(Gospel: Matthew 16:21-27)
If we are speaking simply of physical life, then Jesus’ warning that whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, makes little sense. As we know so well, preserving our own life in situations that are life-threatening is instinctual and so reflexive that only with great self-control can we, for example, forgo our own safety and self-preservation and come to the aid of others—indeed, such actions are commonly labeled heroic. Accordingly, the “life” that Jesus speaks of is surely more than just physical life and so it might be helpful to explore a little what he means by “life.”
Staying with the example just mentioned, in contrast to the heroes who forget themselves in going to the aid of others, are those whose instinctual self-preservation results in their forgetting others and focusing on their own safety. Although their actions are understandable (and perhaps even prudent in certain instances) feelings of guilt and even shame can follow such self-preserving actions. The shame is bound up with feeling less human and less noble than the hero whose humanity seem to be so clearly manifested in his or her brave disregard for personal safety and wellbeing.
This relates to the distinction (sometimes made) between living and existing. We recall Irenaeus’ dictum: The glory of God is man fully alive, and this highlights the fact that life is more than simple physical existence. And yet, is that not what so many in our world seem to content themselves with? People whose lives are centered on fulfilling little more than the basic needs of the body and its associated fleeting and often addictive pleasures—pleasures that keep one distracted and alienated from one’s deeper self and from true life.
Accordingly, Jesus’ call to take up one’s cross and follow him is a call to both resist the natural and instinctual drive to self-preservation at all costs, and living life at a purely physical level. Those who do not resist this drive are only outwardly human, and internally are little more than an empty, lonely, shell. Thus it is that their efforts at self-preservation and securing their self-centered needs (even at the expense of others) actually results in their losing themselves and their humanity. Conversely, those who deny themselves in seeking the good of others reinforce their authentic humanity (created in God’s image) and in thus replicating God’s own selfless self-giving come to experience the joy of being fully alive and thereby giving glory to God who is Life itself.