Today’s readings revolve around the theme of following God’s will and culminate in the call of Jesus to discipleship. The call to discipleship is lofty and equally intimidating. It demands no less than a radical response: “Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me (all the way to Calvary).” Its stakes are high: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” And its consequence is overriding, even absolute (all or nothing): “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
No wonder, Peter does not hesitate to cut short Jesus’ prediction of his imminent passion, death, and resurrection (the Father’s will for him) and dissuade him from proceeding to Jerusalem. However, for all his good intention, Peter’s thoughts are contrary to God’s. And so, like Satan, he stands in the way of Jesus’ mission. From being the rock-foundation of Christ’s Church, he now becomes a stumbling block, an obstacle to God’s plan.
Nothing is more challenging than answering the call to discipleship. The standard set by Jesus for those who follow him is exceedingly high and demanding. Are we capable of reaching it? We know ourselves and our capacity. We are aware of our own ambiguity and mediocrity, our consistencies and compromises. Like Peter, we easily vacillate on our decisions and actions.
Nothing is more daunting than following the will of God. This is what Jeremiah experiences in the first reading. The prophet finds himself torn between the irrepressible urge to give up his mission (which only brings him scorn and rejection) and an overpowering force that fastens him to it. In his frustration, he cries, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed… I say to myself, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart.”
We see the same dynamic in St. Augustine’s life-story of fleeing from God and being led to back to God. The more he resists God, the more he is drawn to him for, in truth, God alone is the answer to his deepest quest and the satisfaction of his deepest hunger. At the end of his search, Augustine can only say, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts will always be restless until they find rest in you.”
This same experience is echoed in our responsorial psalm, “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water.”
The will of God is utterly demanding and the standard set by Jesus in following him is exceedingly high because our ultimate fulfillment is no less than God himself, the Absolute and the Supreme Good. If he is to fill our heart, we need to give him space and empty ourselves of everything else, most of all, our ego. Thus, the demand to “deny oneself.” St John of the Cross refers to this as the preliminary task of reducing ourselves to nada, nada, nada before being filled with the “all-bestowing God.”
While the call to discipleship may be intimidating, St. Paul urges us “to offer [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, [as our] spiritual worship.” (second reading) The apostle tells us that this is made possible “by the mercies of God.”
Indeed, God is a merciful God. He does not ask of us anything beyond our capacity, and if it is beyond our strength, he supplies us with his grace. Thus, in our journey of discipleship he accompanies us (“I am with you always until the end of the age”) and provides us with all we need: his Word, his Eucharist, the sacraments, the Church’s magisterium, the community of God’s people…
I wish to close with our responsorial. Psalm 63 (one of my favorites) ends with the verse, “My soul clings close to you, your right hand holds me fast.” This verse reminds me of a scene in the movie (cartoon), “The Red Turtle,” wherein a family of three lie side by side on a shore, after having survived a sea tragedy. At a certain point, the child slowly reaches out to his mother’s arm and firmly clasps it. The mother frees herself from the child’s hand and instead holds his arm.
Many times, we find ourselves holding on to God, especially in times when following him is hard and painful. The more consoling fact, however, is that in such times it is God who holds us because he knows that we can let go of him any time, but he will never let go of us.