I recently read about the life of St Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish Catholic priest who died in the Auschwitz Nazi death camp during WW2. His story is one of truly “denying yourself, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus Christ.” When Germany invaded Poland, they began severely persecuting the church, especially the clergy. St. Maximillian knew that his monastery was in danger, so he told most of the monks to leave and seek safe refuge elsewhere. He remained with a few monks and began providing shelter for thousands of internal refugees, including more than 2000 Jews. Although he was threatened by the Gestapo, he persisted in this risky ministry of love for two years. Finally, the day came when the Nazis arrested him and the few other monks who stayed, sending them all to the Auschwitz concentration camp in May 1941.
Even in the hell of the concentration camp, however, St. Maximillian continued to “deny himself” and put others first. Witnesses shared how he would allow others to get their food portion before he would get anything, and when he did receive his meal, he inevitably shared it with those in greater need.
His self-denial reached a climax two months into his time at Auschwitz. The Nazis had the practice of killing 10 random prisoners every time someone escaped the concentration camp. One day, a prisoner from St. Maximillian’s bunker escaped, and the commander of the camp quickly rounded up the entire bunker and selected 10 men to be placed in the starvation hole. As he selected the 10 men, one of them named Francis began crying out, “My poor wife! My children! What will they do?”
As these cries of despair rose to the deaf ears of the Nazis, St. Maximillian broke rank from the other prisoners and boldly approached the commandant. The commandant was just as shocked at the audacity of the man who approached him, as he was by his words: “I am a priest. I would like to take the place of this man, because he has a wife and children.”
The Commandant stood in silence, and then surprisingly agreed. St. Maximillian took the place of Francis Gajowniczek, and the 10 condemned men were led away to the starvation bunker, where they remained without food or water until they starved to death. On August 14, 1941, at the age of 47 years, St. Maximillian died, having given his life for another man. Francis Gajowniczek survived the horror of the camp, and the war itself, living to the age of 95. He never forgot St. Maximillian’s selfless love.
In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say, “If you want to become my follower, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.” Mark 8:35
Our society doesn’t often encourage us to deny ourselves and to lose our lives for others. Yet this is precisely the fundamental teaching of our Lord. It’s interesting to note when Jesus said this to his followers. It was right after they answered the most important question “Who do people say that I am?” with the declaration “You are the Christ.” The disciples finally understand who Jesus is, and he then reveals to them the path of true discipleship. If they want to sincerely follow Him, they must walk the way of self-denial. They must be ready to give up their life, to lose it for others and for the sake of the Gospel. This is precisely the path of the Cross in which we discover the greatest meaning of life!
Our Lord made many promises to His followers: “Follow me on a journey into the Kingdom of God and you will discover God’s peace that passes all understanding. I will be with you and will never abandon you to the end of the age. Come to me all you who are burdened and heavy laden and I’ll give you rest. I will reveal to you the path toward paradise and fill your life with the deepest meaning and purpose. I adopt you as my precious and beloved child and will help you discover your eternal heritage as my cherished children.”
“If you choose to follow me, all of these precious promises await you,” the Lord says, “HOWEVER you must understand that the path which leads to this truly blessed life is the path of self-denial, of crucifying your ego. Becoming my disciple won’t include the easy, comfortable and prosperous path that society idolizes.”
No! To walk intimately with Jesus means rejecting the self-centered life and walking an other-centered life; it means turning away from the spirit of this world and seeking first the kingdom of God; it means denying certain pleasures and desires in order to place something more eternal and meaningful at the center of our lives; it means accepting whatever cross God allows to come our way and bearing that cross with faith, fortitude, and hope.
Ultimately, following Jesus isn’t about what we want! Christ shatters our egocentric world and leads us to a new discovery of being. As the Apostle Paul so clearly stated in today’s epistle: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Are we willing to give up our own will and honestly pray, “Your will be done?”
Here lies the most important discovery for every authentic follower of Jesus – we deny ourselves and give up our freedom to discover something greater than ourselves. We are free, yet Christ-centered freedom leads us to use our freedom not for ourselves, but for others. We are free to love others, even when they don’t love us; free to forgive others, even if they choose to hold a grudge against us; free to treat others kindly and to treat others as we want them to treat us, even if they don’t reciprocate in like manner. In other words, we use our freedom to deny ourselves and live under the reign of God’s kingdom here and now, even in a fallen world!
Understanding this type of freedom helps us better comprehend today’s strange invitation of our Lord: “If you want to become my follower, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”
Let me conclude with another story, one not quite as serious as St. Maximillian, but one still with an important lesson. Several years ago, there was a little girl named Liz who was suffering from a rare blood disorder. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her 5-year old brother Johnny, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother and asked the boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his older sister. The little boy hesitated for only a brief moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes, I’ll do it if it will save my sister.” As the transfusion progressed, the boy laid in bed next to his sister, he smiled at her. Slowly the color in his sister’s cheeks began to return, while his own face grew pale and slowly his smile faded. As he looked up at the doctor, he asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?” Being so young, the boy had misunderstood the doctor and thought he was going to give his sister all of his blood. For love’s sake, he was willing to deny himself, to give up his life in order to save his sister. Here is the power of sacrificial love!
“If you want to become my follower, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”