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The Path of Self-denial

On the Gospel of Matthew 16:21-27

I recently returned from a Dominican pilgrimage to Madrid for World Youth Day: an enormous gathering of young Catholics from all over the world. There, there was a spirit of flag-waving enthusiasm, of sincere devotion, and, above all, of joy. ‘This is like a preview of the Kingdom’, one of my pilgrims commented at one point, and I could see what she meant –  wherever you looked there were smiles that wordlessly proclaimed, ‘Christ is risen!’ These young people looked redeemed!

After the euphoria of WYD, it’s somewhat of a jolt to read this Sunday’s Gospel. Far from euphoria, Jesus is choosing the path of suffering. This choice of suffering is made stark when Peter counsels Jesus to avoid such a path. Jesus famously rebukes the Prince of the Apostles: ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do’.

One of the keys to understanding the Passion and Death of Christ seems to be contained in this last sentence. Our human eyes see suffering and joy, triumph and defeat, glory and the Cross as polar opposites. But there is something about God’s perspective (and the perspective of the saints) that can see glory in the Cross, and can bring resurrection out of death.

We cannot hope to understand the mystery of suffering, at least not on this side of the grave. And I, for one, am still perplexed by the saints who – like Jesus – could choose suffering, or receive it as a gift (one thinks of St Pio of Pietrelcina and St Rose of Lima). But if we are to be true disciples we must listen even to the hard teachings of Jesus. Even his command to ‘take up your cross and follow me’ can and should be received as good news.

Even if we know little of suffering, we know it is the path Our Lord chose to walk, and so we should not be afraid of it. Let us pray that our smiles will endure on more painful pilgrimages, and that we young disciples will find life by being willing to lose ours.

‘Jesus began to show his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly
from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world
and forfeit his life”
Or what can one give in exchange for his life?
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory,
and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”‘
– Matt 16:21-27


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