Lent carries in its bosom a seductive danger: excessive inwardness. The seduction is this: a season of prayer, repentance and preparation for Good Friday and Easter necessarily involves trips to the heart, but tarry there too long and repentance can stall out as melancholy. The danger is this: self-examination may spawn attempts at self-improvement, with the result that looking at self replaces looking to God, and small measures of merit replace the immeasurable grace of God.
Often Jesus’s words seem perversely contrary to sense. Take, for example, his central bit of advice in our Gospel passage for today: “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him renounce himself and take up his cross, and follow me.
Imagine being crucified. Imagine, first of all, the physical torture. Brutal hands forcing your body into a contorted shape. Hammer and nails piercing whole frontiers of agony in hand and foot. Sagging lungs dragging your thorax down, so that every breath is an increasing effort, a fight against suffocation.