Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me.” These words from Mark’s gospel, chapter 8, verse 34 give every Christian the true path to freedom and salvation. But if we are honest with ourselves, it also unnerves us. We know by our own experiences that this is not easy. This is the toughest, yet the most clear and most narrow of paths that we must follow in order to call ourselves Christians, true followers of Christ.

We know the the facts about Jesus. He is the Son of God, the Messiah. He suffered and died for us, to free us from the ravages of our sins, and from death. We know his travels, his words. When we read the scriptures and meditate on them with faith and hope and love, we see that he teaches us how to live in the reality of this world. In the parable of the Good Samaritan he shows us how to care for our neighbors, to recognize that those who are forgotten, despised, and cast aside are our neighbors just as much as those that we know and love personally in our lives. He teaches us to be patient, kind, and merciful and how to pray.

Jesus teaches us to touch the leper, to heal the blind, to open our hearts and our houses to the widow, the orphan, and the alien. All of these are hard for us to do in their own ways, but here is the hardest thing; he teaches us that we must love others, even those who persecute us. We must pray for them. This he made painfully aware to us on the cross when, perfectly innocent, and in the midst of his incomprehensible suffering, he looked down at his accusers, at those who called for his death, and those who ordered it, even those indifferent to it, and says, to our amazement: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

This is what he means, in the end, when he tells us that to come after him, we must love in the same way as he did. If we do, we too may find that we are despised for our faith, that we too may encounter unfair and unjust suffering. These are some of the crosses we must be willing to pick up and carry, for his sake, for the sake of love. We, of course, are not capable of this on our own. God, though, knows our hearts. He sees into our souls and knows our deepest desires. When he sees that we are willing to pick up our crosses for his sake, he gives us all the graces we need to be able to do so. We can count on this. It is our faith he responds to. It is our love for him that, when we are called upon to bear some cross, he answers swiftly with overflowing grace.

Lord, we are weak, but our desire is great to follow you. Strengthen our faith. Give us the courage of faith to follow you in all things, especially when crosses are thrust upon us for your sake. Help us to suffer with you, to share in your saving act on the cross willingly, even joyfully, for our good and for the good of others. We ask this in your name Jesus. Amen!