A Patristic Homily for the Thursday after Ash Wednesday.
From the Catena Aurea of St Thomas Aquinas, and the words of Sts John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Bede the Venerable, Gregory the Great, and Theophylact, and also of Origen, the Teacher of the Fathers.
If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
Great and noble leaders provoke the mighty in arms to deeds of valour, not only by promising them the honors of victory, but by declaring that suffering is in itself glorious. Such we see is the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. For He had foretold to His disciples, that He must suffer the accusations of the Jews, be slain, and rise again on the third day. Lest then they should think that Christ indeed was to suffer persecution for the life of the world, but that they might lead a soft life, He shows them that they must also pass through similar struggles, if they desired to obtain His glory. Now the Savior of His great mercy and lovingkindness will have no one serve Him unwillingly and from constraint, but those only who come of their own accord, and are grateful for being allowed to serve Him. And so not by compelling men and putting a yoke upon them, but by persuasion and kindness, He draws to Him every where those who are willing.
Unless a man renounces himself, he comes not near to Him, who is above him; it is said therefore, Let him deny himself. A denial of one’s self is indeed a total forgetfulness of things past, and a forsaking of his own will. A man also denies himself when by a sufficient alteration of manners or a good conversation he changes a life of habitual wickedness. He who has long lived in lasciviousness, abandons his lustful self when he becomes chaste, and in like manner a forsaking of any crimes is a denial of one’s self.
A desire of suffering death for Christ and a mortification of one’s members which are upon the earth, and a strong resolution to undergo any danger for Christ, and an indifference towards the present life, this it is to take up one’s cross.
In two ways also is the cross taken up, either when the body is afflicted through abstinence, or the mind touched by sympathy. Jesus rightly joins these two, Let him deny himself, and let him take up his cross, for as the man who is prepared to ascend the cross conceives in his mind the intention of death, and so goes on thinking to have no more part in this life, so he who is willing to follow our Lord, ought first to deny himself, and so take up his cross, that his will may be ready to endure every calamity.
Herein then stands a man’s perfection, that he should have his affections hardened, even towards life itself, and have ever about him the answer of death, that he should by no means trust in himself. But perfection takes its beginning from the relinquishment of things foreign to it; suppose these to be possessions or vain-glory, or affection for things that profit not.
Jesus assigns the cause of this when He adds, For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; that is, whosoever will according to the present life keep his own soul fixed on things of sense, the same shall lose it, never reaching to the bounds of happiness. But on the other hand He adds, but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake, shall save it. That is, whosoever forsakes the things of sense looking upon truth, and exposes himself to death, as it were losing his life for Christ, shall the rather save it. If then it is a blessed thing to save our life, (with regard to that safety which is in God,) there must be also a certain good surrender of life which is made by looking upon Christ. It seems also to me from resemblance to that denying of one’s self which has been before spoken of, that it becomes us to lose a certain sinful life of ours, to take up that which is saved by virtue.