We’re celebrating something of a feast day today, insofar as Lent permits feast days! We’re almost at the midpoint of the fast, so the Church offers something to us for our encouragement and strength to persevere the rest of the way. This offering is somewhat paradoxical, since it is the Cross of Jesus, the instrument of his ineffably painful death. But since it is simultaneously the means of our salvation and the key to the Gate of Heaven, the Church invites us to rejoice and take courage.
In the readings for this Sunday (Mk. 8:34 – 9:1; Heb. 4:14 – 5:6), the Church offers us two perspectives on the Cross, one that emphasizes the priestly sacrifice of Jesus, and the other that emphasizes our personal participation in the mystery of the Cross. Let us look first at the reading from Hebrews.
It begins by asserting that Jesus Christ is our “great high priest,” and it offers this as the basis for an exhortation to “hold fast to our confession,” that is, to the faith we profess, which gives us hope for eternal life. It goes on to explain that we can do this because our heavenly High Priest is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses”; He is “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.” We are aware from reading the Gospels that Jesus was indeed tempted by the devil and didn’t sin, but those descriptions are rather brief, and the author of Hebrews says that Jesus was tempted in every respect as we are. I wrote something about this some time ago, suggesting that perhaps Jesus endured many more temptations than the three main ones we read about in the Gospels. It may very well be that, since St Mark tells us that Jesus was tempted for 40 days—and not just one day after the 40 days of fasting—during those 40 days of temptations He experienced in the depths of his soul every temptation known to man. It seems that this is the only way to uphold the assertion in Hebrews that Jesus was tempted “in every respect” as we are. It may be that this was a sort of foretaste of what He would experience in Gethsemane, when He would confront the full reality of all the sin He would have to bear upon the Cross for the sake of our salvation.
Knowing, then, that Jesus knows precisely what we go through in our own struggles and temptations, the author of Hebrews exhorts us to “draw near to the throne of grace,” in order to find mercy and help in time of need. For the most part, our Lenten services in the first half of this season focus on repentance and our own need for cleansing and healing and deliverance from the various evils that afflict us. So we take refuge in Him who was tempted as we are and who is the Source of the mercy and help we seek in our times of need. The second half of Lent is mainly directed toward the preparation for celebrating the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. So the second half of this epistle turns our attention from our own temptations to the priestly sacrifice of Jesus.
As our High Priest, Jesus “is appointed to act on our behalf in relation to God,” precisely in the act of offering sacrifice. The sacrifice He offered was his own body, immolated on the altar of the Cross, and his own blood, poured out for the forgiveness of our sins. This is the ultimate “sympathizing with our weakness,” for He took it all upon Himself and offered it to the Father as He gave up his own life to save our souls from Hell.
He was appointed by the Father for precisely this priestly ministry, for, according to Hebrews, the Father said two main things to Jesus in this regard: “You are my Son,” and “You are a priest forever.” For me personally it is a great joy that I can hear those same words from God: “You are My son; you are a priest forever.” Yet it is not all gravy, for every priest “is bound to offer sacrifice,” for himself and others. Priests of the New Covenant offer the Sacrifice of Christ at the Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass, and by our ordination into the eternal priesthood of Christ we are configured in our very being to the Crucified One, and so He calls us to walk the way He walked. Priests, like all Christians, are also called to offer other sacrifices, and this brings us back both to the Gospel and to our Lenten observances.
