Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
Jesus invites us to deny our self-centered default position which places I, me, and mine (As George Harrison sang) at the center of each of our decisions. We can deny ourselves when we resist making excuses for our sins and come to a genuine place of sorrow for the pain we have caused God, ourselves, and others. By acknowledging our sins and confessing them, we die to our selfish ways, and then we rise again through the power of Christ. Empowered by our humility and the strength of Jesus we are better equipped to resist those temptations when they rise again.
We are also in a better position to then take up our cross, which is to follow the will of God. Jesus showed us the proper orientation of surrender when he said at Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Jesus followed his Father’s will to the cross and endured horrific suffering, excruciating pain, humiliation, and abandonment, to death and into new life!
Many a mother I have talked with has shared the struggles of labor, but also expressed the joy of giving birth; many of my students have been exasperated by the time and effort expended for an examination, a sporting event, art show, musical or theatrical performance and yet experienced the joy from the feat they accomplished; and how many times have we faced a challenge, trial, or cleared some obstacle and felt the exhilaration of overcoming the hurdle?
Taking up our cross and following the will of God means accepting a disciplined approach to our lives. When we follow God’s will, as opposed to our own solely, the difference is that we are not alone in our persistent effort. Seeking God’s will in the midst of our decision-making process and trials for our everyday physical as well as spiritual pursuits is the key.
In my mid-twenties, I entered the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province to study for the priesthood. In the year and a half of discernment, from time to time I would imagine my ordination day. To my surprise, I did not feel intense joy. I enjoyed every aspect of my experience with the friars and the ministries but there was something or someone missing. I took a leave of absence and about a year and a half later, I realized what was missing was having a family.
About two years later I met JoAnn, and her three children, Mia, Jack, and Christy. Six months after that we were married and seventeen years later, I was ordained to the permanent diaconate. This is the short version of the story. There were bumpy moments as we learned to grow together by being willing to see each other’s point of view, some perspectives took a little longer than others, and we were at our best when we were willing to sacrifice for and serve one another.
The journey took its roughest lunge this time last year when JoAnn was experiencing her final weeks with us this side of heaven. From the beginning of JoAnn’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, we both prayed, not that our will but God’s will be done. This cross was the heaviest to bear, yet Jesus shouldered it with us and blessed us richly in our surrender. I am truly grateful for those final months that we had together.
The grief and sorrow that I did not allow during JoAnn’s sickness has risen up on and off since I returned home as it did today while I was organizing the garage, something we would often do together when I had time off. Yet, in embracing the sorrow and allowing the tears to flow, I was able to experience the joy and appreciation from our years together. In denying ourselves and carrying our cross – our willingness to resist curving in upon ourselves and face, instead of run away from our challenges, we can actually come to a place of healing, wholeness, and unity with others.
Photo: All of us together last July 4th weekend with Levi and Harley, Mia’s wee ones.