St Mark the Ascetic: Taking Up the Cross With Joy
Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) · December 21, 2012
This week, Archimandrite Irenei examines a text by St. Mark the Ascetic in which the Christian is enjoined to "give himself entirely to the Cross," undergoing "with joy" the abasement that it brings. Do we live our lives in this way? Can we claim to be what St. Mark terms "true Christians"?
The text I would like to address today is a small saying attributed to St. Mark the Ascetic, sometimes known as St. Mark the Monk or St. Mark the Hermit. He was a great ascetic of the Egyptian Desert who lived in the 5th Century, who was himself a disciple of John Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed; whose divine words are often the subject of our consideration here in these broadcasts.
St. Mark the Monk, having become a monk in his 40th and having been tonsured, as tradition says, by St. John, spent the remainder of his life, some 60 years or so, in the Egyptian Desert in Nytria in lower Egypt. Renowned even among his contemporaries, he is called St. Mark the Monk because this asceticism was taken as a kind of paradigm of the true monastic life. In one of his sayings, we find the following:
Unless a man gives himself entirely to the Cross, in a spirit of humility and self-abasement; unless he casts himself down to be trampled underfoot by all and despised, accepting injustice, contempt and mockery; unless he undergoes all these things with joy for the sake of the Lord, not claiming any kind of human reward whatsoever – glory or honor or earthly pleasures – he cannot become a true Christian.
My brothers and sisters, it is nice when a saying from the Holy Fathers so succinctly and directly says what we so often need to hear. We are Christians by the grace of God, baptized into His life, receiving His Holy Spirit by Divine Chrismation. We partake of the Body and the Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ and are united to Him through all the sacred Mysteries of the Church.
We speak to Him, and we open our heart to Him and have our sins forgiven by Him through Holy Confession. We participate in the worship of Heaven itself, standing with one foot on the earth and the other in Heaven, at each celebration of the Divine Services. By the grace of God, we have a calling unimaginable and glorious beyond description, to be united with all of the saints in the worship of the one true God, the Holy Trinity.
And yet for all of this, do we live a life worthy of the calling of Christian? Do we take even the basic steps to become what St. Mark calls a true Christian? God has done such wonders for us. Think of all from which we have been saved, all the darkness of our sin and all the evil of the world. Look at the steps God takes to draw us close to Himself through His wonderful Mysteries and through the pastoral counsel of His Church. And yet, do we offer our lives in response?
St. Mark lays a basic criterion for becoming a true Christian. And that criterion is this, accepting and giving one’s self entirely to the Cross. If we are not willing to offer ourselves wholly to the Cross of Christ, what business do we have, asks St. Mark, to call ourselves Christian in the face of all that God has done for us? The self-revealing, self-abasing God died upon the Cross for my sins and for your sins. But am I willing to take up that Cross, even in the lesser ways required of me in my day to day life?
It is likely the case, though it is never certain, that we will not be asked to take up that Cross in the most physical way – that most glorious martyrdom that has been the call of so many of the saints. Most of us will not be called to that witness. And yet, are we willing to take up the Cross even in the smaller means of our day to day self-abasement.
Man must give himself to the Cross, St. Mark says, “in a spirit of humility and self-abasement.” If he wants to be a true Christian, man must cast himself down to be trampled underfoot and despised by all. Do we do this in our spiritual life? Do we cast ourselves down seeking the places of less honor; seeking the struggles that others wish to avoid that by them we may be debased and seen more lowly in the eyes of our peers, of those around us and knowing that in lowliness the human heart is made great in God?
Or do we seek, instead, the places of honor as the Holy Apostles once did before being corrected by Christ? Do we seek to sit on the right and the left and have our prayers heard and our good deeds seen? Do we forget that we call ourselves Christian; that Christ says that those who are first will be last? He who wishes to be a true Christian, St. Mark says, “must accept injustice, contempt, and mockery.”
Do we do this in our day to day life? Or when we are faced with injustice, and here St. Mark is speaking of injustice not meted out against our brother, for when that occurs we must quickly aid our brother and help him, but when injustice is leveled against us; when we are held in contempt and mockery, do we accept and embrace this as a gift, or do we flee from it like children who have been embarrassed in front of their friends and must reclaim their dignity and honor?
Do we seek to respond to the injustice leveled against us? When we are mocked, do we instead strive to show that we are worthy of care and acceptance? St. Mark tells us that the mark of a true Christian is when suffering injustice or mockery or scorn to embrace this as a gift; to cherish it for this is the life of the Cross. This is what calls the Christian heart close to the heart of Christ, who carrying his own Cross through the streets of Jerusalem was insulted and mocked and spat upon and yet did not revile; did not seek to reclaim His glory except through that self-offering that He would affect on Golgotha.
And St. Mark gives a kind of umbrella into which all these things fit when he says that the true Christian undergoes all of these things “with joy for the sake of the Lord.” The mark of a true Christian is not merely that he accepts contempt and mockery; that he casts himself down to be trampled underfoot, but that he does it joyfully; that these things far from being grudges to be bore or difficulties to be traipsed through, but embraces them, rejoices in them, and finds in them the very contours of his or her real spiritual life, and he does this for the sake of Christ, as an offering of love to Jesus Christ.
St. Mark says, “For no reward whatsoever, of any human kind – glory or honor or any pleasures of this earth.” All that we do as Christians must be done for Christ alone, not for recognition or the peace or the joy of our life in this world. This is what it means to be a follower of the Cross; to live the life of Christ glorified upon the tree. “And unless,” St. Mark reminds us, “a man gives himself entirely to the Cross, he cannot be a true Christian.”
My brothers and sisters, let us joyfully receive this word from our Father among the Saints, the great ascetic of the Egyptian Desert. Let us hear from him those necessary words that encourage us in our spiritual struggle; that accepting the Cross we might find joy in it. As the Troparion of the Cross tells us, “Through the Cross joy comes into all the world.”
May the Cross be our joy. May the accepting of its burden and yoke be that which Christ tells us is light and easy to bear. That is not to say that it is not crushing. The Cross is an instrument of death. But what makes the Cross light and easy to bear is that through it comes life; through it comes peace; through it comes spiritual and eternal joy. And in the face of that joy, there is no burden, not even death itself, which is able to take the love and the peace of our heart from us.
Let us then, brothers and sisters, take up our Cross, give up ourselves entirely to it and call ourselves and be called by God “true Christian people.” Through the prayers of our Holy Father among the Saints, Mark the Ascetic, the monk of Egypt, and of all the Saints, have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.