“Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps.” (Luke 9:23)
Take up his cross. Take up your cross. Each day.
But… you’re eating chocolate again, aren’t you? And you’ll be eating meat on Fridays. You got your required one annual visit to the confessional out of the way. (You did, right?) All those things you gave up for Lent, all the penance you accepted, all the little positive things you pursued to show God’s love for other people – you can pack them away for another 320 days or so. Right?
Um, well… not so fast. We are called to make Lent and its lessons last all year long. Don’t forget that season and Holy Week so quickly.
“Can You Drink of the Cup?”
Jesus is the Son of God. The humility of God Made Man held a powerful purpose: saving mankind, the good news that angels proclaimed to shepherds on that first Christmas. The rest of the four Gospels relate so many cases of Jesus showing his divinity–miraculous healings, forgiveness of sins, walking on water, calming a storm and rising from the dead among them. The Word Incarnate was God indeed.
Yet this “God indeed” clearly consisted of flesh and bones: Son of God also Son of Man. Throughout those four Gospels, Jesus showed his humanity on numerous occasions as well. We recalled many of those instances during Holy Week; to me, the most profound example came in his prayer the night before he died, which isn’t reserved for reflection only at the end of Lent. Every Tuesday and Friday, as I meditate on the rosary’s Sorrowful Mysteries, the first of those mysteries captivates my spirit and imagination: the Agony in the Garden, as the scene is related especially in two fascinating verses in Matthew 26.
He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” (v. 39)
Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” (v. 42)
Those words echo in my mind every time I ponder that agonizing prayer in the Garden, and inevitably I think of the apostles James and John along with their mother. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, the writer tells us about a time when Jesus was explaining to his apostles what he faced in his coming death and resurrection. Such a sobering moment, and then Mom enters the conversation–out of love for her sons, probably, but it didn’t come off quite that way. She asked Jesus if her two boys could sit in the most honored places when he took over his kingdom.
Jesus responded, “You do not know what you are asking.” Then, turning to the boys, he asked: “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” James and John assured Jesus that they could.
They didn’t fully grasp what was in that cup, a cup that even Jesus told the Father he would prefer not drinking.
Our Own Blood Should Fill That Cup
Drinking of that cup meant suffering greatly, being rejected by all the teachers and leaders of his faith tradition. Drinking of that cup meant being denied by one friend and being betrayed by another. Drinking of that cup meant mortification and immolation, being whipped and mocked, receiving spit in his face and a crown of thorns on his head, fasting and self-denial, carrying the sins of every man and woman of past, present, and future.
For Jesus, drinking of that cup meant completely emptying himself. It is a lesson of Lent that should extend throughout our lives: We are called to imitate Jesus. There is blood in that cup, blood shed by Jesus for all of us, but our own blood should fill the cup as well.
One of the most impactful characteristics of the saints is that they live the reality of this revelation, and that reality transforms the way they treat other people. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta is a striking and familiar example. She dedicated her life’s work to ministering to, in her words, “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.”
“I try to give to the poor people for love what the rich could get for money,” she once said. “No, I wouldn’t touch a leper for a thousand pounds; yet I willingly cure him for the love of God.”
If you assure Jesus that you can drink of the cup, then you promise to do the “right thing,” to follow in his footsteps despite the covenant guarantee of suffering and pain. It means emptying ourselves of self, of ignoring the things that feel comfortable and easy and pleasing, of passing on lifestyles and choices that involve power (politicians) and wealth (captains of capitalism) and fame (celebrities) and stroke our ego (all of us). In our humanity, we want to embrace those lifestyles and choices, we want to hang on for dear life because our selfishness and pride adore all of those trappings so very much.
We are called to decline even a sip from the “cup of self.” We are advised to spurn that cup and instead reach for the cup from which our Lord drank heartily. The lesson of Lent should direct us to places we never would have ventured otherwise.
“Not As I Will, But As You Will”
The late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins once said it this way: “Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in your beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved, and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.”
St. Francis of Assisi drank from the cup of Christ once; that lesson opened the eyes of his soul. He loved the poor and identified with them to the extreme of completely emptying himself of self. Born among the well-to-do class of society, Francis grew up with his family in Upper Assisi. Once assimilating a new life because of his conversion, he didn’t just move out of that part of town; he bypassed the lower, poorer part of town and moved to a plain where the lepers lived – the people deemed by most people to be unworthy, intolerable, unwanted.
Francis didn’t just pick up a cross; he embraced it and clung to it and honored it. Pain instead of power and pleasure? “Not as I will, but as you will.” Suffering instead of money and man’s version of success? “Your will be done.”
The Holy Spirit has a cross designed especially for each of us. Picking up and embracing a cross inspires women to answer a call to the consecrated life and men to the religious life. The Holy Spirit has a cup filled especially for each of us. Lifting and drinking of that cup arouses people to enter the Peace Corps, to serve as missionaries in foreign countries or work among the sick, underprivileged, downtrodden, to provide medical assistance among Ebola or hurricane victims.
Perhaps you discovered or became reacquainted with that cross during Lent. You saw it, understood it but couldn’t quite commit to hoisting the burden onto your back and shoulders. Perhaps God placed his cup within your reach, and you watched him pour his desires into it. You saw it but are afraid that it may taste bitter, that drinking it might reveal a flavor and sustenance which will change your life.
Pope Francis said in one of his morning homilies:
To put it simply: the Holy Spirit bothers us, because he moves us, he makes us walk, he pushes the Church to go forward. And we are like Peter at the Transfiguration: ‘Ah, how wonderful it is to be here like this, all together!’ But don’t bother us. We want the Holy Spirit to doze off … we want to domesticate the Holy Spirit. And that’s no good, because he is God, he is that wind which comes and goes and you don’t know where. He is the power of God, he is the one who gives us consolation and strength to move forward. But: to move forward! And this bothers us. It’s so much nicer to be comfortable.
Don’t limit that spirit of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to that penitential season of 40 days. Don’t return to an old way of looking at life. The reality and responsibility of your cross, your spiritual cup, exists beyond Holy Week. The provision and nourishment of the cup are available beyond Lent.
Every day, as you praise and thank God for his love, as you ask him to one day welcome you into his kingdom, he will turn to you and ask that challenging question: Will you drink of the cup?