10 March 2011

Choose Life & Suffer

Thursday After Ash Wednesday
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula

Moses sets before God's people “life and prosperity, death and doom.” Much like the blessing and curse he sets before them later on, the reward and punishment offered here result from either obeying God's commandments or disobeying them. Obey and proper. Disobey and die. He warns them, “If. . .you turn away your hearts and will not listen, but are led astray and adore and serve other gods, I tell you now that you will certainly perish.” This is a heavily-loaded warning, so let's unpack it a bit. First, note that listening to God and obeying Him are roughly the same act. Second, note that not listening to God is roughly the same as being led astray, and being led astray is roughly the same as worshiping and serving other gods. Third, note that worshiping and serving other gods is a suicidal act. Bringing the pieces together, we get: disobeying God's commandments is an act of suicidal idolatry! Concluding his warning, Moses urges the people to “choose life. . .that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God. . .” Given all this, how do we go about choosing life? How do we avoid becoming victims of suicidal idolatry? Jesus gives us a major clue: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” The first false god we must deny is Self. 

“Denying self” is not so simple as “denying myself a second beer” or “denying myself dessert.” Nor are you denying yourself when you offer yourself as a doormat to be walked on, or a handmaid to be bossed around. Refusing to give ourselves a treat or making ourselves into whipping boys is not the sort of self-denial that Christ requires of us. Notice the direct connections that Jesus makes among self-denial, cross-bearing, and following him. These are not three separate requirements for coming after Christ, but rather three distinct stages of just one requirement: if we wish to come after him, we must suffer. And the only effective way to suffer is to suffer for the benefit of others—as Christ himself does. When you deny the Self you throw the idol of the Self off the altar of your heart and replace it with Christ. In effect, you are replacing “what I do for me” with “what does Christ for all” as your motivation for dealing with the world.

Yesterday, we were smudged with ashes and reminded of our mortality—we will all die. No mystery to that basic truth. What remains a mystery, however, is how we will live. If Self reigns and we choose to adore and serve Self, then we are already dead, if still breathing. We cannot carry a cross with Christ to Jerusalem b/c Self is worried, anxious, in pain, impatient, whiney. We can't follow Christ to Jerusalem with our cross b/c Self stumbles along at its own pace, taking its own time, taking care of its own desires. Self is incapable of following Christ b/c Self is too busy guarding its rights and privileges; defending its luxuries; hoarding its necessities. There's simply no room in our hearts for both Self and Christ. One has to go. So, Jesus says, “Deny yourself; take up your cross, and follow me.” And in case we are unclear about what this means, he tells us plainly: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders. . . and be killed and on the third day be raised.” Deny yourself; take up your cross; follow Christ; suffer greatly; be rejected, killed. . .and raised on the third day. Therefore, choose life, eternal life, so that you may live, by loving the LORD, your God.

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