[This is a homily from the year 2002 for the “Sunday after the Holy Cross,” which was yesterday. You probably have noticed I’ve been posting ancient homilies lately. I don’t seem to have the time or the wits to compose new stuff lately. Not sure how this bodes for the future of MATN. Stay tuned for updates and breaking news...]
Today we will look at Christ as the wisdom of God in his word, in the wisdom of the teaching that He gives us today—a teaching that is very central to the Christian life (Mk 8:34 – 9:1). It’s so central that almost everyone rejects it! But we have to see why it’s important to accept it.
Christ is the divine physician. The Cross is the surgeon’s scalpel, so to speak, that has to cut out the spiritual disease in our souls. If we had some tumor developing in our body and we went to a doctor, he might say, “Well, I can take care of this for you. It’s very simple: all I have to do is cut you open and take it out—but, unfortunately, it’s going to hurt. And you can either accept the pain of the surgery and be healed, or you can let that tumor grow in you and fester and slowly eat your insides out and kill you.” It’s a similar thing with the spiritual life. We can let Christ do the spiritual surgery on us: we can follow his word and accept the Cross and accept the discipline and pain of real repentance and conversion, or we can just set it aside and let our souls get worse and worse until we’re totally corrupt inside and then we die and go to Hell. I think the choice that we want is the one where healing and salvation come.
The Lord says, “If anyone wants to follow Me”—see, his teaching is not just for the elite, some special group of saints. He says: If anyone wants to follow Me, this is what you have to do: deny yourself, take up your cross, and then walk in my footsteps.
That’s a hard teaching, because we don’t like to deny ourselves; we don’t like the whole image of taking up the cross, bearing a burden, doing something that’s difficult and demanding, but He says that’s the price. If you want it, then this is what it takes. He explains a little bit further what He means by “denying ourselves,” for there’s obviously a certain discipline involved. You can’t be a “disciple” without discipline—that’s what the word means. So we have to accept the discipline that comes from following Jesus.
He says, “If anyone would save his life, he will lose it; but if you lose it for My sake and that of the Gospel, you will save it.” So, how is it that we save our lives, only to lose them? There are many ways that we can do this. It’s not always some great and momentous decision to decide for or against Christ. There are all kinds of little ways we show in our lives that we’re more interested in saving this life, and which has the effect of forfeiting and losing the next.
One thing that some people create today is a kind of a cult of beauty and youth, which they go to great lengths to save, to preserve. There are all kinds of cosmetic surgeries available to reduce bellies, enlarge breasts, reshape buttocks, and tighten up faces. I hear that even some men are doing this, too—trying to get rid of their jowls and extra chins. People have to realize that they can’t save it forever. You can’t keep your youthful beauty. You’re going to lose it. You’re going to sag, you’re going to wrinkle, you’re going to get all spotty and lumpy, and your hair and your teeth are going to fall out, so get used to it, OK?
You’ll see that people go to great expense and suffer a lot of pain in order to try to preserve that physical beauty and form a little bit longer. But ask them to pray for a couple of hours, ask them to fast for a day: “No, no! That’s too hard! That’s impossible! Who can do stuff like that?” Yet they’ll suffer for those other things, for a different reason.
There are other ways people try to “save their lives.” People will spend all their time and energy and effort trying to secure a lot of money, or amass possessions, thinking that this will be some sort of security, when it isn’t. The stock market crashes, and everything you worked for all your life is shot: all your bank accounts are gone. Somebody drops a cigarette butt in your back yard on a dry summer day and that’s it—your house and everything you worked so hard for goes up in smoke. These things don’t last, and that’s what the Lord is trying to tell us: if you focus on the kind of things that don’t last, you’re going to lose what’s most important.
That doesn’t mean that you’re not supposed to take reasonable care of yourself or provide for your family and that kind of thing. Of course that has to be done—but that can’t be the overriding obsession of your life to the exclusion of the inner values, the more important spiritual values: the life of the soul.
So you have to be detached enough from that stuff so that it ultimately doesn’t matter whether you have it or not, because what you do have is the important, lasting heavenly treasure in your heart, where Christ dwells, and that’s going to survive even death. That’s what He wants us to focus on, so we need to have that sort of detachment from the ephemeral things. Otherwise, our life is going to be nothing more than just limping down the road to the cemetery where we can be put out of our misery—and trying to grab a little comfort along the way. Well, that’s no life. Christ said He came to give us the fullness of life. The same person who said, “I came that you can have a full life,” is the same person who said, “take up your cross and deny yourself.” So there’s something about denying yourself and taking up your cross that leads to the fullness of life! But people don’t want to accept that: that such is the way to life, the way to true inner values that the Gospel is trying to communicate to us. Jesus didn’t come just to say, “Here, I’ve got a whole new set of rules for you, to make your life miserable.” He said He wants us to be happy, but He knows what happiness consists of, and He knows that a lot of people are looking for happiness in the wrong places.
One of the ways we sabotage ourselves by trying to preserve our life just to lose it, is by living out of what one author calls “unconscious emotional programs for happiness.” Very early in our lives, through our experiences, we start to learn about what we need to do to “survive”: to avoid pain and to bring us some measure of happiness or pleasure. We often learn these lessons in some distorted sort of way, and we never really correct them. So we go through life with this unconscious program going in our minds, that “if only I had this, I’d be happy; if only I can avoid that, I’ll be happy.” But the problem is, we don’t get out of that, we don’t grow up, and we live our whole lives with these misleading ideas floating through our heads, trying to seek happiness in futile ways.
These unconscious emotional programs for happiness just don’t work, and they only lead us to unhappiness, to unfulfillment, to despair, to looking everywhere except the place we’re supposed to look for true happiness, because we have to unlearn a lot of the lessons that we learned or that were forced upon us through our life experience in our youth, and we have to start looking at things in a different way.
What Christ is talking about here in denying yourself, taking up your cross, losing your life—all that is a way of talking about repentance. Now, repentance is not just confessing your sins; that’s one aspect of it, but it’s much more than that. Repentance is a key term in the New Testament. It is the first word that Jesus used when He began his public ministry: “Repent!” What was He saying? Just confess your sins? That’s part of it; that’s not the whole thing. The word “repentance” is metanoia in Greek. It means a change of mind, a change of heart. It’s literally a change of nous, which means, not just change of mind or intellect, but a change in the higher capacity of mind or intellect that can perceive the things of the spirit. That’s why nous is sometimes translated as “spirit” or “heart,” because it refers to that higher faculty within us, which is the center from which not only our thoughts but our spiritual perception is located. So it has to do with our whole world-view, and the way we look at ourselves and the way we look at God and the way we look at everything in our life. Jesus said, you have to change that!
That is our life’s work. We have a prayer that we say every day in the Liturgy: “…that we may live the rest of our lives in peace and repentance…” You might think, “Well, I’ve already repented of my sins; I’m doing pretty good now. Why do I have to keep repenting and repenting and repenting?” Well, aside from the fact that we usually keep on sinning and sinning and sinning, we have to keep working on that interior change. We have not yet come to the point where we see things as clearly and fully and correctly as we should: where we see and perceive and feel and respond to God and to other people and to the whole of reality the way we were meant to in the beginning, when we were created in the image of God, created to see the world with godly eyes.
It’s an ongoing work, and all the spiritual practices that we have, whether it’s fasting or vigils or prayers, all of that is in service of metanoia, in service of repentance, in service of changing our inner life, our perception, and our relation with God and the world, so that we become more like God, so that we come to the point that St. Paul came to when he said, “I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” That’s the whole point: why are we denying ourselves? Deny yourself so that Christ can take up abode in your heart and can live within you!
This is the doctrine of the Cross. It’s not just something negative, saying, “don’t do this, and you’ll be OK.” It’s a whole program of life. First of all, recognizing the obstacles—those unconscious motivations and “programs for happiness” that are bankrupt. There are other things we have to get out of the way too, our sins or unhealthy habits or anything else that we have that keeps us from progressing. But the goal is a positive one: it’s that union with Christ and that transformation of the way we think and feel and see the world and relate to God and to each other.
We know that we as human beings are limited and weak and at a disadvantage in many ways. Physically, we’re subject to illness and disease and death. Mentally, we’re subject to confusion or depression or any sort of mental disorder. Spiritually, we’re subject to moral lapses, to spiritual blindness, to self-centeredness, to sin. All these things are there, and that’s why Christ comes as a divine physician, saying: With the Cross we’re going to do a little surgery, and we’re going to heal you of all that stuff.
It’s a process—often a painful process—but it’s always worth it. We must then give our lives to it, to the whole work of metanoia, of conversion, of repentance, so that we can overcome those obstacles, let Him do that divine therapy within us, and then we come to that point of “No longer I, but Christ”: that’s the goal of our life.
Once we’re there, we can say with St. Simeon: “Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace!” Because then we’ll have come to the point of union with Christ, and all that remains for us after that is to step over the threshold into that heavenly Paradise where He’s going to say, “See? I told you what I was preparing for you! Aren’t you glad that you denied yourself, that you took the risk, made the effort, believed that this was all true? Aren’t you glad now? Come in, and share your Master’s joy!”