In the Footsteps of Christ | A Homily by St. Josemaria Escriva
Ego sum via, veritas et vita. I am the way, the truth and the life. In these clear and unmistakable words Our Lord traces out for us the true path that leads to everlasting happiness. Ego sum via: he is the only road linking heaven and earth. He is speaking to all men, but in a very special way he is thinking of people who, like you and me, are determined to take our Christian vocation seriously, so that God may always be present in our thoughts, on our lips and in everything we do, including our most ordinary and routine actions.
Jesus is the way. Behind him on this earth of ours he has left the clear outlines of his footprints. They are indelible signs which neither the erosion of time nor the treachery of the evil one have been able to erase. Iesus Christus heri et hodie; ipse et in saecula. How I love to recall these words! Jesus Christ, the very Jesus who was alive yesterday for his Apostles and the people who sought him out; this same Jesus lives today for us, and will live forever. Yet, at times, we poor men fail to recognize his ever-present features, because our eyes are tired and our vision clouded. Now, as we begin this time of prayer close to the tabernacle, ask him, like the blind man in the Gospel did, Domine, ut videam! Lord, that I may see! Enlighten my intelligence and let Christ’s words penetrate deep into my mind. Strengthen his Life in my soul so that I may be transformed in readiness for eternal Glory.
How crystal clear Christ’s teaching is. As usual, let us turn to the New Testament, this time to St Matthew, chapter eleven: ‘Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.’ Don’t you see? We have to learn from him, from Jesus who is our only model. If you want to go forward without stumbling or wandering off the path, then all you have to do is walk the road he walked, placing your feet in his footprints and entering into his humble and patient Heart, there to drink from the wellsprings of his commandments and of his love. In a word, you must identify yourself with Jesus Christ and try to become really and truly another Christ among your fellow men.
To make sure there is no mistake here, let us read another quotation from St Matthew. In chapter sixteen, Our Lord makes his doctrine even clearer: ‘If anyone wishes to come my way, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.’ God’s way is one of renunciation, of mortification and of self-surrender, but it is not one of sadness or faint-heartedness.
Reflect on the example that Christ gave us, from the crib in Bethlehem to his throne on Calvary. Think of his self-denial and of all he went through: hunger, thirst, weariness, heat, tiredness, ill-treatment, misunderstandings, tears… But at the same time think of his joy in being able to save the whole of mankind. And now I would like you to engrave deeply in your mind and upon your heart — so that you can meditate on it often and draw your own practical conclusions — the summary St Paul made to the Ephesians when he invited them to follow resolutely in Our Lord’s footsteps: ‘Be imitators of God, as very dear children, and walk in love, as Christ has loved us and delivered himself up for us, a sacrifice breathing out fragrance as he offered it to God.’
Jesus gave himself up for us in a holocaust of love. What about you, who are a disciple of Christ? You, a favored son of God; you, who have been ransomed at the price of the Cross; you too should be ready to deny yourself. So, no matter what situation we may find ourselves in, neither you nor I can ever allow ourselves to behave in a way that is selfish, materialistic, comfort-loving, dissipated or — forgive me if I speak too candidly — just plain stupid! ‘If all you want is the esteem of your fellow men, and you long to be respected and appreciated, and you only seek a pleasant life, then you have strayed from the path… Only those who travel the rugged, narrow and austere path of tribulation are allowed to enter the city of the saints, there to rest and reign with the King for eternity.’
You yourself must decide of your own free will to take up the cross; otherwise, your tongue may say that you are imitating Christ, but your actions will belie your words. That way, you will never get to know the Master intimately, or love him truly. It is really important that we Christians convince ourselves of this. We are not walking with Our Lord unless we are spontaneously depriving ourselves of many things that our whims, vanity, pleasure or self-interest clamour for. Not a single day should pass that has not been seasoned with the salt and grace of mortification; and, please get rid of the idea that you would then be miserable. What a sad little happiness you will have if you don’t learn to overcome yourself, if you let your passions and fancies dominate and crush you, instead of courageously taking up your cross!
