"You are thinking not as God does, but as man does." In other words, God's ways differ from our ways, and we need to learn to follow Him and not ourselves. Christ teaches this lesson in the context of His own passion and death, which He has just predicted to His band of followers. When Peter tries to convince Christ to take a different path, to bypass the cross and its terrible sufferings, he is sharply and publicly rebuked. Then Christ affirms, explicitly and uncompromisingly, that He and all His followers must "take up the cross," must accept suffering in this life. He goes so far as to say that those who refuse to accept the sacrifices and sufferings that God sends or allows will "lose their lives."
The joy of following Christ necessarily involves the pain of self-denial and self-sacrifice; this is the paradox of the gospel. It is not easy to be faithful to one's conscience, to the teachings of the Church, to the Ten Commandments, to the will of God; it involves self-governance and, sometimes, humiliation and persecution. "No disciple is greater than his master," as Christ says later on (John 13:16). If He had to suffer in order to open the gates to heaven, we will have to suffer as we follow Him in.
Jesus never sugarcoats His call to discipleship; to be His faithful friend will involve sharing in His cross, there is no way around it. But crosses, when borne together with Christ, always lead to resurrections. If we follow Him on the path of self-denial, "losing" our self-centered lives in order to be faithful to Him and His Kingdom, we will "find" true life, life in communion with God. Perhaps no other gospel lesson is more difficult to learn, or more important.
Later this month, we will celebrate the memorial of St. Januarius, whose history gives a double reinforcement to this beautiful truth of our faith. He was a bishop in southern Italy, in a city called Benevento, and was martyred along with seven companions in the year 302. The holy bishop risked his life to visit and encourage his fellow Christians who had been imprisoned for their faith at the start of the Emperor Diocletian's vast and violent persecution. He was spotted, reported, and apprehended. He was interrogated, tortured, humiliated, and then thrown in prison with the rest. They were all condemned as enemies of the state (they would not worship the Roman gods) and sentenced to be torn to pieces by wild beasts.
They accepted their sentence and stayed firm in their faith. When the animals were let into the arena, much to the shock and disappointment of the crowd who had gathered to enjoy the spectacle, the beasts sat calmly on their haunches, entirely uninterested in the free lunch. The guards were unable to stimulate their appetite; finally the governor had to have the saints beheaded. It seems that some of the bishop's blood was preserved as a relic by the local Christians. That very blood, still preserved in a coagulated state in a transparent reliquary at the Cathedral in Naples Italy, liquefies each year on his feast day. It has done so at least for the last 500 years (the recorded history of the miracle).
Januarius' faithfulness under fire was the first sign that God was with him, and the yearly liquefaction is, as it were, an annual reminder of the supernatural source of his courage. It is as if God is determined not to let us forget about his tireless action in the world.
Let us pray this week to trust in the Lord who suffered and died for us. Let us surrender to the truth God’s ways are not our ways. Let us look this week in renewed eyes of faith of the presence of the Lord in our midst.