Vol.5 No.1 DoM Gospel Reflection— Mark 8:27-35
Twenty-Fourth Sunday Ordinary Time—September 13
By Gina Berrios
There is a lot to this Gospel. There is a lot to all of the readings for this Sunday. The second reading is the well-known passage from James about faith and works. In the Gospel reading, Peter is rebuked by Jesus with the shocking phrase, “Get behind me, Satan!” But I am going to focus this reflection on the second to last sentence of the Gospel: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This Gospel, when paired with the first and second readings speaks about our faith as shown through our work. And the work of this Gospel is the work of holiness. The work of following Jesus completely through our life. It is his command to holiness.
The Catholic Study Bible says of this verse so concisely and beautifully, “This utterance of Jesus challenges all believers to authentic discipleship and total commitment to himself through self-renunciation and acceptance of the cross of suffering, even to the sacrifice of life itself… Life seen as mere self-centered earthly existence and lived in denial of Christ ends in destruction, but when lived in loyalty to Christ, despite earthly death, it arrives at fullness of life.” Let’s unpack this.
This Gospel presents the challenge of authentic discipleship. We have that challenge clearly given to us by Jesus. Deny yourself. Pick up your cross. Follow me. Authenticity is where holiness lies.
When I was a junior in high school, Bl Theresa of Calcutta came to my home town of Phoenix to open a new home for the poor. She spoke at the coliseum and I was lucky enough to get to usher at the event. This gave me the privilege of sitting about 10 rows back from Mother as she spoke. She was a tiny woman. You could barely see her over the podium and her voice was very quiet. So I really had prime seating to see and hear her. I prayed to God to please burn those moments in my memory so I wouldn’t forget them!
She started by speaking about the Armenian earthquake that had recently happened. Thousands were buried in the rubble. After nine days, when hope had been lost of finding more survivors, a search team heard a baby crying under the debris. They dug frantically, yet carefully, finally uncovering a weeks old infant in her dying mother’s arms. The mother died before they could get her out, but the child lived. Mother Teresa noted that the mother had pierced each of her fingertips and was “feeding” her child, sustaining her, with her own blood. Mother got very serious. She said, “This mother gave her life for this child. Her very life, her own blood for the survival of her child. And in your country you kill your babies because they are an inconvenience to how somebody wants to live.” She continued on to speak of the “great poverty of the West” as she called it. She said how in India they have poverty, but not homelessness like we do in America. She said you have whole families that are poor, not families that neglect their family to the point of homeless. She called our poverty our lack of love. And then she laid out her challenge: to love until it hurts and to begin that love at home. At home! Not at a shelter or soup kitchen, but at home. She called us to love until it hurts starting with our family. Then we would change everything around us. Her greatest quote was “Holiness is not the luxury for the few, but the simple duty of the many.” Holiness is our simple duty, in our present state, in our current vocation. It is the daily action that is the command of this Gospel, deny yourself.
To deny ourselves means to empty ourselves of ourselves. Of our wants, our needs, our desires, or insecurities, our selfishness, so to be filled completely with Christ. To be transformed to a new creation. To radiate Christ, as Bl. Teresa would say, so that others would look at me and see not myself but Christ in me. Denying ourselves can be so hard, but it is this first step on the path of holiness. It doesn’t mean being a doormat and letting people walk all over you. And it doesn’t mean playing a martyr that your sacrifices are so great and having a “woe is me” attitude like you are doing more than anyone else. It is finding that place, formed by self-mastery and the practice of virtue, where you put yourself aside for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of Christ.
This is a daily practice. This is a daily discipline. Sometimes it is in little ways, like getting up at 3am to nurse a hungry newborn. Sometimes it is in great ways like caring for a spouse who is in the throes of sickness. Sometimes it is subtle like an unnoticed act of kindness, or someone else taking the credit for a job you have done. Sometimes it is not having to give your opinion or walking away from an injustice done towards you. It is, as the first reading from Isaiah says, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” It means that everything doesn’t always have to be about me and me getting my way. It means self-mastery, daily, in the big ways and in the little ways. It is a challenge to authentic discipleship.
I spent my summers in high school and college working with the Missionaries of Charity at their home in Phoenix and on an Indian Reservation in New Mexico. These sisters lived self-denial, living as poor as the poor they served. The owned their sari (habit), their sandals, a bucket and a sponge. That was it. And once they were fully professed as a sister they had contact with their family once every decade, because as Mother Teresa noted, most of the poor they served had no family, so the MCs lived that poverty of loneliness. I never once heard one of the Sisters complain. They never complained about the heat, the dirt, the menial work, the difficult work, the lack of food, the early morning wake up times. Instead they radiated joy. That joy came from how they denied themselves their own wants and comforts and offered it to Jesus. In every room in a MC home there is a crucifix with a handwritten note under it that says, “I Thirst.” The MCs offered their work as a little prayer, a little way to quench Jesus’ thirst from the cross. All that they did was out of love for him. A love that hurt, but didn’t count the cost, because it was a prayer to quench the suffering of Jesus. The life of these nuns was hidden in the love and mercy of Jesus.
St. Therese of Lisieux is known for her “little way” of offering small acts of love to Jesus. She mastered self-denial. She was 14 when she entered Carmel. She tells a story of an older nun who was pretty mean to her, always criticizing everything she did. Therese wanted to run from this sister, but instead she decided to walk this frail nun to and from her room to Mass every day. She would endure rude comments from this sister, but Therese would smile and sing as she walked her fellow sister down the hallway. Eventually she came to love this nun and see goodness in her. Her little way was denying herself and her own ego.
St. Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, is another example of living a little way of love. She was “ousted” as the superior of her own order and buried in a simple grave as just another sister. Years went by and the LSP were embarrassed to realize that their foundress went unknown and unhonored for decades. But St. Jeanne Jugan, wouldn’t have had it any other way. She had a mission from Jesus to serve the elderly poor, and it wasn’t about her. She quietly obeyed her new superior and went unnoticed in her service. She loved in her little way that she was even forgotten as a foundress of a religious order!
Authentic discipleship, complete loyalty to Jesus is modeled perfectly in the Blessed Mother, who with her Fiat, her yes, uttering, “Let it be done to me according to your word” completely laid aside her life so to radiate Christ in all things. We can follow her example by being open to God’s grace working in our lives. Knowing in all things His grace is sufficient. He is asking for a total commitment of ourselves to Him.
Then, once we are emptied of ourselves, we take up the cross. And sometimes it is a cross of suffering. It is a cross of sacrifice. But this sacrifice is easier because we have learned that self-renunciation that comes first. We can carry this cross a little bit easier because we are not focused solely on ourselves. We have pointed our gaze outward to others and upward to Christ. We follow the example of our Blessed Mother, who suffered deeply in her heart, she walked her own way of the cross at the side of her Son. And yet through it all she said, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The heaviness of the cross is made lighter by the help of His grace. We carry this cross as an authentic disciple. We know that this cross of suffering, whatever it may be, does not end in death. This cross leads us to the fullness of life.
And that fullness of life is found in the final challenge of our authentic discipleship: Follow me. Follow Jesus with complete loyalty, knowing that He is guiding our steps and illuminating our path. We are called to live our life for his sake, for the sake of the Gospel. We are called to holiness.
I’d like to close with the daily prayer of the Missionaries of Charity:
Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I do. Flood my soul with Your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of Yours. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus! Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine, so to shine as to be a light to others; the light, O Jesus will be all from You; none of it will be mine: it will be You shining on others through me. Let me thus praise You in the way You love best: by shining on those around me. Let me preach You without preaching, not by words, but by my example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You. Amen. -John Cardinal Newman