By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap
ROME, AUG. 29, 2008 (Zenit.org).- In this Sunday’s Gospel we hear Jesus who says: “Whoever wants to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. Because whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
What does it mean to “deny" yourself? And why should you deny yourself? We know about the indignation of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche over this the request of this Gospel.
I will begin answering these questions with an example. During the Nazi persecution, many trains full of Jews traveled from every part of Europe to the extermination camps. They were induced to get on the trains by false promises of being taken to places that would be better for them, when, in fact, they were being taken to their destruction. It happened at some of the stops that someone who knew the truth, called out from some hiding place to the passengers: “Get off! Run away!” Some succeeded in doing so.
The example is a hard one, but it expresses something of our situation. The train of life on which we are traveling is going toward death. About this, at least, there are no doubts. Our natural “I,” being mortal, is destined for destruction. What the Gospel is proposing to us when it exhorts us to deny ourselves, is to get off this train and board another one that leads to life. The train that leads to life is faith in him who said: “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”
Paul understood this transferring from one transport to another and he describes it thus: “It is no longer I who lives, Christ lives in me.” If we assume the “I” of Christ we become immortal because he, risen from the dead, dies no more. This indicates the meaning of the words of the Gospel that we have heard. Christ’s call for us to deny ourselves and thus find life is not a call to abuse ourselves or reject ourselves in a simplistic way. It is the wisest of the bold steps that we can take in our lives.
But we must immediately make a qualification. Jesus does not ask us to deny “what we are,” but “what we have become.” We are images of God. Thus, we are something “very good,” as God himself said, immediately after creating man and woman. What we must deny is not that which God has made, but that which we ourselves have made by misusing our freedom -- the evil tendencies, sin, all those things that have covered over the original.
Years ago, off the coast of Calabria in southern Italy, there were discovered two encrusted masses that vaguely resembled human bodies. They were removed from the sea and carefully cleaned and freed. They turned out to be bronze statues of ancient warriors. They are known today as the Riace Warriors and are on display at the National Museum of Magna Grecia in Reggio Calabria. They are among the most admired sculptures of antiquity.
This example can help us understand the positive aspect of the Gospel proposal. Spiritually, we resemble the condition of those statues before their restoration. The beautiful image of God that we should be is covered over by the seven layers of the seven capital sins.
Perhaps it is not a bad idea to recall what these sins are, if we have forgotten them: pride, greed, lust, wrath, gluttony, envy and sloth. St. Paul calls this disfigured image, “the earthly image,” in contrast to the “heavenly image,” which is the resemblance of Christ.
“Denying ourselves,” therefore, is not a work of death, but one of life, of beauty and of joy. It is also a learning of the language of true love. Imagine, said the great Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, a purely human situation. Two young people love each other. But they belong to two different nations and speak completely different languages. If their love is to survive and grow, one of them must learn the language of the other. Otherwise, they will not be able to communicate and their love will not last.
This, Kierkegaard said, is how it is with us and God. We speak the language of the flesh, he speaks that of the spirit; we speak the language of selfishness, he that of love.
Denying yourself is learning the language of God so that we can communicate with him, but it is also learning the language that allows us to communicate with each other. We will not be able to say “yes” to the other -- beginning with our own wife or husband -- if we are not first of all able to say “no” to ourselves.
Keeping within the context of marriage, many problems and failures with the couple come from the fact that the man has never learned to express love for the woman, nor she for the man. Even when it speaks of denying ourselves, we see that the Gospel is much less distant from life than it is sometimes believed.
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for this Sunday are Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27.