“Renounce yourself and take up the Cross”
Homily for the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Cross
By Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros
Renounce yourself and take up the Cross
(the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Precious Cross (Mark 8:34 – 9:1)
Whenever we wish to win people to a cause, a party or a club, we point out the advantages they would gain should they join our group. When Jesus wanted people to follow Him, He said very strange words: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must renounce himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mk 3: 34).
1. To renounce oneself
“He must renounce himself’. Let us say something about this life of ours. One of the big troubles we have with the self is that it is always with us. We cannot get away from it. If we have a disagreeable neighbor, we can move away from him. But we can never move away from ourselves. If we go to the uttermost parts of the earth, we take ourselves along. And this is the cause of a lot of misery to people who go on vacations to faraway places to “get away from it all”.
To escape themselves, many people turn to drink and sex. The trouble with these is that the escape is only temporary. After we have gotten drunk and indulged ourselves to excess, the self, with whom we still have to live, becomes less desirable to live with. We come to hate ourselves more.
What then does one do with oneself? Many answers have been given. The man bent on pleasure says: “Enjoy yourself’. The teacher says: “Educate yourself’. The artist says: “Express yourself’. The philosopher says: “Know yourself’. Christ says: “Renounce yourself’.
Why do we have to renounce ourselves? Is not this a sort of spiritual suicide, to destroy the personality? How can it be God’s will that we destroy the self which He himself has given us? If God gave us our personality, why should He want us to deny it? Why does the Lord ask those who wish to follow Him to renounce themselves? For one good reason; each of us has at least two selves. Plato described human being as a charioteer who drove two horses: one white that was tame, the other black and wild. Others tell us that man is not so much a human being as a civil war. In most people there is a constant tension between these two or more selves of which we are composed.
Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, describing the situation of every human being: “I cannot even understand my own actions. I do not do what I want to do, but what I hate. When I act against my own will, by that very fact I agree that the law is good. This indicates that it is not I who do it but sin which resides in me, that is, in my flesh; the desire to do right is there but not the power… My inner self agrees with the law of God. But I see in my body’s members another law at war with the law of my mind; this makes me the prisoner of the law of sin in my members. What a wretched man I am! Who can free me from this body under the power of death?” And the answer is: “All praise to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rm. 7:15-25). Who can free me? Jesus himself gave the answer when he said: “Everyone who lives in sin is the slave of sin. That is why if the Son frees you, you will really be free” (In 8:34-36). Jesus is our Savior and our liberator, who liberates us from the slavery of sin.
2. To save one’s life
There is, then, a bad self. But there is also a good self in each one of us.
When the prodigal son “hit bottom” in the far country of sin, the Gospel tells us that he “came to himself’. The real self in each of us is the good self, the self one truly is. It is the image of God which we all bear. The sinful self is a stranger, someone who does not belong inside us, but struggles to invade and take control. And Jesus came to restore in us our real self, this image of God. So when Jesus said that a man must renounce himself, he means the selfishness and all kinds of sin which prevent him from becoming all that God wants him to be. Jesus asks us to renounce the false self, the sinful self, in order that we may express the true self, the image of God in us.
We cannot have a double life, as Jesus said: “No man can serve two masters” (Mt. 6: 24). We have to choose. If we have said “Yes” to Christ, we must keep saying “No” to sin and evil. That is what Saint Paul means when he says: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”.
Some time ago the walls of the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople were being cleaned, and under many layers of dirt was found a beautiful mosaic of the Lord Jesus. That icon is in every human being. God painted it there. It is the image of God in our souls, but only God knows how we can overlay it and hide it with our sins. This is why Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson: “Give the best in you a chance. Say ‘No’ to evil. Renounce your false self, your sinful self and let the real self, the self you truly are, the image of God in you, blossom forth in its entire splendor”.
