Last Sunday, we were thinking over the necessity of self-denial with the help of Cardinal Newman who reminded us that it is something essential to Christian life. Yet, there are only few Christians who practice it. Many hear the word of Christ and do not become true followers for different reasons. We said last week that those men are not necessarily enemies of Christ and that they even have a good will, but alas, their will is not strong enough to accept the message of the Cross. We have an example in the gospel with the rich young man.
This young man knows and keeps the commandment of God as they are necessary in order to receive life everlasting. Saint Paul reminds us today that we ought to walk to please God. And God loves those who walk in the path of the commandments. For that reason, it is good to pray with the Psalmist: Set before me for a law the way of Thy justification, O Lord, and I will always seek after it. Give me understanding, and I will search Thy law, and I will keep it with my whole heart. Lead me into the path of Thy commandments. (Ps 138)
The rich young man certainly has the desire of doing good and certainly prays with the words of the Psalm. Jesus loves him for that. Then the Lord asks him more: sell whatsoever thou hast and follow me! Saint Marks reports that the young man went away sorrowful for he had great possessions. The young man does not receive the word of God with joy but goes away sorrowful because of the passion of avarice. Christ has just promised him a treasure in heaven yet he does not want to give up his earthly and perishable treasure. How the way of the perfect abandon is hard! The passions keep us prisoners of the temporal good and prevent us of rising up into the summits of holiness. And if it is not avarice, it might be another vice that keeps you enslaved. As the Fathers points out, among the poor, some are overcome by pride, intemperance or any other vicious inclination.
Our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to holiness. Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect. It is important to understand that, dear brethren. He does not call us to happiness but to holiness and perfection. He is the way that we have to take. He is the example that we have to follow. It means that our fate in this present life is the Cross. Certainly, God wants our happiness. But it will not come first. We have to seek after holiness, and then we will find true happiness. But many men want happiness without holiness and they find their happiness in ephemeral pleasures that can be legitimate or not. And when those pleasures are illegitimate, they fall into a life of sins that leads them directly to hell. Saint Paul warns us again in the epistle: This is the will of God, your sanctification; that you abstain from immorality. God has not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness.
It is on the Mount Tabor that we shall find holiness. It is there and only there that we shall see the glory of God. Holiness has to be found on the heights of contemplative life. We have seen with Saint Teresa of Avila a few weeks ago that when a soul makes progress in the prayer’s life, it becomes less active and more passive because Christ takes more and more possession of it. If you want to reach the top of the mountain, you have to let Christ take you as He did with the three disciples. Jesus took unto Him Peter and James, and his brother John. Jesus takes unto Him a soul. The Latin word in the Gospel of the Matthew is ‘assumit’. We use the same verb when we say that He assumed – He took upon Him – the human nature. The assumption of the human nature by Christ is also for us an assumption – a climb – toward God. Assumption has a passive meaning unlike ascension that is active. It means that we do not rise ourselves to God but that we let Him raise us to Him. And again, this supposes self-denial.
Cardinal Newman helps us again understand what self-denial is. Look up to Christ, he says. That is the preliminary. If you look on yourself – and we have the terrible habit of looking on ourselves – you will not find Christ. So, look up to Christ, and deny yourselves everything, whatever its character, which you think He would have you relinquish. You need not calculate and measure, if you love much. You need not perplex yourselves with points of curiosity, if you have a heart to venture after Him. He bids you take up your cross; therefore accept the daily opportunities which occur of yielding to others, when you need not yield, and of doing unpleasant services, which you might avoid. He bids those who would be highest, live as the lowest: therefore turn from ambitious thoughts, and, as far as you religiously may, make resolves against taking on you authority and rule. He bids you sell and give alms; therefore, hate to spend money on yourself. Shut your ears to praise, when it grows loud. Set your face like a flint, when the world ridicules, and smile at its threats. Learn to master your heart, when it would burst forth into vehemence, or prolong a barren sorrow, or dissolve into unseasonable tenderness. Curb your tongue, and turn away your eye, lest you fall into temptation. Avoid the dangerous air which relaxes you, and brace yourself upon the heights. So shall self-denial become natural to you, and a change come over you, gently and imperceptibly.
Then, dear brethren, if you can do this, Our Lord will take you upon Him and bring you up into a high mountain apart. Apart! That is another important word written by Saint Matthew. If you let Him bring you on the top of the mountain you will be separated from the rest of the world, from the profane things. That is precisely the meaning of the word saint.
Let us turn to Our Blessed Mother and ask her to fill our hearts with the desire of holiness. But let us not forget that only her Son can make us saint and certainly not ourselves. That will not happen until we will have totally surrendered ourselves. May this Lenten season help us realize this.