What does Jesus mean when he says to his disciples – including us – “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”?
Does it mean that we are to accept with patience our trials, aches and pains that are part of life, to “offer it up to God,” as the good Sisters taught us to say? Yes. But it means so much more than dealing with life’s choppy waters.
It means that Christ demands, not suggests, a commitment of faith that is ready to embrace God’s will, wherever it may lead, even unto death. Such a commitment of faith means that we are ready to affirm life despite what life brings, and even in the face of doubts and fears.
Another question: does Jesus mean we must be ready to suffer a physical death of martyrdom? Again, the answer is perhaps yes. But it means something even more difficult than martyrdom. When we embrace the will of God, we must let of own will, our ego, self-centeredness – even unto death. We must die to ourselves. This can be quite painful and difficult to accomplish without God’s grace.
Undoubtedly, this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he proclaimed “I am crucified with Christ! It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20). To follow Christ in this way means losing our false self, false life, in order to truly find ourselves, to be who we truly are, to be wholly ourselves.
Christ’s demand is unequivocal. If we wish to follow him, we must take up our cross – with the kind of faith in which Jesus can say to us: “Your faith has made you whole.”
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.