Mystical Word  |  Weekly Reflection
Mystical Word is a weekly reflection on the Sunday Gospel reading by L.J. Milone, Director of Faith Formation, Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

Losing more than Winning

The Gospel is about losing more than winning.

Few among us dislike an underdog story, particularly when it comes to sports.  In the fall of 2016, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series against the now-named Cleveland Guardians.  It was the first time the Cubs won since 1908.  Fans have waited a very long time for the Cubs to win!  Video captured the emotionally dramatic reaction to the win from various celebrities, including comedian and actor Bill Murray, a native of Chicago.  Murray even opened champagne and sprayed it all over the players.  We love it when an underdog wins.  The Cubs won because they played a better game than Cleveland.  They were superior in skill and maybe even in strength.  The fame of various celebrities mingled with the historic win to create a moment of real pride and even sports legend.  While it may have been amazing, the values of this story are not the values of the Gospel.

Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.  To all observers he lost.  His disciples abandoned him and his messianic dream of the reign of God failed to appear.  When the Cubs kept losing they were the butt of many jokes.  Cubs fans, surely, felt humiliated by their team.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ has much more to say to the Cubs when they kept losing over one hundred years than when they finally won, especially when they won based on their own strength and skill.  The Gospel is about God being victorious but winning in a way we would never expect and may even loathe.  God wins in Jesus crucified by losing.  Jesus dies.  His mission seems to die with him, but God raises him up.

We still don’t really get the Gospel.  We think life is about winning, succeeding, and achieving.  Yet, Jesus says that the condition for following him is to hate our lives in this world.  “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”  We are called to follow the crucified, naked, bleeding, losing, humiliated, and poor Christ into the depths of nothingness.  The Gospel is about both Jesus and his followers being reduced to nothing to realize and reveal the God of gratuitous mercy.  It is about neither achievement nor triumph.

There is an old Franciscan saying, “Nudus nudum Christum sequi.”  It means, “naked I follow the naked Christ.”  We must follow Jesus into nakedness, weakness, insult, humiliation, and suffering.  When we experience these realities in God, there lies freedom.  This is a way of embracing God in humiliations, in failure, and in weakness.  It is a way of thorough and even severe letting go.  This is how we hate our lives in this world.  We renounce the values of this world for the values of the Gospel.  We stop reciting the story of conventional American culture and start telling the story of Jesus crucified and his divine path of nothingness.

Honestly, we want to win.  We want to succeed.  We want to be strong.  Who wouldn’t?  These desires, though, are traps.  The Gospel promises no worldly success and challenges us to surrender all our strength to be weak.  Jesus tells us to expect persecution and humiliation.  He says we are blessed when people insult us and utter every kind of evil (falsely) against us because of him (Mt 5:11).  He tells us to rejoice when that happens!  When was the last time you rejoiced to be insulted for Christ’s sake?  This is not weakness for its own sake, though.  We embrace weakness to rely on God alone.

Meister Eckhart says, “The single action of the spiritual life is to reduce self to nothingness.”  This requires practice every single day, and even every single moment of every single day.  We have to practice letting go, losing, as much as possible.  Neurologically, reacting to something, especially reacting negatively, reinforces the neural pathways to the amygdala, which is the most primitive part of our brains controlling fight or flight responses.  Reaction is a typical ego game.  Letting go, however, reinforces neural pathways to the most evolved parts of the brain.  Research shows that long-term meditators have smaller amygdalas.  Even biology confirms those who lose and let go are freer and more joyful.  Practicing the Gospel path of being reduced to nothingness leads to greater freedom and joy, often amidst humiliation and suffering.  Again, this is not the way regular society wants to live, but it is the only way to liberation.  So, with every choice, the Gospel challenges us to let go.  With every choice, Jesus commands us to die to self and hate our lives in this world, for this world is passing away.