Optional Lectio Divina Prayer
- Read Luke 9:23–25.
- Meditate on the words.
- Speak to Christ about this passage.
- Rest and listen in God’s presence.
- Discuss together.
Imagine Jesus looking you in the eye and saying the following words:
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).
“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27).
Christians today have a comfortable familiarity with the image of the cross: We have crosses in our churches, some people have crosses hanging in our homes and some even wear crosses as jewelry around their necks. But that was certainly not the case in Jesus’ day. In fact, in the first-century Roman world, the whole idea of the cross was completely abhorrent. The cross was the Roman Empire’s most dreadful instrument of torture, humiliation and execution. The famous ancient Roman orator Cicero once said, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.” (1) You didn’t even want to think about the cross.
That’s what makes Jesus’ statement so startling. For Jesus to tell his disciples to pick up a cross and follow him would have been as shocking as him telling people in the modern world to pick up their electric chairs or pick up their guillotines and follow him. Of all the images Jesus could have used to depict discipleship, why would he choose this most horrific one? Noah got a rainbow. Moses got a burning bush. The Magi got a star in the sky. Why do Jesus’ disciples get a cross?
Because, as we will see, it’s only through the cross that we find our ultimate fulfillment in life and experience what we’re made for: the total, perfect, self-giving love of God himself.
Discuss: Considering this first-century understanding of the cross, what do you think the Apostles were thinking when they heard Jesus tell them that, if they wanted to be his disciple, they had to pick up the cross and follow him? What would you have been thinking? Would this have made you hesitate or reconsider your call as a disciple? Why or why not?
MADE FOR LOVE
It all has to do with his love. For Jesus, the cross is much more than a form of execution. It’s ultimately his fullest revelation of God’s inner life, which is all about total self-giving love: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). For all eternity, the Father loves the Son and gives himself totally to the Son. The Son in return loves the Father, giving of himself completely to the Father, holding nothing back. And this bond of love between the Father and the Son is the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. God’s inner life as the Trinity is all about perfect, infinite, self- giving love.
Through the cross, God reveals himself most fully, his very inner life, which is love. And in the process, he shows us what we’re all made for. The God who is love made us in his own image and likeness. We, therefore, are made to live like God, which involves loving like God loves. So much did God desire to make this clear for us that he took on human flesh in Jesus Christ and showed us what his perfect love looks like: total self-giving love. That’s what we’re made for. We are made for the cross. In other words, we are made to give our lives completely as a gift like Jesus did for us on Calvary.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
This is the law of self-giving. Written in the fabric of our being is this great mystery of self-giving love: When we give of ourselves in love to God, to mission and to others, we don’t lose anything, but our lives are deeply enriched and we gain so much more, for we are living according to the way God made us. Indeed, we are living like God himself, in whose image we have been created. That’s why the Church teaches that “man … cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (2) In other words, it’s only when we live like the God-man, Jesus Christ, giving our lives to God and to others in sacrificial love, that we will find our true happiness in life.
Discuss: Why is self-giving love so important? How have you lived this out in your own life? What were the effects?
THE CROSS: THE NEXT LEVEL OF DISCIPLESHIP
When we first start growing in friendship with God, we, like the crowds, often are attracted to what God does for us — the benefits of living a Christian life (better friends, peace, help with problems, a sense of purpose, etc.) or the graces God gives. But as we mature in faith, God invites us to go to the next level of discipleship, the next level of love. He invites us to give ourselves to him completely, to love him and serve him for his own sake, not just because of what he does for us. He invites us to love like Jesus loves: unconditionally, expecting nothing in return, all the way to the cross. That is the type of discipleship to which we are called.
The devil, however, hates it when Christians start to love in this radical way, especially when they are committed to the work of evangelization. When he sees souls starting to take that next level of self-giving love and discipleship, he tempts them to pursue instead a self-seeking love — to seek what is most interesting, comfortable, enjoyable or advantageous. Instead of living Christlike, sacrificial love and seeking opportunities to truly live for God and for others, the devil tempts us to run away from the cross and live for self.
Discuss: How are you tempted to evade the cross? In what ways do you struggle with self-seeking in mission rather than self-giving?
“GO OUT OF YOUR WAY IN SMALL MATTERS…”
The same is true in our relationship with Jesus. The real test of our enduring love for the Lord is not found in big moments, like how we felt close to him on a certain retreat or sporadic acts of generosity and service. Rather, the real test of a disciple is found in the many little acts of love and sacrifice we can offer our Lord each day.
“Self-denial … may be considered the test whether we are Christ’s disciples.”
We can practice self-denial in our interactions with others. We can choose to be patient when others frustrate us, to forgive when others hurt us and to be generous with our time when others need help. We can practice self-denial at table by fasting on occasion: not eating as much as we’d like, not eating between meals or giving up our favorite food or drink. We can even practice self-denial with our screens: choosing not to waste time looking at our phones late at night or binge-watching our favorite show; choosing instead to give the best of ourselves to others and put our phones away when we’re in conversation with them.
These are just a few examples of the many ways we can express our love through little acts of self-denial. The more we pick up our cross daily and follow Jesus, the more we will become like him and love like him. This is how we know that we are truly living as disciples (being “in earnest,” as Cardinal Newman calls it): We are willing to embrace the cross.
Discuss: What is your attitude toward self-denial? In what ways do you practice self-denial regularly? In what areas of your life do you resist self-denial?
- In what ways is your spiritual life or your mission still focused on self, rather than on surrendering to Christ?
- Is your mission driven by love or by what you get out of it?
- Do you maintain relationships with those who are different from you or who may misunderstand your faith? Or do you choose to associate with those who are similar to you?
- When you encounter challenges in mission (people don’t come to Bible study, people say no to the Gospel or to an invitation), do you get discouraged or tempted to give up? Or do you persevere and offer up the trials for love of souls?
- Do you attempt to hide from persecution or rejection, or do you continue to pursue others with a heart of love?
- Do you pray more for the various situations you want Jesus to change, or do you bring the darkened areas of your own heart to Jesus and allow him to transform them as he desires?
After your reflection, choose one way you can embrace these crosses and set a goal for how you will do that every day.
Law of Self-Giving: When we give of ourselves in love to God, to mission and to others, we don’t lose anything, but our lives are deeply enriched and we gain so much more, for we are living according to the way God made us.
- A Witness to Joy by Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo
- CCC 599–618: Christ’s Redemptive Death in God’s Plan of Salvation and Christ Offered Himself to His Father for Our Sins
(1) Cicero, “In Defense of Rabirius,” in The Speeches of Cicero, trans. H. Gross Hodge (Cambridge: Harvard, 1952), 467.
(2) Vatican Council II, Gaudium Et Spes, accessed February 12, 2020, Vatican.va, 24.
(3) St. John Henry Newman, “Sermon 5: Self-Denial, the Test of Religious Earnestness,” Newmanreader.org, accessed February 10, 2020, http://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume1/sermon5.html.