Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Take Your Cross, Find Your Life

Well, I hope you are filled with the Holy Spirit in these days of the holy Pentecost, because now it’s time to get back to work! Feast days are oases in the trek through the desert of this life on the way to the Promised Land, but if we try to settle down at the oasis, we’ll never arrive at our destination.

So, my reading has brought me once again to the Cross, that inescapable monument to divine and sacrificial love, universal reconciliation, human hope—and the inexorable demands of a God who will stop at nothing until we are eternally secured in his life-giving and all-captivating embrace.

Coming to the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, I notice that Jesus says if we love parents or children more than we love Him, we are not worthy of Him—there’s a good point for your examination of conscience! And here’s one for mine: “He who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me” (v. 38). Now we know that in an absolute sense, no creature can ever be worthy of God, but Jesus is speaking in a different sense (just like He often does in the Book of Revelation, where He does say some people are worthy). So, in a relative sense, our obedience and faithfulness to the will of God, which is a fruit of his grace in us, can make us worthy of Christ and his Kingdom.

The implication above is that one who does take up his cross and follows Jesus is worthy of Him. But this entails a whole life of purification, perseverance, and dogged fidelity to the One who calls us to a joy and fulfillment beyond all comparison with our sufferings in this valley of tears. The Lord gives us a general and succinct maxim for cross-bearing unto worthiness: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (v. 39). These verses, by the way, are part of the Gospel reading for the Sunday of All Saints (this coming Sunday in the Byzantine calendar), so this is how the Church views the way to sanctity.

A common excuse for immoral, irresponsible, or otherwise self-serving behavior—be it in adolescence or mid-life—is that one is trying to “find himself.” But this kind of self-absorbed quest ends in quite the opposite way, for the Lord warns that such self-seeking will end up with the loss of the only thing that really matters: one’s immortal soul. Perhaps if someone would ask me what my goal is, I could say, as a Christian, that I’m not trying to find myself but to lose myself.

But how is it that Jesus wants us to lose our lives in order to find them? First of all, we have to notice that He said we are to lose our lives for his sake. That excludes all kinds of imprudent, negligent, and self-destructive behavior, and centers our quest to lose ourselves wholly on the will of God. One translation, which is literally inaccurate, but which does help somewhat with understanding the meaning of the passage, reads “he who loses his life for my sake discovers who he is.” So there’s something about taking our crosses and following Christ that enlightens us as to our true identity, and hence the meaning and destiny of our lives.

But something has to be lost in the process, and this is something that the Cross prunes away from us. We have to “lose our lives,” that is, live no longer for ourselves but for Him who died and rose for our sake (see 2Cor. 5:15). And we have to do that not in theory or pious sentiment, but in all the practical details of life. There’s something about the self-denial and even the suffering that taking one’s cross entails, which teaches us lessons that cannot be learned in any other way. Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes as one of the defining moments of his entire life his arrest and subsequent imprisonment in Soviet gulags—because it was only through this harsh, self-stripping experience that he finally learned the truth about himself (he had been somewhat egotistical and intellectually proud) and the truth about the radical evil of the Communist system (he had been a fervent Communist). Despite the severe suffering, he later looked upon that experience with a certain gratitude, because in losing his life he found it, discovered his true identity and recovered his faith, which he had abandoned for the Communist illusion. He learned the lesson of "profit from loss."

We may never be put to such a terrible test, but we have to continually remind ourselves that we are here to “lose our lives,” to relinquish our self-centered vision of life, to learn to serve and to be always available to do the will of God, convenient or not. If we are always trying to find ourselves we will become absorbed in ourselves and eventually become quite good at deceiving ourselves—with the end result that we lose the very thing we sought in the first place. The better part is to take up our cross and follow Jesus, losing our lives for his sake, so as to find them back in Him, with his image in us fully restored. And then, guess what? Having discovered who we really are by (sometimes painfully) discarding who we really are not, we will discover that He finds us worthy of Him…