Fr Luke A Veronis

The Lord said: "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Let’s take a moment and reflect on what Jesus is saying here. It’s pretty radical and counter-intuitive. If any of us want to come after him, to follow him, to become one of His disciples, what’s the first thing we must do? Our Lord bluntly states that we must deny ourselves.  

Think about how this goes against the grain of who we are – DENYING OURSELVES! To follow Christ means we can’t put ourselves first; something or SOMEONE comes before our very own selves!

What does that even mean? Our society teaches us that we should fulfill our desires, pursue our dreams, make ourselves the center of our lives. We live in a free country where we can do whatever we want, we are taught. The world teaches us to take care of ME first and foremost. Of course, such an attitude implies placing our EGO at the center of everything.

Our EGO. Our pride. Our self-assurance. My way or the highway!

Yet, Jesus says the exact opposite. He knows that it was their pride and ego that led Adam and Eve to forget God, to turn away from their Creator, and to listen to the lies of the Evil One. Our first forbearers listened to the deceptive voice telling them that they could become god without the One True God. Our Lord understood all this and that is why He tells His followers, “If you want to follow me, you begin by denying yourself and crucifying your ego!

I often quote one of my favorite lines from Archbishop Anastasios of Albania when he asks, “What is the opposite of love?” Is it hate, like so many people would say? No, it is the EGO. The opposite of love is the ego. Divine Love is outward turned toward the other, toward the least of our brothers and sisters, toward the world around us. The EGO is inward turned toward only ourselves. Divine Love is ready to sacrifice for others even to the point of death. The EGO focuses only on what will benefit itself. Divine Love readily offers mercy, forgiveness, and grace to others, even to those who have deeply hurt us. The EGO holds on to resentment, bitterness, anger, and hatred because it only remembers how we were hurt by others.

The EGO ultimately leads to our pride and arrogance and self-righteousness. Adam and Eve gave in to their ego, they gave in to their desire to become like God but without God. Every sin that leads us away from God has its roots deeply intertwined with our pride and our egocentric desires.

Jesus Christ reminds us that the two greatest commandments have to do with divine love - loving God and loving one another. Yet, if we ever truly want to learn to love, we must learn to deny ourselves, crucify our ego and see the other as our salvation.

To deny ourselves means that we don’t place ourselves first. God is first. He stands before all else. Before our families. Before our work. Before our pleasure. Before our hobbies and entertainment. Before everything.

Jesus makes it radically clear that if we truly want to follow Him, we need to make him the top priority in our lives. Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and His righteousness above all else. We can’t be a true follower of His if we put Him second or third or down the list of our priorities.

This is so hard for most of us to do. We have so many desires and we want to fulfill what we want to do. We think that we will discover true happiness when we fulfill our desires and passions and make them first in our lives. We want to be first in our own life!

The way toward an authentic, vibrant, life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ, however, begins when we make every effort to deny ourselves and place Him on the throne of our hearts.

The interesting and beautiful paradox of the Faith is that when we learn to deny ourselves, we discover that we will truly find ourselves. When we learn to deny ourselves, we will discover who we truly are and who we were meant to be. A life following Christ opens up to us the treasures of the Kingdom of Heaven. By denying our egocentric desires, we discover the abundant life of divine love, joy, peace, hope, and grace. By denying ourselves we create room to grow into the likeness of God, imitating Him and becoming like Him.

Saint Paul is a prime example of someone who denied himself throughout his life following his conversion, yet by denying himself he discovered something new. He became a new creation! He could then say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me… For me to live is Christ and to die is gain… I have learned to be content in every circumstance, whether I have much or whether I have little… If I live I live to the Lord and if I die I die to the Lord so whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s… Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.”

The new and abundant life comes when we learn to deny ourselves and follow Christ!

Today, on this third Sunday of Lent, when we lift up the Holy Cross of Christ at this midpoint of our Lenten journey and bow down to venerate the Cross in procession, may we remember what we are confessing with the Cross. We remember how Jesus Christ expressed His divine love for the entire world by His sacrificial death on the Cross but we also remember the path in life we all are called to follow is the path of the Cross, the path of denying ourselves.

"If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

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