24 Mar Jesus Said: Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me
As many of you know this week in the Roman Catholic Church is Holy Week. During this week we commemorate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the end of the season of Lent and the beginning of Easter.
Reflecting on this theme of Holy Week it occurred to me that as Christians there is a tendency to overcomplicate the message of Jesus. We have the benefit of 2000 years of saints, popes and holy men and women who provide us examples of living a Christian life. We have 33 doctors of the Church, 21 ecumenical councils, numerous local councils, as well as the writings of the Fathers of the Church. All of this gives us explanations and clarifications of what Jesus taught.
While it is important to recognize the value of this rich tradition I think that we can sometimes fall into the trap of talking too much about Jesus and not entering into relationship with Him. Being a Christian, a follower of Christ, is actually quite simply. Jesus says “whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). This is all that is necessary. It is a challenge, and it will not be easy, but we need to keep in mind that the formula is quite simply. We are not saved by theology or the teachings of the Church. We are saved by Jesus Christ. The teachings of the Church are there to guide us closer to Christ and help us to deepen our relationship with Him but ultimately they do not bring about our salvation; this can only be accomplished by God.
I want to be very clear in what I am saying here because it is a very delicate point I am making. While it is true to say we are not saved by theology and Church teachings, they do guide us to salvation, because they point to Christ. Christ established the Church and sent the Holy Spirit to guide her because He knew that we would need someone to guide, teach, and support us in living out the Gospel. So I am not saying that the Church is wrong or that we need to do away with it. On the contrary, Jesus structured things in a certain way and even if we may not understand why He did this I believe that as God He knows better than we do what is necessary for the salvation of all, so I trust in His plan regardless of whether I fully understand or not. God has a much broader perspective than I do, so I trust that He must know what He is doing and established the Church for a reason.
Back to the point about following Christ. The way I see it, salvation is only possible if we enter into a personal relationship with Jesus. It is a simple concept, but difficult to enact, because Jesus is a different kind of person than we are used to. He is both divine and human. He is both spiritual and bodily. And probably the biggest issue many people have with entering into relationship with Him is that we can neither see, nor hear Him with our physical senses. He also, at times, feels very distant. It is easy to say “all you need to do is follow Christ”, but then comes the question how can you have a relationship with God?
The good news is that there are a number of tools that we have to help us grow closer to God. First, there is Jesus Christ truly present in the Blessed Sacrament which we can receive every Sunday at mass and is present in every tabernacle throughout the world for us to stop in to visit any time we want. Second, we can build a relationship with God by reading Scripture and praying. I once heard it said that in prayer we talk to God and in Scripture God speaks to us. The two go together. The third way to enter into relationship with God is to make Him a part of your day. A great way to do this is through the spiritual practices of St. Ignatius of Loyola, in particular the Examen Prayer.
The key to Ignatian Spirituality are the three steps he has for growth in our spiritual life. The three steps are; 1) awareness, 2) understanding, and 3) take action. Awareness is where we take time to ask “where was God acting in my life today? What did I experience in my heart today?” it taking the time to reflect on where God is showing up in our lives. The second step is trying to understand what God is communicating to us through the movements of our hearts or the things experience each day. And the third step is to look forward and do what God is calling us to do. If we follow these steps and pray the Examen Prayer everyday we will draw closer to God, and His plan for our lives will become much clearer.
God may feel far away, but the amazing thing is that, if we had the eyes to see it, we would become aware that God is intimately involved in every aspect of our lives. God is not out there somewhere. He lives inside each of us. He dwells within our hearts and longs for us to come to Him. We need to search within ourselves if we ant to find God.
So to sum up all that is necessary to live a Christian life is to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We do this by entering into relationship with Him through the sacraments, Scripture and prayer.
Holy Week is an amazing time in the Church. There are many extra graces which are available to us during this time. It also provides us with an opportunity to enter more deeply into the defining moments of Jesus’ life on earth. This week commemorates the crescendo of Jesus’ ministry. Everything He did on Earth was leading to this moment. His time has come and He is about to do something which will alter the course of history.
I hope and pray that we can enter into this holy season with a spirit if receptivity so that our hearts are open to receiving whatever God wants to give us this Easter.
Peace be with you all!