The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Isaiah 50:5-9 + James 2:14-18 + Mark 8:27-35
September 12, 2021
“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, you were surely asked that many times when you were little. But imagine that you travel back to the first decade of the first century A.D. Arriving in the town of Nazareth, you come across the child Jesus and ask Him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” How will He answer?
His answer might be gleaned from what He 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. Consider just the first of these. What does it mean for you to deny your self?
What is your self? Reflect on just three possible answers to this question.
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.
You can deny this first self by declaring a strong “No!” to sin and temptation. Hopefully you declare 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.
Of course, each of us on earth is a sinner. That’s why Jesus, on the evening following His Resurrection, instituted the Sacrament of Confession. Part of the beauty of Confession is that God allows us, after we’ve sinned, to practice self-denial: that is, to say “No!” to the sins we’ve already committed by 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”. Although God raised us above the other animals of the earth in that we can speak, create works of art and literature, and split the atom, each of us remains an animal with basic needs such as eating, drinking, and sleeping.
The second form of self-denial that each Christian must practice is prudent, occasional 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 on almost every Friday of the year, not just the Fridays of Lent (Fridays that are solemnities are exempt). 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.
The third self that you have to deny if you want to follow Jesus might be called the “aspiring self”. Being human naturally means planning, dreaming, and imagining where one wants to be in the future.
However, “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray”. 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.
So in life on this earth, we sometimes have to deny our “aspiring self”. While the most responsible thing we can do is plan for the future as best we can, 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, standing ready to deny our plans for the sake of God’s Providence.
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. Jesus replies, “I want to be faithful to my Father’s Will.” Every thing, person, circumstance, success and failure in this world must be subordinated to that final goal.