The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Isaiah 50:5-9 + James 2:14-18 + Mark 8:27-35
September 16, 2018
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it….”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” If you’re an adult, I’m sure you were asked that many times when you were little. If you are a child, I’m sure it hasn’t been all that long since someone asked you what you want to be when you grow up. Children are encouraged to dream about many things, and one of them is what they want to be when they grow up. Children dream about being an astronaut, or a movie star, or a cowboy, or a firefighter, or an even more fanciful role like a superhero.
It’s important for children to exercise their imaginations. It’s good for children to imagine themselves as adults. Nonetheless, there’s a very dangerous trap lurking inside this seemingly innocent question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
To consider that question in the light of today’s Gospel passage, consider this thought experiment. Imagine that Mr. Peabody in his WABAC machine transports you back through time to the first decade of the first century A.D. You arrive in the town of Nazareth, and come across a little boy named Yeshua, who as you approach is listening to his mother, Miryam. You suddenly realize that this boy is the child Jesus.
Unfortunately, Mr. Peabody tells you that you only have five minutes before you’re taken back to the 21st century. You may ask this boy Jesus one and only one question. So you reflect for a moment, and then you ask the boy Jesus this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Now, what do you imagine that boy’s answer will be?
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The answer to that imaginary question can be gleaned from what Jesus demands from us in today’s Gospel passage. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” For you to be a Christian, you must do these three things: deny your self, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. Today, consider just the first of these.
What does it mean for you to deny your self? It doesn’t mean that you cut up your driver’s license and go around in public wearing a wig and a false nose. Your self is more than your name, date of birth and Social Security Number. But what, then, is your self? Before you can follow Christ, you have to know what your self is before you can deny it.
What is your self? Reflect on just three answers to this question. There might be others, also, but these three are key. When Jesus demands that you deny your self, these show us three key ways in which you must deny your self. We might call these three: the “selfish self”, the “animal self”, and the “desired self”. Of course, each person is a single self, so these three “selfs” described here are really just aspects or dimensions of one’s entire self. But for the sake of argument, consider each of these three as a separate self.
The first self is the fallen, sinful self. This is not the self God created you to be. Instead, this is the self that concupiscence helps you become as a child of Adam and Eve. This is the “selfish self”: the self who sins.
So then, how can you deny this first self? If you’re a cradle Catholic, you’ve known the answer to this question since at least Second Grade. This form of self-denial is most basic to the Catholic spiritual life. It’s the denial of sin and temptation. It’s saying a strong “No!” to sin and temptation. Hopefully each of you declares that “No!” as soon as you experience the movement of temptation: as soon as you recognize that you’re within the proximity of the occasion of sin. You practice this form of self-denial by not saying “Yes” to temptation, and not committing sin.
Of course, each of us here is a sinner. That’s why Jesus, on the evening following His Resurrection from the dead, instituted the Sacrament of Confession. Part of the beauty of the Sacrament of Confession is that God allows us, after we’ve sinned and incurred guilt, to practice self-denial: that is, to say “No!” to the sins we’ve already committed, placing them in the confessional at the foot of Jesus’ Cross.
The second self that you must deny if you want to follow Jesus is the “animal self”. This is the self that reflects the truth that human beings are, in fact, animals. We are rational animals, but animals nonetheless. Although God raised us above the other animals of the earth in that we can speak, and create works of art and literature, and split the atom, each of us at the same time remains an animal, with basic needs such as to eat, to drink, and to sleep.
It’s helpful to remember that this was also true of Jesus and Mary during the days that they walked the earth. That first self—the sinful self—in no way, shape or form was part of Jesus’ life or Mary’s life. But hunger and thirst and sleep and the other animal needs that we have are part of human nature as God created human nature “in the beginning”: before Adam and Eve brought sin into the word. So even Jesus and Mary experienced this second sense of self: the animal self with all its basic desires.
So then, how can you deny this second self? Unfortunately, unless you grew up before the Second Vatican Council, you’re not very likely to have heard a lot about this second type of self-denial. If you did, you must have been blessed with very fine priests or nuns or parents (or all of the above!). The second form of self-denial that each Christian must practice is denial of basic needs like food, drink and sleep. The Gospel accounts tell us that the Son of God Himself practiced these types of self-denial: fasting from food and drink, and spending entire nights in prayer with God the Father. If Jesus practiced these, how can you not do the same?
Unfortunately, many Catholics today have never been told that the Church obligates every Catholic to practice penance every Friday of the year, not just the Fridays of Lent. It’s true that the Church only specifies what form this penance must take during Lent: on Fridays of Lent, Catholics must abstain from meat as their penance. On the other Fridays of the year, Catholics are free to decide the form of their penance; nonetheless, they are obligated to carry out some form of penance.
The third self that you have to deny if you want to follow Jesus might be called the “aspiring self”. It’s just natural that to be human means to look to the future. It’s part of human nature to plan, to dream, and to imagine where one wants to be a year from now, ten years from now, and so on. A great deal of our present goes into dreaming about, planning and preparing for our future.
However, the future is unpredictable in ways we cannot even predict. Just ask the citizen of the Carolinas whose lives have been turned upside down (or ended!) by Hurricane Florence (and for whom we need to remember to pray). The old saying tells us that “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray”.
The truth is that the future is unpredictable for several reasons. First, life on earth is chaotic by its nature. Second, sin and its consequences constantly throw monkey wrenches into the gears of human hopes. But third, and most importantly, God’s grace is Providential. God often bestows His graces upon us by surprising, unpredictable and unexpected means. We cannot plan for God’s grace, because we cannot control God or His grace. But we can always exercise the virtue of hope.
So in life on this earth, we sometimes have to deny our “aspiring self”. It’s certainly not wrong to aspire, dream and plan. Oftentimes the most responsible thing we can do is plan for the future as best we can. But on the other hand, we also need to remember that God sometimes offers us something better than our best. We don’t know when that might happen, so we have to be alert every day to the possibility, and be ready to deny our plans for the sake of God’s Providence.
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That leads us back to the first century, where we asked the child Jesus, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” There’s really only one possible answer. It’s the same answer to your own questions about prayer, about chaotic weekly schedules, about rearing children, and about relationships with spouses and parents.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Jesus?” Jesus replies, “I want to be … faithful to my Father’s Will.”
Jesus had to teach this lesson to His saintly foster-father, Joseph, and even to His sinless mother, Mary. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we have to learn this lesson over and over throughout our lives. You remember how, when the child Jesus was lost in the eyes of His mother and foster-father, they frantically searched for Him. Finally, they found Him in the Temple, and when they begged Him for an explanation, He simply asked, “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”
The Temple in Jerusalem, magnificently built of stone, adorned with gold and other precious metals, was destroyed by the Romans in the year A.D. 70. But as magnificent as that temple built by human hands was, it was only a shadow of the Father’s Providential heart and will. God the Father’s heart and will is the true temple that Jesus was speaking of when He rhetorically asked Mary and Joseph, “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Most of us, when we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up, give an answer based on doing rather than being. “What do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be someone who fights fires, orbits the earth, acts in movies, and leaps tall buildings in a single bound.” We don’t know how simply to be, much less to be still and be with God. We only know how to do like Martha, instead of being like her sister, sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus, listening to His words, and drawing from Him the strength to be faithful to God the Father.