At the conclusion of last Sunday’s liturgy, we knelt and prayed before the great sign of our Lord’s victory over sin and death as we celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Today is the conclusion of the celebration of that feast, what we call in the Church its “Leave-taking.” But in the Christian life, we never leave behind the Cross, for our Savior calls us—just as He did His original disciples—to take up our cross and follow Him every day of our lives. That is not a command limited to a season of the church year; it is simply a necessary part of what it means to be a Christian.
Our Lord’s disciples, like the other Jews of that time, apparently expected a Messiah who would have had nothing to do with a cross. They wanted a successful ruler, someone like King David, who would destroy Israel’s enemies and give them privileged positions of power in a new political order. So they could not accept His clear word that He would be rejected, suffer, die, and rise again. When St. Peter actually tried to correct Him on this point, Christ called him “Satan” and said that he was thinking in human terms, not God’s. To place the pursuit of worldly power over faithful obedience was a temptation Christ had faced during His forty days of preparation in the desert before His public ministry began. Then that same temptation came from the head disciple, and the Lord let St. Peter know in no uncertain terms that He must serve God and not the powers of this world. To place worldly success over sacrificial obedience was simply the work of the devil. It still is today.
In complete contrast to what the disciples expected, the Savior told them that they too must take up their crosses and lose their lives in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The same is true for us, of course, for the false gods of power, possessions, and pleasure cannot conquer sin and death. Indeed, they simply make us their slaves and give us nothing in return but weakness and despair. The word of the Cross is that we too must lose ourselves in the service of the Kingdom in order to participate personally in our Lord’s great victory and blessing, both now and for eternity. That is how we find both life and our true selves in God.
Though we do not like to acknowledge it, holiness is on a collision course with the conventional standards of our corrupt world. That truth is the same for all nations, people, and cultures, for the way of the Cross judges them all. The witness of the martyrs from the origins of the faith right up until today in the Middle East makes that especially clear. But let us not think that taking up the Cross is reserved only for those called to make the ultimate sacrifice. For He calls every one of us to become a living martyr by dying to our sinfulness, to how we have corrupted ourselves, our relationships, and our world. And that way of death to sin is the Cross, for if we want to share in the joy of His resurrection, we must first participate in the struggle, pain, and sacrifice of crucifixion.
No, that does not mean trying to put ourselves in situations where we will be harmed or convincing ourselves that we are persecuted for our faith whenever we do not get our own way. We must never distort our religion into a habit of feeling sorry for ourselves or finding a way to justify hatred or resentment towards anyone. Our calling is to follow the example of our Lord as we forgive, turn the other cheek, and genuinely bless those who curse us. If we crucify others even in our thoughts for whatever reason, we condemn only ourselves.
No, our calling is to crucify our own sinful desires and actions, the habits of thought, word, and deed that lead us to worship and serve ourselves instead of God and neighbor. That is very hard to do in a culture that celebrates both selfishness and self-indulgence. In the name of being true to ourselves, people today justify everything from adultery and promiscuity to abusing and abandoning their own children. If any of our desires go unfulfilled, we often feel justified in falling into anger, hatred, and even violence toward those who offend us. In our society everything seems to center on us, our desire, our will, our pleasure, and our obsessive need to worship ourselves as creatures, rather than the Creator.
As we have all learned in one way or another, living that way simply makes us miserable, ashamed, and enslaved to our passions. It is not how those created in God’s image and likeness were made to find peace, fulfillment, and joy. Yes, some may seem to gain the whole world by living that way, but they still end up losing their souls.
Saint Paul said of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” In other words, by dying to his sins, St. Paul became a living icon of the Lord. Our Savior’s glorification of humanity was made present in his life. He became truly himself in the divine image and likeness by sharing in the Lord’s death and resurrection. The same is true of all the Saints, of all those who have manifested in their own lives the holiness of our Lord, whether they died as martyrs or not.
In our day, there are many cheap substitutes for a life of holiness in which we truly take up our crosses and follow our Lord. For example, popular culture tempts us to believe that simply expressing ourselves is somehow really virtuous. While there is nothing wrong with “liking” a post on social media or putting a sign in our yard or a wearing a t-shirt in support of even the most laudable causes, simply expressing an opinion on an abstract issue usually requires very little from us and changes nothing. That is especially the case when our friends and neighbors tend to agree with us.
For example, it is much harder actually to give of our time, energy, and resources to help a troubled or needy person than it is to praise the idea of helping others. It is much more difficult to live a life of chastity and purity as man and woman in our decadent culture than it is to call for moral decency in society or to criticize others whose struggles we do not know. Most of us have more than enough work to do in purifying our own hearts before we start worrying about how strangers are doing.
Regardless of how correct we may be in a theoretical sense on any issue or problem, words alone will not suffice and may become a distraction from our own repentance. In order for our faith to mean something, we must act in ways that require self-sacrifice if we truly wish to follow Jesus Christ. Yes, we have to actually do something that is rarely easy or popular.
Of course, those with major health problems or other profound challenges in their daily lives may take up their crosses simply by enduring their sufferings with patience, humility, and trust in the Lord. There is no “one size fits all” journey to the Kingdom, no legal definition, even as the Saints include people of so many different life circumstances and personalities. Regardless of our situation, we all have the opportunity to serve the Lord faithfully in a way appropriate to the challenges that we face.
At the end of the day, Christ calls us all to live as those who are not ashamed of His Cross. We must take practical, tangible steps every day of our lives in order to die to sin so that we may live the new life that our Savior has brought to the world. If we do not, then we deny our Lord by what we do each day as much as those who worship false gods. In fact, we worship the false god of self whenever we do not follow the way of Christ in offering ourselves in free obedience to Him. Our ultimate choice is between the way of the Cross and all other ways, no matter how popular, easy, or moral they may seem to be. If we ever think that we are serving the Lord faithfully when what we do requires no real self-sacrifice, then we should think again. He gave up everything for us on the Cross. What will we give up for Him?