiritual maturity, of knowledge and of love are often called the journey of the interior life. It’s a journey that we make with Christ. Everything we do should be done with Christ; our Lord, master, and friend.
Christ-centeredness is the primary and specific characteristic of Christian spirituality and we are called to strive with all our strength to put on Christ in our hearts and in our actions, embracing the cross and self-denial out of love for the Lord, so that Christ’s life will be manifest in our life.
To attain the really good things in life always takes sacrifice, often the restraint of our more ugly side. Self-denial is a Christian virtue by which we renounce our egotism and everything that is a hindrance to our greater love for God and our neighbor.
Christ has come to redeem our hearts, to win them back, to heal and transform them into gold tested in fire.
There is no better example of such gold tested in fire than St. Paul:
“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
Christ did say, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25). As Romano Guardini observes: the more deeply I abandon myself to Christ, the more completely I let Him penetrate my being, the more powerfully He, the Creator, gains authority in me, the more I become myself.
[Fr Martin Connor is a priest of the Legionaries of Christ in Atlanta, Georgia. Since his ordination in 2001, he has dedicated his priesthood to the spiritual formation of Catholic men. The reflections on the Kingdom that we will be sharing this week are from a book he plans to publish, 10 Reflections on the Kingdom, which will be available as an ebook in early 2014, pending publication.]