For a number of years, I was a formation director for Sacred Heart Province. I was charged with accompanying young men as they entered Franciscan life. When I was Master of Postulants, I and my associate would teach the young men about the psalms because they would be the basis of their prayer as friars. We would also teach them the life of St. Francis of Assisi. At the beginning of this class, I would ask each young man what it was that he liked about St. Francis. Then I would surprise them by asking them what they disliked about St. Francis. Most often, my question would be met with silence. By the looks on their faces, I could tell that they might be thinking, “How could there be anything to dislike?” In fact, there is something that I always found difficult about the life of St. Francis. I could never appreciate the fact that he completely cut himself off from his father.
Then one day I was reading a commentary on the Gospels. The writer made the point that because the people of the Mediterranean crescent were people who did not think of themselves as individuals, Jesus’ admonition to deny oneself, pick up one’s cross and follow him made it necessary for his disciples to cut themselves off from their community. People of the Mediterranean world see themselves as members of a group, a community, a family. To deny oneself consequently meant denying one’s group, one’s community, one’s family. Upon reading this information, a little light went off in my head. Francis cut himself off from his father because he was denying himself. Because he lived in a Mediterranean culture, he could not separate his identity from the identity of his family, the only way to deny himself was to deny his family.
In fact, all of the apostles and disciples of Jesus in that part of the world did exactly the same thing. Where their community or family had been their personal point of reference, now Jesus was asking that they make him their point of reference.
We are people of Western culture and values. When we hear the words of today’s Gospel about denying ourselves, we immediately hear Jesus asking us to do penance, to give up things we like, to do without those things in which we find comfort. We hear this Gospel admonition differently than the apostle heard it. We hear it differently than St. Francis heard it. We hear it differently depending upon the culture and the values we have learned through our environment and our development as adult men and women.
Jesus was a man of his culture just as his Twelve Apostles and his disciples were members of their culture. I am not suggesting that the only way to follow Jesus is by denying our family. I am, however, trying to make the point that Jesus is asking us to make him the priority of our lives. Each of us must find an appropriate way to respond to the Gospel so that no matter what our vocation may be, Jesus is the one that guides us in living out that vocation. This applies to married people as well as to those who choose religious or consecrated life. Jesus is more than the reason for the Season of Christmas. Jesus is the reason for who we are as Christians. Jesus must be the one who matters more than all others.
That means that no matter who we are or which way of life we choose to live, we each must respond by picking up the cross which we have been given and by following Jesus. Anyone will tell you, “That is not easy.” Only someone who is convinced that living the Gospel is the way to eternal life will be able to make that choice. Only a man or woman of faith, who believes that Jesus rose from the dead after dying on a cross, will be able to make the choice to pick up the cross and follow Jesus.
Throughout the Scriptures, whether we read from the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian Scriptures, we are constantly asked to make choices. The very beginning of the Bible begins with God asking Adam and Eve to make a choice – obey or leave the garden. Abraham and Sarah were asked to make a choice – leave your homeland and go where I send you. Jacob and Rachel and his sons were asked to make a choice – go to Egypt or stay here and starve. Moses was asked to make a choice – lead my people out of slavery or spend your life as a sheep herder. Every story, and I promise not to go through them all, in the entire Bible is about making a choice. Either do it God’s way or do it your own way. In today’s Gospel, it is evident that Peter makes the choice to believe in Jesus, but then he finds out what that choice will entail and he steps back from his original statement. Jesus will have none of it. Either believe in me or get behind me.
The Gospel asks us to make a choice to follow Jesus. If we choose to follow, Jesus gives us the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of the Eucharist, to help us in that choice. He feeds us with consecrated bread and wine which is a guarantee that when we choose to follow Jesus, we will live with him forever. We will, however, have to make that choice over and over again. It is just the nature of human life that being a believer means making the right choice over and over again.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator