If I am ever to be happy and fulfilled what I’m really going to need are the following: to be able to breathe clearly through my nose even when I have a cold, to have a bank account full enough that I shall never run out of money (no matter how old I become), to have straight, white teeth and always fresh breath, to drive a pick-up truck that can tow more than my neighbour’s pick-up truck, to regularly have good-looking friends around for a drink and laugh contentedly as we gaze at endless summer sunsets, to perch myself in luxurious furniture watching the latest films on a monstrously large and infinitely detailed television, to be insured for every eventuality, to know no pain, to quickly satisfy my partner whenever she wants me, and to easily find the best hotel whenever I – at the drop of a hat – head off on another exclusive vacation.
I could go on, of course, but I think you get the point. What I learn from much of the messaging that goes on around me every day, both from advertising and from many of my fellow citizens who are engaged in the hot pursuit of happiness, is that one’s purpose and meaning is best found in living a life that is comfortable, painless, abundantly resourced and stimulating.
This is, according to Jesus, a diabolical vision.
One of the basic assumptions of all religion is that we are not yet who we were created to be; that is to say: we are each on a journey toward maturity, finding a way to live to our full potential as human beings. Some do not consciously engage this quest, but many of us find it helpful to sign on with a teacher to guide us on our way, be it Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Mohammad, or some other person or philosophy. Life is about learning and we are disciples, we are apprentices and students. We hope for a good teacher because we know instinctively that, as Jesus put it, “no servant is greater than his master”; one can only learn as much from the teacher as the teacher knows.
One time, when Jesus was on a trip to Jerusalem, he asked his students what they thought about his identity. “Who do you say I am?” he queried. Peter, the most outspoken of the group, piped up and said, “You are the Messiah,” in essence, “the long awaited one appointed by God to lead our people and nation out of their malaise”.
Jesus did not deny Peter’s assertion, but told the group to keep this thought to themselves. And he immediately began to tell them that, whatever else might happen, he knew trouble was ahead: that his journey to Jerusalem would only result in suffering, rejection and, ultimately, a painful execution. Peter, still basking in the glow of his previous success, took Jesus aside and scolded him for his negative thinking. In Peter’s mind he had joined up with a winner, not a loser. But this in turn cost Peter his own dressing down in front of the whole class: “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus said to him, “Because you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts”.
And then gathering the group together Jesus told them this: “Listen, if you are going to learn anything from me then you are going to have to learn to deny yourselves, embrace what will kill you, and follow in my footsteps of passion and pain. For whoever wants to save their life will destroy it. And whoever destroys their life, for my sake and for the sake of our message, will save it. For what use is it for a person to gain the entire world and yet suffer the loss of their own life?”
The way to a life of meaning and purpose, says Jesus, is to accept our ultimate demise and reject any presumption of a right to determine for ourselves exactly how our lives will go. The way of Jesus is the way of humility and of putting the interests of others ahead of our own, just as he did. We may well be blessed along the way with many good things, and for these we should be thankful. But a life turned inward until it finally achieves complete comfort and ease can never be our goal; the deadline we work to is an actual “dead” line, where we are able to say, with St. Paul, “I have been crucified along with Christ. But now I live; no longer I, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live in faith in the Son of God, who loved me and who gave himself up for my sake.” (Galatians 2:20)
What is the cross you must bear? I cannot say; only you will know. It is likely to be something from which you want to run but which you are instead, inexplicably, drawn to.
The sooner we embrace the self-emptying way of Jesus the sooner we will become the mature individuals God intended for us to be. This too we remember in Lent.