Choosing life and carrying the cross

The Mass readings for today present what looks paradoxical when all three are read sequentially: Moses presents the Law as the way of choosing life, where following the Law is what is most life-giving. The Psalm reading (from Psalm 1) follows up on this theme with the language of obedience to the law being like a tree planted near water, that bears good fruit. Then in the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of following the Lord as taking up one’s cross–the language of suffering and death suddenly intrudes on this language of life:

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9: 23)

In one way, the resolution to the difference is easy: taking up one’s cross is possible because of faith and hope that all of our crosses will eventually be redeemed in the Resurrection. Christ carried his Cross to the Crucifixion, but then he was lovingly taken down from it, and God raised him up again with new life. Still, both readings seem to concern themselves with how we live right now, in the midst of our current, complicated realities, which are a mixture of joy and sorrow.

Moses and the Psalmist tell us that two things are needed for human flourishing: following the Law that God has given us so that we might flourish, and staying near to the Lord in all that we do. God is not an arbitrary lawgiver who gives us laws for the sake of feeling his own power, but rather God gives us the law because it promotes life-giving communities. The Commandments help us to flourish and to grow. We want to live in communities of harmonious relationships, with respect for the dignity of others, and the law provides a path. To me, being planted near the river is about staying close to the Lord in prayer, which waters and nourishes us.

But Jesus deepens rather than contradicting this message, because he shows that the way to true joy and freedom is total abandonment of oneself to God:

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24)

Even if we follow every Church rule and regulation, keep up a Lenten sacrifice, pray extra times in our day, none of this guarantees growing in intimacy with God or becoming more loving with one another. Instead, Jesus tells us to hand over our entire lives to God. And when we do so, the way that Jesus did, it inevitably will include the Cross: for example, caring for an aging parent out of love; reconciling a broken relationship when avoidance would be easier; or choosing to focus our efforts on offering love to others in the midst of personal disappointments or failures. Some conditions in our lives cannot be resolved by our own efforts, and so we must hand them over to God and hand ourselves over, too.

Whenever we focus on what we ourselves have lost or suffered, and cease to practice love toward others, we also cease to flourish as human beings. When we don’t deny our crosses in life, but move forward and love anyway, in the real conditions of our concrete lives, the love and mercy that we extend to others ends up repaying us with new life. We lose our lives in order to find them again, and find them in abandonment to the Lord and falling into His arms and His life for us.