Many often opine that understanding Holy Scripture is mostly straightforward. But all too often that perspective can be shown to be flawed. Take today’s Gospel reading from the Sunday After the Elevation of the Cross (Mark 8:34-9:1).
Within today’s text we find our Lord teaching, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” The Greek word used for “desires” here is thelo, which goes beyond ‘desire’ to a meaning of ‘delighting in’ something. Thus our Lord speaks to those who delight in being near to Him.
But let’s move to the operative stumbling word—deny. This Greek word is aparneomai, and it means utter rejection, to the point of disowning.
How is it that we are to understand this concept and relate it to ourselves? Is our Lord saying that we are to give zero consideration to self and self-needs?
St. Theophan the Recluse teaches this about denial.
The Lord demands decisive self-denial of those who want to follow Him. ‘Let him deny himself,’ He says. It could be expressed like this: Cast aside your interests and pursue only the interests of the Lord. You will be fulfilling this when you always do what is pleasing to Him. How can one do this? Mind carefully what is in you, and what is around you on the outside, and discern strictly in one or another situation, be it internal or external, how to act in the way that is most pleasing to God—then, not pitying yourself and not inserting your own calculations, act accordingly, with complete self-denial. You say, “It is hard to determine this.” No, it is not hard. We have been given clear and fixed commandments—they express what we can do to be pleasing to the Lord. All that remains is to apply them to the given situation, and this does not present any great problem. Having common sense is enough. If you cannot figure something out, ask your spiritual father, or someone else whose words you respect, and act according to their directions. But it is always better to sharpen your discernment through reading of the word of God and writings of the fathers, so that you will always have a decision-maker with you.”
St. Theophan is not suggesting that we turn our self-will over to the cemented decision of another. Rather, his words indicate that we are to train ourselves up in the faith. His admonishments to read (and therefore to KNOW) Holy Scripture, and to study (and therefore to LEAN UPON) the wisdom of the Holy Fathers is paramount to our then self-willed and heartfelt desire to follow where our Lord will lead us. In giving full deference to His will in our lives, we have already moved to that point of denying ourselves! It’s really rather simple—His will, not mine!
There is an account of a Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest, who during WWII knew that the Germans were approaching, so he instructed others in his monastery to leave. He remained with a few monks, and they sheltered over 2000 Jews for a time. Ultimately he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. There, Fr. Max would take food last to assure others had enough. He would give of what he’d been given to those in the greatest need. The Nazi’s had a practice of murdering 10 random prisoners whenever one would escape the camp. One day a prisoner from Fr. Max’s baracks escaped, and 10 were selected for execution in ‘the starvation hole’. One poor man began to cry out, ‘My poor wife! My children!’ At his cries, Fr. Max broke ranks with the other prisoners and boldly went to the commandant—”I am a priest. I would like to take the place of this man.” Surprisingly, the commandant agreed. The 10 men including Fr. Max were led to the starvation bunker, where they remained without food or water until all were dead. The man whose place he took lived to be 95 years old, and he never forgot Fr. Max’s selfless love.
Our Lord goes on in today’s Gospel to say, “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it.”
Fr. Max showed self-denial. And without doubt he has found his place in the eternal embrace of His (and our) Master!