In today's Gospel, Jesus gives us the three steps to discipleship, which is to say, the three steps to salvation. The first step is to deny yourself, which means crossing out the "I." This is the most difficult step, because in our fallen state we are naturally self-centered: we tend to see and to experience the whole world through the prism of our own needs and desires. This is, of course, the exact opposite what Christ did when he voluntarily ascended the Cross.
But the mere act of self-denial is not enough. After all, not only Christians practice this virtue. What self-denial means for the Christian is taking on voluntarily (without grumbling or complaining) whatever burdens God sees fit to lay upon us. As a matter of fact, everyone
has a cross--but only those who cheerfully accept their cross are considered to have taken it up. Otherwise we are simply enduring against our will something that has been imposed upon us.
Finally, having taken up our cross, we must resolve to faithfully follow Christ: otherwise we are nothing more than commendable stoics endowed with a great measure of patience and courage. Only those who endure till the end for the sake of Christ without any pride or self-interest shall be saved.
This is indeed the purpose of our whole earthly pilgrimage: it is a school, a training ground wherein we strive and struggle to become true disciples of Christ. And the season of the Great Fast is especially the time set aside to devote ourselves to this struggle. But all of our fasting, prayer and other spiritual disciplines are pointless unless they are directed toward this end. The Church provides us with all that is necessary for our salvation, but these ways and means are never intended to be ends in themselves. Our ultimate goal is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul an mind, and our neighbor as our self.
After all, even the great martyr Ignatius, having endured so much on the way to Rome where he was to be fed to the lions, wrote to his flock that he had barely begun to be a disciple. May God grant to us all such humility, meekness, courage and a spirit of repentance, that we may steadfastly carry our cross and be made worthy of salvation in God's eternal Kingdom.