Jesus makes it clear that it is not only priests who have to take up their crosses if they want to follow Jesus. For the Gospel begins by saying that Jesus called to Himself not only his disciples but also “the multitudes,” and then said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” So the Cross is not something we merely view and admire from afar, secretly grateful that since Jesus bore it we don’t have to. No, it is clear from the Gospel that we are called to share the Cross of Jesus if we wish to be his disciples. St Peter, one of those who heard those words of Jesus, later reflected upon this mystery when he wrote that we are in fact called to suffer for Christ’s sake: “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1Peter 2:21). So Christ didn’t suffer in order that we wouldn’t have to; He suffered as an example that He expects us to follow! Now we will not likely be nailed to a cross, nor can we take upon ourselves the sins of the world, but St Paul tells us that we do have a share in his sufferings, and we are expected to suffer for the sake of the members of Christ’s Body, the Church (see Col. 1:24). That means that Christians can and must make a contribution to the Lord’s work of saving souls, of winning grace for them so that they can accept what Jesus did for them and respond wholeheartedly and thus be found worthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus presents the suffering that is part of discipleship as “losing your life” in order to save it, which He contrasts with those who try to save their lives and end up losing them. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, who is now a Trappist monk known as Br. Simeon, describes this mystery thus:
“Saving one’s life in this sense involves all those inveterate human strategies for survival that will resort to any means whatsoever in order to insure that the self survives intact as self, which implies the self as untouched by any external force, not even God’s. The root of the verb [‘to save’] literally means ‘to keep safe and whole,’ an eloquent definition of egocentrism as a philosophy of life bent above all on not allowing anything to break the self open…
“Such a strategy for ‘saving’ one’s life, as a matter of fact, can rather be guaranteed to yield the very opposite: it will cause one to ‘lose’ one’s life, because life that does not grow is not life, and the survival of the self as intact self is the definition for utter stagnation of being… The trenchant paradox involved in Jesus’ formula for fullness of life (self-denial, the Cross, the throwing away of one’s life like a seed for his sake) brings about the end of stagnation, for all of these principles that inculcate the need for voluntary loss of self involve a revolutionary transformation of the natural categories of our intellect, our will, and our emotions.
“In Jesus’ view, losing the instinctual and self-willed self is finding the genuine and God-willed self… ‘Coming in the Father’s glory’ can result only from Jesus’ having first lost his life for the sake of giving life to others… When ‘loss of life’ is understood as communication of life from self to others, and the return of my life from my clutches to its first origin in God, then we can begin to sense the dynamism involved, the ascending and transforming power of self-oblation. I can truly have life only by being transformed, and I can be transformed only by giving myself away.”
This way of looking at it is perhaps more positive than the way some people in the world might regard Christian discipleship: nothing but self-denial and suffering, so who needs it? But to “lose our lives” for Jesus’ sake is here shown to be an inner transformation which results from breaking out of sterile egocentrism into a fruitful self-giving. Those who try to “save” their lives do so by attempting to protect their brittle egos by surrounding themselves with possessions or pleasures and all manner of earthly securities, or even with a puffed-up sense of righteousness. But Jesus says that this is just setting oneself up for a tragic loss that will never be recovered. That is why He invites us elsewhere to have our treasure in Heaven. But the only way to secure heavenly treasure is to forsake earthly treasure, that is, to deny yourself, take up your cross, and sacrifice your earthbound vision of the “good life” for Jesus’ sake and the sake of his Gospel.
This will result not only in our own personal transformation, but, as St Paul says, it will also result in “grace spreading to more and more people [which will cause] the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (2Cor. 4:15; see the whole context in vv. 6-18). This is why the Apostle said he rejoiced in his sufferings, for they were offered for the sake of the members of the Church.
So we have much to celebrate today, much to reflect upon, and much to put into practice. At the heart of our whole Lenten project, and even of our whole life, is the mystery of the Cross, presented to us today in our Liturgy as radiant with the victory of Christ over sin and death. But it is not yet time to receive our crowns. We are still tempted, we still are in need, and we must approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and help. We still must have recourse to the fruits of Jesus’ high-priestly sacrifice, received especially through absolution of our sins and the devout reception of Holy Communion. And day by day, we must take up our crosses to follow Him.
But we have much encouragement for this in the Scriptures, in the examples of Our Lady and the saints—and in our personal relationships with them and their intercession for us—and in everything the Church provides for our growth and sanctification. Remember, to “save our lives” means only to ensure stagnation unto death, but to lose them for Jesus’ sake means joyful self-forgetfulness which makes sacrifice easier and leads to inner transformation and eternal life.
Easter may still seem a long way off, but its light begins to shine even now through the mystery of the Cross, which is the mystery of Jesus’ Sacrifice, which is the mystery of his grace, mercy, and everlasting love. So let us hold fast our confession of faith and offer our sacrifice of love to Him who is the Son of God and the Priest Forever, who calls us to follow Him through the Cross to the Resurrection.