16 May 2008

Deny, Take Up, & Follow

6th Week OT (F): James 2.14-24, 26; Mark 8.34-9.1
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Serra Club Mass, Church of the Incarnation

Is it possible to desire to follow Christ but fail to take up Christ’s cross? Is it possible to want to be a Christian but fail to follow after Christ? Jesus tells the disciples and the crowd, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” How do we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him? Good questions. The better question, for now, is: what does it mean “to wish to follow Christ”? And what does it mean to wish such a thing and fail to do what is required in order to see this wish come to fruition? James, in his oh-so-pointed manner clarifies this murky problem for us: “…faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” In other words, you cannot wish to be a Christian and refuse to trust God; likewise, your refusal to trust God is all the evidence we need to conclude that you do not, in fact, wish to be a Christian.

Jesus is a genius. What he understands better than we do is that it is impossible for us to desire what we lack and at the same time fail to do what is lacking. In our very desire to be Christ, we do what Christ did. To have faith in Christ is to do Christ’s faithful work. Think of the alternatives: faith without works, works without faith. Faith is the good habit of trusting God. How does one possess a habit without actually doing the habit? If I say that I have the bad habit of lying, you rightly assume that I lie. What if I then say, “No, I never lie.” You can justly accuse me of being very confused about what it mean “to have a habit.” If I say that I have the good habit of loving others, you rightly assume that I am a loving person. What if I then say, “No, I pretty much hate everyone.” Again, I am showing that I am very confused about the nature of habit. The same sort of confusion flows from the notion that I can do truly good works without faith. Let’s say that you catch me feeding the poor on a regular basis. You can justly say that I love the poor. If I say, “No, I really hate the poor, so I feed them on a regular basis,” you are again right to point out my confusion.

Christ denies himself, takes up his cross, and leads to Calvary anyone who wants follow. So, if you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ, you are a Christian. You do what Christ did. Faith is a good work. Good works are always faithful works. However, we can neither trust God nor do trusting work without God Himself. Our desire to follow Christ and the works we do that mark us as followers of Christ are themselves gifts given to us by God. We do not want God until God Himself shows us what we lack without Him. And when we are shown what we lack, or more precisely “who we lack,” we are moved to desire Him and His perfection. This is not an Armchair Desire, a merely abstract wanting that we can safely rope off and hold at bay with appeals to practicality or common sense. Nor can we simply intellectualize this gnawing hunger as a delightful puzzle or amusing concept. Once the starving man is shown the feast, he must eat or die. And so it is with us: once we are shown the perfection of following Christ, we must follow or die…or rather, follow and die: for what good is it for us to be given the riches of the whole world and refuse to love the one, the only one, who gives us a life to live richly?

We cannot desire to be Christ without doing what Christ did. We cannot do what Christ did without desiring to be who Christ is. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow. There is no wanting without working, no desiring without doing. To quote Master Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.”


  1. Wonderful post! I love the Yoda comment! Classic! Padre Steve, SDB

  2. Probably you know the Youtube video “May feelings”. Young students of Universities of Madrid say reasons pray the holy rosary. (in Spanish, with english subtitles)
    See it: http://es.youtube.com/watch?v=YxjjyXhO9EA
    It is one of the most watched videos on Youtube in May.

    Santiago (Granada, Spain)