Following Jesus

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Christ on the Way to Calvary by Giovanni di Paolo

This Sunday’s readings are all about following Jesus.  Which seems like a pretty straightforward topic.  That’s what Christians do, right?  We are followers of Jesus.  But that’s easier said than done.

This week’s psalm is a perfect place to begin, for it reminds us of why we seek to follow Christ. “O God, you are my God whom I seek: for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts, like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water” (Ps 63:2).  I love the vivid imagery of this verse, expressing perfectly the longing of the soul for its God — even when we don’t know yet who that God is.

But we do know who God is.  We have found Him in Christ and so we follow Him.  Our Alleluia verse is John 10:27, where Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.”  Our second reading tells us what happens when we follow Christ.  We become children of God, heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26-29).  Amen! So far so good.

Then comes the gospel reading.  “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).  Whoa.  Now it’s getting real.  Take up our cross?  Daily?

It’s all well and good to say you are a follower of Christ.  But look where Christ is going.  “The Son of Man must suffer greatly… and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Lk 9:22).  Or as the prophet Zechariah foretold, “they shall look on him whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son, and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a firstborn” (Zec 12:10).

Anyone who has seen The Passion of the Christ or paid attention to the readings on Palm Sunday or Good Friday knows what the passion entailed.  We know that Jesus suffered greatly.  Crucifixion is without a doubt the most horrible means of execution ever to spring forth from the fallen mind of man.  But Jesus wasn’t just crucified.  He had to carry the instrument of His own torture and execution.  And He had to do it after undergoing a beating that would have killed a lesser person.  It was horrific.  This should all be in our minds when we think of Jesus carrying the cross.  This should be in our minds when we hear Jesus asking us to do the same.  Daily.

Why does Jesus so willingly carry His cross?  It is because he does not suffer for Himself.  He suffers for the good of others.  He suffers for you and for me.  As Zechariah foretold, Christ’s suffering becomes “a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness” (Zec 13:1).  For us to take up our cross and follow Christ, means that we must also be willing to suffer for the good of others. Daily.

What does this practically mean?  In 21st century America, probably not actual crucifixion (thanks be to God).  But we all suffer in lesser ways.  It means having patience with those who annoy us.  It means forgiving those who wrong us.  It means going out of our comfort zones to help those in need.  It means putting others’ good ahead of our own.  It means following God’s will instead of our own will.  It means casting off our own selfish inclinations so that we may put on Christ.  It means judging our own actions and not judging our neighbors.  It means loving our enemies.  And it means doing it all humbly, without complaining, grumbling, or calling attention to ourselves.

These are things each and every one of us is called to do.  These are ways we can each take up our cross daily as we follow Christ.  For some, their daily cross may include more profound suffering; chronic pain, grief, depression, hunger, illness, or oppression.  At some time or another, profound suffering enters into all of our lives.  For some it is the status quo.

Yet here, too, Jesus says, “follow me.”  We must remember that no one has suffered more than our Lord, and yet He came through it.  There was a passion and death, but there was also a resurrection.  There was that third day when Christ rose from the tomb in triumph.  This glory is also part of the road Christ asks us to follow Him along.  It is a glory that does not belong to this world, but to the world to come.

For those who suffer greatly, there is great hope.  Jesus offers each suffering soul a share in His own Passion, if we would but bear our cross, as He did, patiently, for the love of God, and for the love of others.

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Lk 9:24