Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me
I invite you to reflect on the conditions that Jesus asked of those who wanted to be his disciples: “If anyone wishes to come after me”, he said, “he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).
Jesus is not a Messiah of triumph and power. In fact, he did not free Israel from Roman rule and he never assured it of political glory. As a true Servant of the Lord, he carried out his mission in solidarity, in service, and in the humiliation of death. He is the Messiah who did not fit into any mould and who came without fanfare, and who cannot be “understood” with the logic of success and power, the kind of logic often used by the world to verify its projects and actions.
Having come to carry out the will of the Father, Jesus remained faithful to it right to the end. He thus carried out his mission of salvation for all those who believe in him and love him, not in word, but in deed. Love is the condition for following him, but it is sacrifice that is the proof of that love.
“If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). These words denote the radicality of a choice that does not allow for hesitation or second thoughts. It is a demanding requirement that unsettled even the disciples and that, throughout the ages, has held back many men and women from following Christ. But precisely this radicality has also produced admirable examples of sanctity and martyrdom that strengthened and confirmed the way of the Church. Even today these words are regarded as a stumbling block and folly (cf. 1 Cor 1: 22-25). Yet they must be faced, because the path outlined by God for his Son is the path to be undertaken by the disciple who has decided to follow Jesus. There are not two paths, but only one: the one trodden by the Master. The disciple cannot invent a different way.
Jesus walks ahead of his followers and asks each one to do as he himself has done. He says: I have not come to be served, but to serve; so, whoever wants to be like me must be the servant of everyone. I have come to you as one who possesses nothing; for this reason, I can ask you to leave all riches behind which prevent you from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I accept denial and rejection by most of my people; therefore I can ask you to accept denial and opposition from wherever it comes.
In other words, Jesus asks that we courageously choose the same path. We have to choose it from our hearts, because external situations do not depend on us. In so far as it is possible, the will to be as obedient as he was to the Father and to be ready to accept the plan which he has for each person right to the end depends upon each of us.
“He must deny himself”. To deny oneself is to give up one’s own plans that are often small and petty in order to accept God’s plan. This is the path of conversion, something indispensable in a Christian life, and that led Saint Paul to say, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
Jesus does not ask us to give up living, but to accept a newness and a fullness of life that only He can give. The human being has a deep-rooted tendency to “think only of self”, to regard one’s own person as the centre of interest and to see oneself as the standard against which to gauge everything. One who chooses to follow Christ, on the other hand, avoids being wrapped up in himself and does not evaluate things according to self interest. He looks on life in terms of gift and gratuitousness, not in terms of conquest and possession. Life in its fullness is only lived in self-giving, and that is the fruit of the grace of Christ: an existence that is free and in communion with God and neighbor.
If to live as a follower of the Lord becomes the highest value, then all other values are given their rightful rank and importance. Whoever depends solely on worldly goods will end up by losing, even though there might seem to be an appearance of success. Death will find that person with an abundance of possessions but having lived a wasted life (cf. Lk 12:13-21). Therefore, the choice is between being and having, between a full life and an empty existence, between truth and falsehood.
“Take up his cross daily and follow me”. As the cross can be reduced to being an ornament, “to carry the cross” can become just a manner of speaking. In the teaching of Jesus, however, it does not imply the pre-eminence of mortification and denial. It does not refer primarily to the need to endure patiently the great and small tribulations of life, or, even less, to the exaltation of pain as a means of pleasing God. It is not suffering for its own sake that a Christian seeks, but love. When the cross is embraced it becomes a sign of love and of total self-giving. To carry it behind Christ means to be united with him in offering the greatest proof of love.
We cannot speak about the cross without considering God’s love for us, the fact that God wishes to shower us with good things. With his invitation “follow me”, Jesus not only says again to his disciples: take me as your model, but also: share my life and my choices, and stake your life for love of God and for neighbor together with me. This is how Jesus opens up before us the “way of life”. Unfortunately, this is constantly being threatened by the “way of death”. Sin is this way that separates a person from God and neighbor and brings about division and undermines society from within.
The “way of life” continues and renews the mind of Christ in us and becomes the way of faith and conversion. It is indeed the way of the cross. It is the way that leads one to trust in him and his plan of salvation, and to believe that He died in order to show God’s love for each one. It is the way to salvation in a society often divided, confused and contradictory. It is the way to the happiness found in following Christ right to the end, in the sometimes dramatic circumstances of daily life. It is the way that does not fear failure, difficulties, isolation, loneliness, because it fills our hearts with the presence of Jesus. It is the path of peace, self-control and a joyful heart.
Excerpted from Pope John Paul II’s MESSAGE TO THE YOUTH OF THE WORLD, THE XVI WORLD YOUTH DAY, February 14, 2001.