October 1, 2014 Length: 15:19
There is a phrase one hears; “It is a cross I have to bear”; which usually means something that causes pain or grief or some sort of problem. Fr. Christopher says that is not quite what Christ meant in today's Gospel.
Most of us wear a cross, and it is usual to give one to every newly baptised Christian. It is a sign that we follow Christ.
There is a phrase one hears; “It is a cross I have to bear”; which usually means something that causes pain or grief or some sort of problem. That is not quite what Christ meant in today’s Gospel. He was talking about the reality of crucifixion. As part of it the condemned man was required to take his own cross to the place of execution. To see someone carrying a cross was to see that person going to their death. That is what it means to take up a cross.
Christ undertook this voluntarily. In Metropolitan Kallistos’ words “He turned what would have been a piece of arbitrary violence, a judicial murder, into a redemptive sacrifice.” (The Orthodox Way p79).. Christ experienced a true human life but lived it perfectly. He died and then beyond dying he conquered death. We respond by following him in this way of the cross so as to attain a resurrection in union with God.
We are also called to be open about our following of Christ. To carry one’s cross in the Roman world, made a public spectacle, a deeply humiliating and horrendous experience. So, we are warned not to be ashamed of Christ: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34f)
For many over the years being a Christian has meant facing grave danger and even death. It still does in parts of the world today. To those in such danger we need to give what help we can, not just in prayer but also in action. For us, in the more settled west, a different issue arises, yet still dangerous. We face the demands of a society which treats religious belief as merely a matter of private interest. We are expected to keep quiet about our faith and act as if we all accepted the secular view of life and morality. This is unacceptable. Are we ashamed to speak truth when we are called to do so? Do our words and actions reveal Christ or deny Him? The penalty for us is not death, it is simply looking odd, yet we can still deny Christ by our silence. We are called to be witnesses of Christ wherever we are.
Christ’s words show another truth of the Christian life. To gain life we need to lose it. Old life, subject to sin and failure, is replaced by new life in Christ. Our selfish aims and pride in our own powers needs to be crucified. St Paul touches upon this in today’s Epistle: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19f).
It follows that when Christ says we are to take up a cross and follow Him, we are accepting that we have to die to sin, to our failings and to our old nature in order to be transformed. To take up our cross is to be with Christ, to live His life. Of course once we do this we are changed, and as we live more for Christ, and in the life he gives us we are more truly ourselves. The cross we bear is personal to each of us. We are all called to our own particular role and life in Christ within His Church. We do not do this alone; Christ is with us every step of the way, supporting us. Taking up our cross is a choice on our part, and continuing to carry it, to continue on the way, is a response we make day by day and hour by hour. We are called to constant repentance, turning ourselves towards God. Yet Christ also said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11 28f). We are called to die to selfishness and Christ’s burden for us is light. Freed from distorted thinking and, trusting Him, we can find peace.
There is a temptation to be anxious about all sorts of thing that lie in the future. It is a form of pride that assumes we can plan everything now; that all potential consequences are to be dealt with. In doing that we are dealing with the imaginary and the speculative. In contrast, following Christ is to live in reality, fully in the present moment. He asks us to do what we can do now and, indeed, helps us to do it. Yes, we should plan and deal with issues but we do not assume that we can deal with every eventuality. We ought to respond to what we have to deal with as and when it arises. Christ said about food and clothing: “But seek first His Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:34). If we place God first then the rest follows.
We may be tempted to delay action or repentance. St Theophan the Recluse wrote: “If you wish to overcome [the enemy]...obey immediately in actual deed the good thoughts and promptings coming from the Lord and calling you to repent. Do not allow the slightest delay, do not permit yourself to say: ‘I have made a firm resolve to repent a little later and I shall not abandon this intention.’ No, no, do not do this. Such resolutions have always proved deceptive and many people, who relied on them, have for many reasons remained unrepentant ant to the end of their lives.” (Unseen Warfare) It is in the present, therefore, we have to act.
Thus, taking up the cross is a matter of following Christ in everything, living in reality and constantly repenting, turning to God. If we do that we are truly blessed and show Christ to the world. Let us not be ashamed to do so.