An Invitation to Self Denial

March 1, 1999

The Lenten journey is oriented toward Jerusalem. With Jesus and his disciples we go up to the Holy City and enter into the Paschal mystery of his dying and rising: to the cross and then through the cross into resurrection. This is what the celebration of Holy Week and the Great Vigil of Easter is all about. Through the waters of rebirth and the action of the Holy Spirit each one of us is baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. As we are thus baptized, we accept the ongoing dynamic of dying and rising as the fundamental law of our existence. We do not do this ritually, or symbolically, or only once, but in the continual choices and struggles that present themselves to us, personally and as a household of faith.

Our liturgy, particularly the Easter Vigil, makes abundantly clear that Incarnation and the Paschal mystery are indisputably one. Therefore, the terms in which we are confronted by the Paschal mystery are profoundly of "the now of this mortal life." Incarnation points toward the Paschal mystery, and the paschal mystery is earthed in flesh and blood and the struggle, suffering, loss, and victory of the Son of Mary who shares our humanity and "is tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin…and was made perfect (complete) through suffering."

With this in mind, I find myself reflecting upon one of the classic themes of Lent: self-denial and Jesus' words that those who are willing to take up their cross and deny themselves, to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel, will in actual fact gain their lives with a new fullness and completeness. To set such a glaring paradox confidently and authoritatively before his followers suggests that Jesus was not simply acting as a wise teacher but was speaking out of his own experience, his own continuing struggle to discern and "do the will of the One who sent me."

Perhaps Jesus had to teach in order to instruct himself. We sometimes hear in what we say to others the very word we most need to hear ourselves. Only by giving voice to the internal word can we actually hear it. In his words to his disciples did Jesus sense a renewed conviction regarding the direction of his own life? And, what did denial of self mean for him? It certainly meant more than not eating desserts, or losing a few pounds or making space in the day to read a spiritual book or study the Bible, as significant and faithful as such exercises might be. Denying himself meant nothing more or less than meeting the demands that his life set before him in fidelity to his vocation: "My meat and drink is to do the will of the One who sent me and to accomplish his work."

Jesus did not have to think up exercises in self-denial, they came to him clothed in the decisions which confronted him. Should he speak or remain silent? Should he share "the crumbs from the master's table" with those to whom he was not sent to preach? Should he go up to Jerusalem and face almost certain danger, or remain safely hidden away in the hills of Galilee? At every turn Jesus had to confront his own bias, his own fear, his own reluctance, his own disappointment - "How slow you are to perceive…How long must I be with you?" - and the fact that God's ways are just as often crooked and inscrutable as they are clear and straight.

As we encounter Jesus in the pages of the gospel, it becomes clear that self-denial means facing into things, engaging the struggle, enduring the cost and yet, as the Paschal mystery proclaims, the way of the cross becomes the road to unbounded "life in all its fullness."

With this in mind we might well ask ourselves, as we travel on through these forty days, what self-denial means to us, as members of Christ's risen body, as congregations, as dioceses, as a church. In what way are the circumstances of our lives inviting us to face our fears, our need to have things our way, the limitations of our perceptions? What Jerusalems are we avoiding? What voices of unknown risk and potentially overwhelming consequences call us and draw us, in spite of contrary voices which counsel prudence and self-preservation? What attitudes and points of view keep us from enlarging our sense of brother and sisterhood? What Cannanites has God sent into our lives to challenge our notion of who properly belongs at the master's table? And, what must die within us so we might embrace that problematic "other" who reinforces our sense of self because we are not like "them"?

According to Jesus' words, and indeed his own example, denial of self leads not to diminishment but rather to discovery of self. The losing becomes the narrow door through which we pass in order to find. Our confrontation with our own poverty is a source of unimagined abundance.

May the Spirit of Christ give us courage in the days ahead, both personally and as a household of faith, to lose our lives in order that we may gain them.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA

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