“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.”

I just recently heard the story of a man by the name of Omelyan Kovch — He’s “Blessed” — Blessed Omelyan Kovch. He was a Ukrainian Catholic priest who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. And his family knew that he went to this concentration camp, and they were desperately working to release him from that awful place of torture and death. 

And yet, Omelyan wrote a letter back to his family in response to all their efforts to save him. And these are his incredible words:

“I understand that you are trying to free me. But I am asking you not to do anything. I thank God for His kindness to me. Except for heaven, this is the only place I would like to be. I am the only priest here. I couldn’t even imagine what would happen here without me. Here… I see God.”

How intense and insane is that? “I understand you’re trying to free me….I understand that you are trying to save my life — but I am asking you NOT to.

Can you imagine? 

This spirit of heroic sacrifice and willingness to lose one’s life reminds me of another great saint of our Catholic tradition — Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop and martyr who in the early 100’s AD went to his death in the Roman Colosseum. 

His people, the flock of the city of Antioch, tried to intervene on his behalf — They tried to save him from public torture, humiliation, and death. But he, too, wrote back to them begging them not to interfere.

“Things are off to a good start,” he writes.

Can you believe that? “Things are going well!”

Remember, Ignatius is on his way to his DEATH. He’s about to be eaten alive by hungry lions and tigers in front of thousands of eager spectators. But… things are apparently off to a good start, he says!

Then we get to the heart of what his letter is all about:

“May I have the good fortune… THE GOOD FORTUNE!… to meet my fate without interference! Grant me no more than to be a sacrifice for God while there is an altar at hand.”

Now what he’s saying here is stunning. And it’s just as stunning as what Blessed Omelyan Kovch said. He’s saying to his people, who love him, who want to preserve him, who want to keep him from dying at the hands of pagan persecution — “Don’t save me! Allow me to offer myself as a sacrifice! Let me die!”

“I plead with you…” St. Ignatius continues, “…Let me be food for wild beasts — that is how I can get to God.”

Both Blessed Omelyan and St. Ignatius put their faith into action in an astonishing way. Their faith was certainly not dead, as St. James warns us against in our second reading today! They, and all the saints with them, were more than willing to put their faith to hard and demanding work, regardless of the cost to themselves! Regardless of the cost to people who would rather them not suffer pain and death.

That first reading we heard from the prophet Isaiah — one of the so-called Suffering Servant passages — expresses this willingness to die and to suffer perfectly: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting… 

But the Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced!

This is the strange and bewildering intensity of all the saints — an intensity that screams out: “God is real. And we are dead serious about following Him. 

And we are willing to lose everything for Him and for the good of others. Please don’t try to stop us. Don’t try to spare us. We want to lose our lives for God.”

And that is precisely what Jesus is doing when he rebukes Peter in our gospel today — when he literally calls him to his face SATAN…””Get behind me, SATAN…You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” 

Like Blessed Omelyan and Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Christ is saying to his closest friends: “Do not interfere! Do not try to free me from my Cross! You think you’re helping. You think you’re being kind and merciful to me. But you are only getting in the way of God’s will. Instead — Let me die. Let me lose myself. Trust me: It will be for your own good if you do not try to save me.”

Peter somehow thought that he needed to save Jesus. Peter thought his job was to help Jesus avoid inconvenience, difficulty, trial, and persecution. He thought he needed to free Jesus from sacrifice!

A great GK Chesterton line comes to mind here: “Do not free a camel from the burden of his hump — You may be freeing him from being a camel!”

In other words — Don’t try to free Christ from the burden of His Cross! The Cross is His mission. It’s the entire reason He came to dwell among us in the first place! “The Son of Man must suffer greatly,” he says

So Peter’s job was NOT to save Jesus! …It’s the other way around! 

It was Christ’s job to save the entire world….But it would cost him everything. He would have to first lose everything if he was going to save anybody’s soul.

And nobody was going to get in His way.

I think deep down, we get this.

Something mysterious stirs within us when we hear Frodo Baggins say: “It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: Someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”

We understand the essential goodness of self-sacrifice — even if we don’t always talk about it. Even if we shy away from it. Even if we don’t always encourage it among our children and young people… We seem so intent on making our kids’ lives as easy and painless — as sacrifice free — as possible, don’t we?

But at the end of the day — we all still get it.

We all can see the beauty of sacrifice.

We think of, maybe — the firefighters who ran into the burning World Trade Center buildings on 9/11 — Twenty years ago. 

Nobody, on that day, tried to hinder them. Nobody tried stopping them, even though they were running towards those buildings when everyone else was running away.

But we allowed them to go in there — we allowed them to lay down their lives — Why? 

Because we all knew…that they were trying to save people.

And that is what Jesus is always doing. 

He’s always trying to save people — even if Peter did not understand that, at first — Jesus was running into the burning building of our broken, sinful souls.

Christ lost everything so that we might win. This is the beating heart of the Mystery of the Cross — That is how we get saved.

So now our task… is to imitate Him. 

“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.”

If that is true — then why are we so protective of ourselves? Why do we so closely guard our time, our energy, our money, our projects, our preferences, our precious entertainment? Why are we so afraid of dying? Afraid of self-sacrifice — Afraid of what politicians and pandemics might be able to do to us?

Forget yourself and love God, instead. 

You can do this. You don’t have to be thrown into a concentration camp, or suffer open persecution to be heroic. You don’t need to pull off some huge and dramatic accomplishment… 

You just need to let Jesus die in you — to let Jesus die for you! — in all your daily responsibilities, your everyday sufferings, your little acts of patience, forgiveness and love… And the peace and the joy of the Gospel will flood your soul and give you courage.

Let go of that death grip you have on life: It’s a waste of time…

Jesus is trying to save you.

Why would you try to stop him?