Sunday, September 20, 2015

To take up a cross

We know – most of us – what happened on the cross.

For example, just last week, I asked my five year old nephew what happened on the cross and first he said, "You mean the cross on top of the church?" And I said, "No, I’m asking about the reason we put a cross on top of the church. I mean, what happened on the real cross? Do you know?" And he said, "They nailed Jesus to it."

That is indeed the awful and awesome truth – that Jesus, our Savior and the Savior of the world, hung upon the cross and there he died for us and for our salvation. “[He] ascended the cross in [his] human nature, to deliver from the enemy’s bondage those whom [he] created,” as we pray quietly before the Divine Liturgy. The one who is life himself – the way the truth and the life (John 14:6) – died. Life died – life entered into death – so that, though we die, in him, we may live (John 11:25) – and live forever.

We know this – most of us. We have the inestimable benefit of living in a post-resurrectional cosmos. We know and partake of the life that comes after the cross and through it. The cross for us has rightly been bejeweled. The cross for us is the tree of life. For us it no longer symbolizes death and ignominy, but life and glory. “The King of Glory” we write on icons of the cross. And now, if we glory, let us glory “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to [us], and [we] to the world,” as Paul writes to the Galatians (6:14).

“We bow to your cross, O Lord, and we glorify your holy resurrection!” We will sing this for the last time tomorrow, on the leave-taking of the exaltation of the holy cross. 

This action is itself a beautiful image of death and resurrection. We bow or prostrate as we sing of the cross. Our bodies are lowered to the ground as they will be in death. Then, we stand upright again as we sing of resurrection, as we will stand up again from our graves when the Son of man “comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

So when Jesus says today, ""If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34), all of this imagery should come to our minds, given the benefit of our vantage point.

But what can Jesus' disciples and the multitude have thought when he preached this to them? This is the first time that Jesus directly mentions the cross. This is the case in the gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This is the first time Jesus uses the word “cross,” and he’s not talking just about his own cross, but about the crosses of those who would be his followers – about our crosses. Isn’t that something?

Now Jesus had just foretold his own death and resurrection, so I suppose we could presume that he also described how he would die, but the gospel doesn’t tell us that. Regardless, how confounding the idea of taking up a cross must have sounded to those who first heard it! In a way we have an advantage over these first hearers, but in a way they have an advantage over us.

They perhaps could not see the good and beauty of the cross, as well as we. Even though Jesus had just told them that he would rise again from the dead, I imagine that it still would be difficult for them to conceive of this instrument of torture and death (to which Jesus is calling them) as a life-giving thing.

We, on the other hand, knowing the outcome, having read the last page of the story, may fail to see sometimes the suffering and scandal the cross represents as it lies before us on the tetrapod in bright pigments and enwreathed with flowers. We may expect to skip straight to the resurrection and forget about how the way to resurrection is through the cross. We may be tempted to skip straight to the feast of Pascha without first observing the black fast of Good Friday.

But when Jesus told the multitude that, if they were to follow him, they were going to need to follow him to the cross, they’d have had no illusions about what this meant. They knew what crosses were for and they had witnessed crucifixions, which were all too common in that time and place.

To carry a cross is to suffer. To take up a cross, is to accept or even embrace that suffering. Here’s the thing: we all have a cross whether we accept it or not. There’s no escape from suffering in this life. Most of those crucified went to the cross very much against their will. The end of suffering can only be fully realized in the life to come, if we choose to go that way. 

This is our choice, then: to reject the cross and die anyway or to accept the cross with love and, through death, live forever. We can react to suffering as Job’s wife recommends, that is to curse God and die (Job 2:9). Or we can respond to suffering as Job does, not without questioning, but without sin anyway (Job 1:22), and with love anyway (Job 10:12), blessing the name of the Lord anyway (Job 1:21).

Our Lord heals us, but he does not always and immediately take away all our suffering. Everyone here has suffered. Some more than others. And there is nothing just about its distribution. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matt 5:45), and so does pain afflict us all physically, psychologically, spiritually. And there is no understanding it, as far as I can tell.

Sometimes suffering is the direct result of sin – for example, gluttony, and drunkenness, and violence all result almost immediately in some kind of suffering either for the self or for others. Dying by the sword, Jesus says, results from living by it (Matt 26:52). But then sometimes children as innocent as doves are cut to death this way for no reason. And there is no understanding that, as far as I can tell.

It is possible only by the grace of God for us to be freed from sin, and even then we will not be freed from suffering and affliction and persecution by the evil spirits and by the enemies of God. Jesus was without sin, yet in his great love for us, he suffered greatly. He suffered so that, through suffering, we can be united to him. He has given suffering, which was meaningless, the only meaning that it can have. God, by becoming a man who suffers, has transfigured suffering into grace – into a way of living the life of God.

Because Jesus takes up his cross, we must take up our crosses if we are to follow him – if we are to become like him, which is what it means to be his follower. Our crosses are made up of all our difficulties and all our pain and suffering. And Jesus is present to us in these. By his cross, Jesus has transformed our suffering, as Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon writes, “into a creative force, a means of drawing near to God, so that we can make it into a ladder by which we climb up to heaven.”

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