Matthew 16:21-27
Christian self-denial
by Rev. Joseph M. Rampino
Reprinted with the permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.  Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, "God forbid, Lord!  No such thing shall ever happen to you."  He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."  Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?  Or what can one give in exchange for his life?  For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct."

A dear friend once recounted to me the experience of flying across the southern Balkans on the way to Istanbul: "I saw all of northern Greece there, outside the window, Mount Olympus, Thessaly, Macedonia.  Within 10 minutes I could see the Hellespont, the site of ancient Troy, then in another 15 minutes, the Bosphorus and finally Istanbul.  The whole time, I though of all the great stories that I had learned in school, Homer's "Iliad" and Odyssey," the Persian War, the early conquests of Alexander the Great, the founding and flourishing of New Rome and the Byzantine Empire, the loss at Adrianople, the Ottoman conquest - all these things took place in that little landscape I saw beneath me, and as giant as those stories and their characters seemed, now it all looked so small.  This stage for gods and heroes took all of 30 minutes to cross."  He had gained in a short time a new perspective, and from higher up, all that had loomed large in this life suddenly looked almost insignificant.

In today's Gospel, Jesus tells Peter, "You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."  Peter had just rejected the Lord's plan of salvation through the passion of the cross, and he does so precisely because he does not possess the divine perspective.  Peter sees in this moment at a merely earthly level.  He doesn't understand the eternal consequences of Jesus' death, that this is the way he himself and millions upon millions after him will find freedom from sin and receive a new life of unexpected and inconceivable glory; all he sees is his friend and master's immediate pain, and it seems like an impossible and unacceptable obstacle.  In face, the prediction of Christ's suffering had frightened him so much that he misses the promise that "on the third day," Jesus would "be raised."

Jesus, of  course does not only take Peter to task for refusing to trust him, and for thinking in such a small, earthbound way, but also gives a marching command to all his disciples for all time: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."

To help all of us understand, he provides the perspective that Peter missed, setting our Christian self-denial in the context of eternity.  He reminds us that if we trust him and lose ourselves in love for him, then we will find our lives again, when Christ returns with the angels and "repays all."  He raises the minds of the disciples to a new height, so that from the altitude of heaven, they can understand that though crosses and sufferings are necessary here in time, they are not the final world.  Rather, our trials in the present are part of the road to new life, which is itself worth more than "gaining the whole world."

The question for us is whether or not we have that supernatural perspective.  Do we look at the events of our lives an evaluate them from the altitude of heaven?  Do the difficulties of this life look to us like great and unclimbable mountains, or do we see them as mere folds in the ground of a world that is passing away beneath us, on the other side of which lies our glorious home?  Christ calls us to rise in heart with him even now, while we endure, serve and love here below.  If we persevere in doing so, through the life of grace, the sacraments, prayer, reflection, and supernaturally minded charity, then we will become Christian in truth, and taste the beginning of heaven's joy.