“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). With these words, Jesus makes sacrificial suffering a condition of Christian discipleship. He says this right after his first passion prediction: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). Jesus is going along the way of the cross and his disciples are to follow him. We are to do this daily. But this aspect of discipleship is our special focus during the season of Lent.
Why? What is the purpose of denying ourselves and taking up the cross? Jesus gives the answer: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet to lose or forfeit himself?” (Luke 9:24-25). In these words, we can discern both negative and positive answers to our question.
On the negative side, we are to deny ourselves so as not to lose our lives or forfeit ourselves. We would do that, paradoxically, if we wished to save our lives or to gain the whole world. Jesus is not saying that life is bad, or the world is bad. He is saying that the desire to fill our lives with the goods of the world is not only self-serving; it’s self-defeating. We are to deny ourselves, not because Jesus does not want us to be happy, but because he does. Jesus’ way leads to the glorious life of resurrection that he wants to share with us.
That leads us to the positive side of the paradox. We are to take up our cross so as to save our lives and safeguard ourselves. Taking up our cross means losing our lives for Jesus’ sake. We will save our lives by spending them for Jesus. We will save ourselves by denying the desire in ourselves to gain the world for ourselves. The life we save in this way is not a life we make for ourselves. It is the life God makes in us – the self God makes of us. Jesus will be raised. We do not follow him by seeking to raise ourselves, but by dying to ourselves so as to be raised with him.
Taking up the cross is about sharing Jesus’ suffering. Especially during Lent, we focus on that negative side of the death-and-resurrection Christian paradox. We focus on what we give up, lose, renounce, or sacrifice. But taking up the cross also has a positive meaning. It’s about sharing Jesus’ love – the love he showed by submitting to the cross in obedience to his Father and for our salvation. Sacrifice has that meaning too. It’s not just about losing; it’s about giving. Jesus’ sacrifice is not just about the loss of his life; it’s about the gift he made of himself. The Lenten observances of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving also have that double meaning. They are ways we turn away from the goods of the world and thereby turn towards God so as to be made living gifts in the Spirit through Christ to the Father for the world.
Doing penance is a voluntary act. We must “wish” to come after Jesus (Luke 9:23). Suffering, loss, and deprivation are not good things in themselves. They are only good for us when we freely chose to offer them as gifts to God for others. When we fast, we give ourselves to God by living not “by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). When we give alms, we likewise check our desire for material satisfaction and also provide for others. Penitential practices have their most profound meaning in relation to Jesus. By them we choose to share in his suffering, to bear the weight of his cross. When we unite our crosses with Jesus’ cross, we share his purpose as well as his pain. With him, we offer ourselves in sacrifice to the father for the salvation of the world.
For Lent, many Christians adopt penitential practices like giving up coffee or chocolate. Those can be good ways of denying ourselves and taking up our crosses. But the most important penances – both more difficult and more transformative – are the penances we don’t choose to adopt: our tragedies, misfortunes, sickness. I don’t want cancer, but through it I choose to share the cross of my Lord. “Take this cup away from me . . . Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 22:42; 23:46).