“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
I was tired. It had been a long day, and I knew it wasn’t over. Sometime between the time school ends and the evening work of the parish begins, I like to squeeze in some quiet time in the late afternoon to gear up for that night’s ministry. On this particular day, it was not meant to be. I was exhausted, and I was headed into our residence to disconnect for a short while from the parish but our receptionist handed me a message. Someone had died over at the hospital and the nurse called asking for a priest. At that moment, I must confess, two very selfish thoughts crossed my mind, “why didn’t they call before the person died,” and “why were you giving me the message if I’m not on call?” Father Hoyer had already left on another sick call, so I was on deck. It never ceases to amaze me that when the Lord calls me at the most inopportune moments (i.e. when I selfishly don’t want to do things) the more grace he sends my way and the more grace I witness through no particular action of my own. It’s all Him. I got in the car and drove over to the hospital not knowing the details of the situation that I was going to confront. I walked into the ICU and the nurse introduced me to the mother of the patient. The mother? Yes, the mother of a 27-year-old young man who had died. (The particulars of his death are not important; the fact that a mother lost her son unexpectedly is.) Through her tears, this mother explained to me what had happened and she could barely get her words out. It was a heart-breaking scene and even though she didn’t know me and even though she wasn’t even Catholic, as I would discover, she grabbed me, embraced me, and just starting sobbing. She asked me to go in and say a prayer for her son. I offered the prayers as this mother caressed her child much like Mary did hers. I’ve been in many hospital rooms, ICU’s and ER’s, but this particular scene is still raw, still unnatural, and yet in some odd way filled with the Lord’s presence despite the tragic circumstance. I don’t remember what I said. I do remember that they thanked me, the nurse who called thanked me, and as I was walking out of the hospital I started kicking myself because at first I did not want to go. My selfishness almost deprived me of the most grace-filled moment I would have all week. It wasn’t until I started meditating on these readings and thinking back on my week that I made the connection: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
Yes, out of necessity I was pressed into action that day, but to truly follow Christ and be Christ for others, we must constantly deny ourselves to allow him to do his good work in us. To profess faith in Jesus, like Peter did, means that we have to back that faith up with action. St. James makes that quite clear in the second reading. Faith without works is dead. We cannot proclaim Christ as Lord if we don’t deny ourselves DAILY and carry our crosses. This is not an either/or proposition. We cannot have one without the other. Faith and works go hand in hand. I couldn’t have been a minster of grace to that mother if I wouldn’t have taken a deep breath, offered my exhaustion to God, and carried the cross that was handed to me. And here’s the kicker: that tragic scene at the hospital would’ve brought down anyone without faith. It gave me a second wind for the day. When you see the hand of God tangibly working through the good works you do, you just want to do more. When you see what a graced filled life you can live when you start putting God and the other first, you start looking for crosses to pick up. Today our Lord is calling you to put the needs of others before yours. There are poor people in the streets. Pick them up. There are sick people that need visiting. Pick them up. There are brothers and sisters who mourn. Pick them up. There are women that are contemplating an abortion. Pick them up. There’s a young person who may feel lost. Pick them up. There are so many crosses around us that need picking up. But there’s one cross that the Lord has given to you. One cross that is only for you. Only you can carry it (with His help of course) and only you can identify the purpose of this cross. And when we find that cross that is particularly your own which may seem too heavy to carry, just know that His grace will suffice, the rewards will be heavenly, so do not be afraid: deny yourself, approach that cross, and pick it up!