As I speak of these things, there comes to mind the dream of that author of the golden age of Spanish literature — I am sure some of you have heard me mention it in other meditations. The writer sees two roads opening up before him. One of them is broad and smooth, easy to travel, with many comfortable inns, taverns and other places of beauty and delight. Along this road go great crowds of people on horseback or in carriages, in a hubbub of music and mindless laughter. One sees a multitude intoxicated by a joy which is simply ephemeral and superficial, for this road leads to a bottomless precipice. It is the road taken by the worldly-minded, ever seeking material pleasure, boasting a happiness that they do not really possess, and craving insatiably for comfort and pleasure… They are terrified at the thought of suffering, self-denial or sacrifice. They have no wish to know anything about the Cross of Christ. They think it is sheer madness. But then it is they who are insane, for they are slaves of envy, gluttony and sensuality. They end up suffering far more, and only too late do they realize that they have squandered both their earthly and their eternal happiness in exchange for meaningless trifles. Our Lord has warned us about this. ‘The man who tries to save his life shall lose it; it is the man who loses his life for my sake who will secure it. How is a man the better for it if he gains the whole world at the cost of losing his own soul?’
In that dream there is another path which goes in a different direction. It is so steep and narrow that the travelers who take it cannot go on horseback. All who take it must go on foot, perhaps having to zigzag from side to side, but they move steadily on, treading on thorns and briars, picking their way round rocks and boulders. At times their clothing gets torn, and even their flesh. But at the end of this road a garden of paradise awaits them, eternal happiness, Heaven. This is the way taken by holy people, who humble themselves and who, out of love for Jesus, gladly sacrifice themselves for others. It is the path of those who are not afraid of an uphill climb, who bear the cross lovingly, no matter how heavy it may be, because they know that if they fall under its weight they can still get up and continue their ascent. Christ is the strength of these travelers.
What does it matter that we stumble on the way, if we find in the pain of our fall the energy to pick ourselves up and go on with renewed vigor? Don’t forget that the saint is not the person who never falls, but rather the one who never fails to get up again, humbly and with a holy stubbornness. If the book of Proverbs says that the just man falls seven times a day, who are we poor creatures, you and I, to be surprised or discouraged by our own weaknesses and falls! We will be able to keep going ahead, if only we seek our fortitude in him who says: ‘Come to me all you who labour and are burdened and I will give you rest.’ Thank you, Lord, quia tu es, Deus, fortitudo mea, because you, and you alone, my God, have always been my strength, my refuge and my support.
If you really want to make progress in the interior life, be humble. Turn constantly and confidently to the help of Our Lord and of his Blessed Mother, who is your Mother too. No matter how much the still open wound of your latest fall may hurt, embrace the cross once more and, calmly, without getting upset, say: ‘With your help, Lord, I’ll fight so as not to be held back. I’ll respond faithfully to your invitations. I won’t be afraid of steep climbs, nor of the apparent monotony of my daily work, nor of the thistles and loose stones on the way. I know that I am aided by your mercy and that, at the end of the road, I will find eternal happiness, full of joy and love for ever and ever.’
Later, in the same dream, our writer discovers a third path. It too is narrow and, like the second, it is both steep and rugged. Those who travel it walk solemnly and regally in the midst of countless hardships. Yet they end up falling over the same terrible precipice that the first road leads to. This is the path of the hypocrites, people who lack a right intention, who are motivated by a false zeal and pervert divine works by mixing them with their own selfish and temporal ambitions. ‘It is folly to undertake a hard and difficult task just to be admired; to put great effort into keeping God’s commandments with but an earthly reward in mind. Whoever practices virtue for the sake of some human benefit is like a person who sells off a priceless heirloom for just a few coins. He could have won Heaven, but he is content instead with fleeting praise… That is why they say that the hopes of hypocrites are like a spider’s web: so much effort goes into weaving it, and in the end it is blown away by a puff of the wind of death.’
“In the Footsteps of Christ” is an excerpt from the homily given by St. Josemaria Escriva on April 3, 1955. The homily is published by Scepter Publishers in the book “Friends of God”.