Losing to beat the devil: Sunday reflection

Marty Lederhandler

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 8:27–35:

Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.” Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “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 and that of the gospel will save it.”

When does losing become winning? Never, if you listen to Vince Lombardi, but of course that’s absolutely true in football and in sports. And of course, that’s entirely what the great NFL coach meant when he famously said, “Winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing.” And the same can be said of another famous Lombardi quote: “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

Lombardi gave many other examples of wise advice and observations, however, some of which put those into their proper context.  We could spend an entire reflection on Lombardi, but one quote in particular has a better connection to today’s readings. In fact, it gets to the heart of what Jesus tries to teach His disciples. “Success,” Lombardi advised, “demands singleness of purpose.”

It may seem odd to use Lombardi and his zeal for winning in a reflection about Christ’s exhortation for us to lose ourselves and our lives. That, however, is the crux of our readings today from Isaiah and Mark today. What constitutes winning in terms of salvation, and what constitutes losing? The answer is in understanding which playing field we’re actually on.

No greater love hath man than to lay down his life for a friend. Jesus also taught us this in word and in deed, laying down His own life to save our eternal souls. In the early church, many men and women had to experience the same thing in a very literal sense, becoming martyrs to the faith and becoming beacons of light to other Christians. That martyrdom never actually stopped — we still see examples to the present day in people such as Maxmillian Kolbe, Father Stanley Rother, and Father Jacques Hamel. In the early centuries, however, martyrdom became so common as to make this teaching and Mark’s Gospel a literal prescription.

When the persecutions largely ended, however, many looked for other ways to “lose” one’s life for Christ. The monastic order evolved from the attempts by some to live as though they were dead to the world by cutting off all contact with it. We’d call that “going off the grid” these days (done for other purposes, obviously), but over the centuries that became one way for men and women to live Christ’s exhortation.

Some are clearly called to the monastic life, even to this day, as part of the Lord’s will. But is that what Jesus wants for all of us? God wants us to spread the Gospel through human association and to live it in all walks of life. Most are called to marriage and life in the laity, which means we aren’t supposed to all act as though we’re dead to the world. We are called to be not of the world, but still remain in it.

That itself is the key. As fallen humans, we are oriented to the material life rather than the spiritual, even though we actually exist in both worlds. Christ is calling us to lay down our fallen and material lives to focus on the eternal and spiritual, a kind of death in itself but figurative rather than literal for most of us. Jesus wants us to lay down that materiality and embrace His Word instead, denying our sense of being the center of the universe to adopt a servant’s heart and a disciple’s sense of faith and trust in his master.

That’s not easy to do, of course. To succeed at that, we have to focus on denying our own primacy, even though it’s among our most basic instincts. Jesus speaks of taking up a cross and “follow me” to accomplish this, and the first steps are the hardest. Shakespeare hinted at this in Hamlet, Act III, scene III, wherein Hamlet tells his mother Queen Gertrude that she must “assume a virtue, if you have it not,” in order to stop the sinful disgrace of sleeping with her husband’s brother and murderer:

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [ ] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.

This passage is sometimes misunderstood to advise people to fake having a virtue to avoid having to change. Indeed, it’s the other way around. Shakespeare has Hamlet delivering one of the better pieces of spiritual advice one might find. If we have enough self-awareness to understand that we lack a virtue, we should act as though we have it — so that we make it a habit and therefore acquire the virtue in that manner. That is how we “change the stamp of nature,” or perhaps put more in terms of the Scriptures, how we overcome the lasting effects of original sin.

This brings us back to Lombardi and “singleness of purpose.” It is a test that Gertrude fails in Hamlet, and one with which most of us struggle as well. To change our natures takes a herculean effort that equates to laying down our lives as they are in order to follow Jesus. Our salvation should be purpose for which we have singular focus, not the games of the material world. Even if we do have to live in the material world and have a responsibility of stewardship for those resources we have, even that should be oriented to self-denial, faith in the Lord, and the discipleship of Christ for our salvation.

And in support of that conclusion, allow me to leave you with these words from Lombardi:

When we place our dependence in God, we are unencumbered, and we have no worry. In fact, we may even be reckless, insofar as our part in the production is concerned. This confidence, this sureness of action, is both contagious and an aid to the perfect action. The rest is in the hands of God – and this is the same God, gentlemen, who has won all His battles up to now.

Amen. That is how we lose to beat the devil, my friends.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.