Deny Yourself and Discover the Path of Life

I was recently reading 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.” It began when Germany invaded Poland and began severely persecuting the Church, and especially the Polish 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 and a few monks remained and then began providing shelter for thousands of internal refugees, including more than 2000 Jews. Although he was threatened by the Gustapo, 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, and sent 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 would invariably share it with those in more desperate need.

His self-denial reached its summit 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, one of the prisoners 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 bunker. 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 arose to the deaf ears of the Nazis, St. Maximillian broke rank from the other prisoners and boldly approached the commandant. The commandant was equally shocked at the audacity of this man to approach him, and 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. Franciszek Gajowniczek survived the war and lived 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 teach us too often to deny ourselves and to lose our lives for others. Yet this is precisely one of the fundamental teachings of our Lord. It’s interesting to note when Jesus said this. It was right after his followers 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. It is precisely on this path of the Cross that we will 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 throughout this life. I will help you carry whatever burden weighs you down and will give you reprieve and rest. I will reveal to you the secrets of paradise and fill your life with the deepest meaning and purpose. I will adopt you as my precious and beloved child and help you discover your eternal heritage as cherished children.”

“If you choose to follow me, all of these precious promises await you,” the Lord says, “BUT you must understand the path which leads to this truly blessed life – the path of self-denial. Becoming my disciple most likely won’t include the easy, comfortable and prosperous path that society idolizes.”

No! To walk intimately with Jesus means walking an other-centered life, not a self-centered one; it means denying the kingdom of this world and seeking instead 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 that God may allow to enter into our lives, and bearing that cross with faith, with fortitude, and with 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.”

That is the most important discovery that every authentic follower of Jesus needs to realize – we deny ourselves and our freedoms for something greater than ourselves. We are still free, but 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; to forgive others, even if they choose to hold a grudge against us; to be kind to others and to treat others as we want them to treat us, even if they don’t reciprocate in like manner. In other words, we are free to live under the reign of God’s kingdom here and now, even in a fallen world!

Accepting this type of freedom will help us better understand the 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 that of St. Maximillian. Several years ago, there was a little girl named Liz who was suffering from a rare and serious disease. 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 sister. He hesitated for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, "Yes, I'll do it if it will save my sister." As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled. Slowly the color in his sister’s cheeks began to return, while his own face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, "Will I start to die right away?" Being young, the boy had misunderstood the doctor and thought he was going to have to give his sister all of his blood. He was willing to deny himself in order for his sister to live. That is the essence of the path to life!

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.”

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