In Matthew 16, Jesus makes the statement: "Whoever wishes to come to me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me." In the wake of his own death on the cross, the statement took on a stark reality. We learn what the cross means for those who choose to follow Jesus: death. As our homilist this morning, Father Robert Williams of Dallas TX, reminded us, the challenge is not physical death but death to self.
As Father Robert said, it's a challenge we don't really want to hear. Death of any kind gives the shivers to the human spirit. Jesus' challenge sounds like one more offer from God-the-party-pooper whose main desire is to quench any sign of joy under a great wet blanket of misery labeled "Thou shalt not" and, on the reverse side, "Thou shalt." It's an idol we cling to rather stubbornly, even in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, including the number of times "joy" is mentioned in the New Testament (never labeled "Christians need not apply")--even among the fruits of the Holy Spirit, where gloom appears not at all. In the beginning, God made human beings in the divine image, and we've been returning the favor ever since, but we often seem to clothe the images of God we create in the drab wardrobe of the most repressive of Puritans. When this false god makes an offer like the one Jesus quotes, our preferred response is "Thanks, but no thanks..."
What we fail to realize, though, besides what rotten image painters we are, is that in refusing death, we are refusing life. The cross is a two-sided coin. Flip it on Good Friday, and it comes up "death". Flip it on Easter Sunday, and it comes up "resurrection". You can't have one without the other, says the gospel.
You'd think the promise of new life, physical or otherwise, would make the business of death at least a little more tolerable, if not downright inviting. However, I'm currently reading an old book that everyone I know seems to have read years ago, except me. It's entitled The Road Less Travelled. The author, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, points out how hard we sometimes work to refuse not death but life, especially new life. He tells story after story of men and women who have refused to accept options that would bring a solution to a miserable situation, or to take responsibility for decisions that have put them in unhappy circumstances. Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning, his post-WW II classic describing his concentration camp experiences and deducing from them the absolute human need for meaning if we are to survive, said something to the effect that the one freedom that cannot be taken from us is the freedom to choose our own attitude. How sad that it is often we, not the God of the Bible, who prescribe the attitude of misery as a must. It seems no wonder that Jesus asked the long-term sick man at the pool of Bethesda, "Do you want to be well?" (John 5:5). The answer is not always yes. If it's no, even Jesus' hands are tied.
So, the question lurking behind the challenge to take up the cross seems to be "Do you really want to live?"
©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga