I recall quite a few years ago, I said to a Catholic friend in Singapore that I believed self-denial was at the core of the Christian way of life. I said this in the context of urging him to try to live the ideal of chastity proposed by the Church. He retorted that surely, love, was at the heart of the Gospel (thus attempting to justify his deeds). I don't remember how the conversation proceeded but somehow that little exchange has remained in my mind. I believe that we were both right because love and self-denial in the light of the Gospel is not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would suggest that the latter makes possible and manifests the former and vice-versa. As such, they are complementary, and I feel that the readings of today's Sunday Liturgy elucidates this.
In today's Gospel, the Lord challenges his disciples with some rather radical (and to some, confusing perhaps) statements. In Matthew 10:37-19, Jesus says we are to prefer Him above all else, even our own families. Particularly in the Asian context, where family ties and obligations are very strong, this can be a considerably challenging and nigh impossible prospect. It would be unthinkable in many traditional Chinese families, for example, for a child to choose his or her own career - it is chosen by one's parents or grandparents. I know of many friends who studied law, or medicine, or some other 'respectable' profession against their own better instincts because they wanted to bring honour to their families and obey their elders. Nevertheless, we have the example of saints such as St Thomas Aquinas who took the risk of following God's call into the Dominican Order against his family's vehement protests and we behold in his life the utter fruitfulness of a total surrender to God's call. Thus, following Christ takes us to places our own families and loved ones may well not choose for us, and understandably so, for it is a Way fraught with risk and uncertainty. But the child who chooses to follow Christ does so in trust and hope and inevitably the family is caught up in the drama of God's love and call. Already, this idea of surrender to God's call pre-supposes a denial of self.
However, the crux of discipleship and being "worthy
" of Christ is that we are to "take [our] cross and follow in [his] footsteps..
." (Mt 10:38). In fact, St Matthew repeats these words of the Lord again in 16:24-25 and re-iterates that "those who lose their lives for [Jesus'] sake will find it"
(Mt 16:25). There is a tendency to reduce the cross which Jesus mentions to a mere metaphor for the trials and sufferings of life; difficulties inflicted upon us. However, I believe the Lord is not just speaking of these, as the Cross He bore was not inflicted upon Him but something He freely took up. As he says in John 10:17-18: "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again."
As such, the Cross is a choice and something freely and lovingly willed. So too, the Father loves us for choosing to lay down our sinful lives in order to take up our new life in the Spirit.
Therefore, it would appear that the call to self-denial - to lose one's own life - which is a voluntary and willed act, is fairly central to the Gospel. Indeed, it is regarded as a key to following the Lord and thus finding eternal life. Therefore, St Paul in the Second Reading explains to the Romans that in our baptism, we have died to our former selves, our old life, and been raised to a new life in Christ Jesus. (cf Rom 6:3-4). This of course, is a rich theology of baptism expounded by St Paul, but it's not just theory. The drive of St Paul's message and the reason he invokes the theology is very practical - to encourage the Romans (and us) to live according to the metaphysical reality. In fact, this is a call to righteous living, according to the Spirit and the regeneration of baptism; it is the call to holiness. And St Paul knows the inherent inner conflict and struggles of righteous living (cf Rom 7:14-25) but he speaks of the triumph of grace over all our weaknesses thus alluding to the grace and power of the Resurrection. However, prior to the Resurrection must come the agony of the Cross.
For before we can rise with Christ, we truly have to carry our cross and die with him; we have to struggle against our sinful desires and passions and deny ourselves. And this denial of self is precisely a putting-to-death of the old sinful life and a rising to new life in Christ. In a consumerist age wherein we are encouraged to indulge our every desire and give in to impulse, self-denial is a strongly counter-cultural value and yet it is at the core of growth in Christian perfection, the universal vocation to holiness. But it is not sufficient that one merely denies oneself. This is not merely a test of self-control and will-power; it is above all else, an expression of Love and a means to Love. For when we die to ourselves, it is Love that must replace our former sinful selves, and it is Love - God Himself - who will raise us up. Moreover, we are called to take up our cross, and the Cross of Christ manifests itself especially as the very sign of divine Love, which conquers even death (cf Song of Solomon 8:6). Therefore, when the Lord, in today's Gospel, calls us to follow in His footsteps (cf Mt 10:38), he is calling us to walk the Via Dolorosa with him and take the road to Calvary! This Way of the Cross, which leads one to die for another, is essentially the Way of Love... As we are told: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends
" (Jn 15:13).
In the 20th century, this paradigm has been borne out by St Maximilian Kolbe
, who offered his life to the Nazis that others might be spared the furnace of hate. I have little doubt that his sacrifice, a powerful witness to the sacrifice of Calvary and Christ's undying love for all people, has also been borne out by many unsung martyrs of the Holocaust and the many wars and tragedies that have blighted this age. The powerful witness of these martyrs is that Love is first and foremost an act of the will, in which one makes a conscious decision to sacrifice oneself for the good of the other. And this is the very essence of Love. As St Thomas Aquinas (drawing upon and modifying Aristotle) put it: "The first thing that a Lover wills is for the Beloved to exist and live
" (cf ST IIa IIae, 25, 7). Another way to say this is that the Lover seeks the ultimate good of the Beloved. It is surprising how few people realize this... In my many conversations with friends encountering 'relationship problems', I believe that this simple but profound realization lies at the heart of any solution. Rather than to ask what joys and pleasures the other can give me or what I can get out of a relationship, we should ask what we can do for the greater good of the other. That is a fundamental question for all would-be lovers and this axiom holds true too for all Christians (and indeed all men and women of good will), for we are called by baptism to a vocation of Love; called to be Lovers!St Therese of Lisieux
realised this and this little doctor of the Church has much to teach us about the Way of Love. St Therese's 'little way' sought to do little things well, as acts of love for God. This unassuming but practical humility is a hallmark of Love which is a diminishment of the ego, of self and a desire to serve God and neighbour. In loving another and being mindful of the good of another and their needs, we have to give up something of ourselves; we essentially deny ourselves for the sake of another. I am sure that married couples will have experienced this, for being coupled with another and indeed even living in community with others or in a family, means that we think of others' needs and good before our own... Or at least, in an ideal situation, that is what we strive for! We learn to die to ourself, becoming less selfish, and consider what is the ultimate good of the others around us. Parents too will know this dynamic especially well. They give up so much for the good of their children and the larger the family, the more true this becomes. The tragedy of our selfish and self-obsessed age is the advent of men and women who want small families or even no children because they do not want to give up careers or luxury holidays in exotic locales or large, expansive homes, or (perhaps most difficult of all) time to do whatever one wants.
All these indicate the very nature of Love which is about self-giving and self-denial, ultimately even to the denial of one's own life (figuratively and literally if necessary) and we see this most explicitly in the life and unqualified self-giving of Jesus Christ and the saints who bask in the radiance of His love. As Von Balthasar puts it so beautifully: "In his kenosis as the 'servant of God', [Christ] becomes the manifestation of God's eternal love for the world... it is the radiant paradigm of divine love itself: precisely in -and only in- the kenosis of Christ, the inner mystery of God's love comes to light.
.." ('Love Alone is Credible
, pp86-87) and this 'inner mystery' is the fact that God in Jesus can freely and paradoxically lay down His life and die for sinners. Thus at the very heart of Love is the Cross, the ultimate self-denial and self-gift: death that others might live.
It may be necessary for me to clarify too that when the Church speaks of self-denial she is not encouraging self-hatred or a casual disregard for oneself. For there is a paradox, that one can only love others truly if one firstly loves oneself. Even the Scriptures tell us that we must "love your neighbour as yourself
" (Lev 19:18). St Thomas Aquinas expounds on this at length, drawing on self-love as the "origin and root of friendship
" (cf Josef Pieper, Love
, p236ff) but it is St Augustine who plainly says that, "If you do not know how to love yourself, you cannot truthfully love your neighbour
Finally, we see something of that love of neighbour in today's First Reading. The Shunammite woman, although wealthy, was not therefore hoarding and self-obsessed (which is the wont of many of the rich)! Instead she noticed the need of Elisha and offered him her home; she extended hospitality to him. This motif of hospitality as a fine indication (and duty even) of Christian love and self-giving was highlighted in yesterday's Liturgy and I have written about that
. Today it is re-iterated and the Lord goes on to say that a reward is due those who welcome strangers in his name (cf Mt 10:39-42). But Love gives to others with no need nor desire for reward, for Love delights in self-gift, welcoming others into the warmth of the heart. Indeed St Augustine tells us that, "the Beloved himself is Love's reward
". Thus, Love leads us to consider ourselves less and to live solely for others, mindful of their needs; it leads us to deny ourselves and eliminate selfishness. Therefore, as one grows in Love, one actually dies to oneself and denies oneself, not as sufferance or penance but rather, because of Love. When we have allowed this dynamic of the Cross, the Way of Love, to consume our former selves we will find ourselves transformed, made new and "alive for God in Christ Jesus
" (Rom 6:11) and so, worthy of Christ and eternal life... and this surely, is the ultimate reward, the fulfillment of the very longing of the human heart.The photo above of a stained-glass Crucifix, the ultimate symbol of self-denying Love, is taken from the West Window of St Stephen's church in Skipton.