Today’s Gospel reading places us at a key transition point in the Gospel according to Mark. Jesus and his disciples begin the long trek from Galilee to Jerusalem, where Jesus will spend his fateful last days. It is here that Jesus chooses to teach them about himself, beginning with two questions: “Who do people say that I am?” and then, “’But who do you say that I am?” Peter declares, “You are the Christ.”
From here on Jesus begins to teach them that he has to suffer, be rejected and killed, and then rise. Peter takes Jesus aside and “rebukes” him for saying such things. Jesus responds by rebuking Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Then Jesus proclaims, even to the crowd: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Taking up one’s cross and denying oneself is tricky business. What it cannot mean is self-denigration, for God is hardly glorified by half-persons. I have seen this problem in lost souls, particularly in abused persons who have such little self-possession that they cannot offer themselves with any real freedom as gift to anyone. For those in such acute distress, the task at hand is to come to understand at a deep level that God loves and values them utterly and eternally. Nonetheless, I think a fully actualized spiritual life will ultimately call for some kind of paschal donation.
This paschal requirement incorporates two key tasks. One involves decentering ourselves from our own narcissism and recentering our lives in Christ. Paradoxically, such recentering brings true freedom and self-possession. One finds one’s true self and authentic power only in God, who holds all meaning in the universe.
Jesus’ final teaching in today’s Gospel speaks to this point clearly: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it.” The life we lose is the false self, the one that craves and hoards and seeks its own glory. The life we save is the one made in the image and likeness of God, the one that sees its truth in and through God. Renouncing this former, false self and embracing the true self is hardly easy; indeed, it is a lifelong charge and really feels like a kind of death.
The other task in this paschal challenge involves what we make of our own suffering and trials. When I was younger and too often a complainer, I would be told to offer it up, which at the time I imagined to mean “suck it up.” Now I see this imperative as a way to relocate my trials in the Passion of Christ, to participate in Christ’s compassionate redemption. Paul emphasizes this insight regularly: “Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Col 1:24). Paul saw his own suffering as a participation in Christ’s ongoing salvation.
Consider it this way: The Father’s plan is to embrace the entire universe in the Son’s paschal love, “to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth” (Eph 1:10), “so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). We are part of this enterprise, for we have been incorporated into Christ, into his body and into his mission. This means that we are profoundly and mystically united to all people, and our suffering on behalf of the salvation of the world is also our work in Christ. Our suffering, paschally embraced, binds us in love not only to those who are acutely suffering but to all in need of Christ’s salvation.
Jesus asks us the same question he asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Each Christian’s response will be unique. Yet Jesus’ message today tells us that it will have to include this recognition: “You are the crucified one, who commands me to walk the same road.”