3. To take up one’s cross
After this call to renouncing ourselves, Jesus calls us to take up our cross: “Let him take up his cross, and follow me”. Each and every one of us has his own cross: sickness, poverty, pain or suffering. Jesus did not look for suffering, it was forced on him. He accepted it in love and without losing his trust in God His Father. Following the cross does not mean copying the suffering of Jesus. That would be presumption. But it certainly means enduring the suffering that befalls us in our own situation, in our everyday life, in our daily obligations, demands, claims, and promises in our family or our calling. It is impossible completely to refuse suffering without refusing to accept life as a whole, without ceasing to enter into any relationships. Pains, losses, amputations exist even in the smoothest-running life which can be conceived: separation from parents, fading of youthful friendship, the death of people who have figured in our lives, with whom we have identifies ourselves, the death of relatives and friends, finally our own death. And here everyone can add his own crosses. What is our attitude in face of the cross? It can be an attitude of revolt against these sufferings, and our life will be filled with bitterness and anger. But we can also unite our suffering to the suffering of Christ on the Cross. Our life will then acquire a new personal quality; through suffering we become more mature, more experienced, more modest, more genuinely humble, more open for others – in a word, more human.
Suffering then, for the Christian, does not need to be a fate to be borne passively, a destiny to which we have to submit. “Suffering is a change experienced by man; it is a mode of coming to be”. It is a growth toward a greater, higher, freer, final goal. It is a growth in faith, and hope that suffering is not the ultimate reality. The ultimate reality is God, with whom all suffering will definitively be dissolved in eternal life. That is our faith in the loving God, and that is our hope in the living God
We begin our creed by expressing our faith in God the giver of life: “I believe in one God the Father Almighty Creator of heaven and earth”. And we end it by expressing our hope in eternal life: “We look forward for the resurrection of the dead and the life to come”. We read in the Book of the Revelation that God is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (22: 13). Let Him be “the Alpha, the First, and the Beginning” in our life now, so that he will be “the Omega, the Last, and the End” in our “life to come”. Amen!
The faith in the Resurrection
” The resurrection faith –and this must be said to bring out the contrast with all unbelief and superstition – is not faith in some kind of unverifiable curiosity, which we ought to believe in addition to all the rest. Nor is the resurrection faith a faith in the fact of the resurrection or in the risen Christ taken in isolation: it is fundamentally faith in God with whom the risen Christ is now one (cf. Rom. 4:24).
The resurrection faith is not an appendage to faith in God, but a radicalizing of faith in God. It is a faith in God which does not stop halfway, but follows the road consistently to the end. It is a faith in which man, without strictly rational proof but certainly with completely reasonable trust, relies on the fact that the God of the beginning is also the God of the end, that as he is the Creator of the world and man so too he is their Finisher.
The resurrection faith therefore is not to be interpreted merely as existential interiorization or social change, but as a radicalizing of faith in God the Creator. Resurrection means the real conquest of death by God the Creator to whom the believer entrusts everything, even the ultimate, even the conquest of death. The end which is also a new beginning. Anyone who begins his creed with faith in “God the almighty Creator” can be content to end it with faith in “eternal life.” Since God is the Alpha, he is also the Omega. The almighty Creator who calls things from nothingness into being can also call men from death into life Rom. 4:17).
It is precisely in face of death that God’s power hidden in the world is revealed. Man cannot work out for himself the resurrection from the dead. But man may in any case rely on this God who can practically be defined as “a God of the living and not of the dead” ((Mark 12:26-27), he may absolutely trust in his superior power even in face of inevitable death, may approach his death with confidence. The Creator and Conserver of the universe and of man can be trusted, even at death and as we are dying, beyond the limits of all that has hitherto been experienced, to have still one more word to say: to have the last word as he had the first. Toward this God the only reasonable and realistic attitude is trust and faith. This passing from death to God cannot be verified empirically or rationally. It is not to be expected, not to be proved, but to be hoped for in faith. What is impossible to man is only made possible by God. Anyone who seriously believes in the living God believes therefore also in the raising of the dead to life, in God’s power which is proved at death. As Jesus retorted to the doubting Sadducees : “You know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” (Mark 12:24).
The Christian faith in the risen Jesus is meaningful only as faith in God the Creator and Conserver of life. But, on the other hand, the Christian faith in God the Creator is decisively characterized by the fact that “he raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom. 4:24). “He who raised Jesus from the dead,” becomes practically the designation of the Christian God. (Rom. 8:11).”