“If anyone wishes to come after me….” How gently does our Savior invite us! Who can hear this offer and refuse? “If anyone wishes to come after me….” I do. What do I need to do? “…they must deny themself and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Here is that Lenten trio again: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.
“They must deny themself” We do this through fasting, not only from food but also from all of the pacifiers we use to quiet our souls’ longing for God: entertainment and comfort and other pleasures. When we deny ourselves we experience a kind of suffering, but this suffering can be very addictive; it is actually joy.
“Take up their cross daily” Sometimes, when people talk about this verse, they speak of our cross as our suffering. Anything from arthritis to disabilities to other people can be called a cross. This is a half-truth. The central mystery of the cross is not that Jesus suffered and died, but that he suffered and died for us. A cross is not whatever difficulties we have in life. Everyone has difficulties. We take up the daily cross when we embrace suffering in order to assist another, either directly or by offering some suffering to God for them. Indeed any suffering we experience in life can be a cross, but only if we embrace it and offer it. We are most conformed to the cross when the work we do for others is the source of our suffering. Agreeing to help someone we dislike can be a way of the cross; from beginning to end we may be suffering physically or mentally or with wounded pride. Take up such crosses daily.
“Follow me” To follow someone simply means to be with them, wherever they go. Our way of being with God is prayer. Prayer is a conversation we have with God, and, like any good conversation, includes both speaking and listening. As we converse with God, chains will bind our heart to him. Then, no matter where the world goes, we will stay close to him.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can seem cold and theoretical. Jesus is inviting us, in a personal way, to take up these essential spiritual practices. Above all, he is drawing our attention to the fact that he himself has taken them up already. In our Lenten journey, when it is difficult, we should remember that we are coming after Jesus.