The Struggle to Take Up the Cross: Homily for the Sunday After the Exaltation of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20; Mark 8:34-9:1

          In some ways, people today are too familiar with the image of the cross.  Some wear it as just another a piece of jewelry or otherwise use it to symbolize values or organizations that have nothing to do with the cross through which our Lord conquered death.  Unfortunately, those who confess its true spiritual significance can easily rest content with beliefs about the cross without actually obeying the clear instructions of our Lord that we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him. Celebrating the Exaltation of the Cross with integrity requires that we confess truthfully with St. Paul:  “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

The Lord’s Self-Offering on the Cross for the salvation of the world is unique and all encompassing.  As we chant when we especially celebrate the cross, “Before Thy Cross, we bow down and worship…”  We must not respond passively to the cross, however, as though all the work has already been done in a way that requires nothing of us.  For the only way to share in the Savior’s life is to enter personally into the deep mystery of His sacrifice.  He offered Himself fully and in free obedience to the point of death, burial, and descent into Hades in order to conquer the corruption to which we had enslaved ourselves.   In order to embrace the liberation and healing of our Crucified and Risen Lord, we must die to all that holds us back from embodying the fullness of His great victory.  That means offering ourselves without reservation for union with Christ in holiness as we become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.

In the world as we know it, doing so requires a perpetual struggle of the soul.  The fight is not against other people and certainly not against God.  Instead, it is a battle with ourselves because we have all accepted the lie that true fulfillment comes from our own will being done.  In one way or another, we have all come to identify with our self-centered desires such that we think we could not exist without gratifying them.  Consequently, to put the demands of loving God and neighbor first in life requires us to deny ourselves and to abandon our well-settled habit of living in the service of our passions. We must all be “crucified with Christ” in the sense of dying to the corruptions that keep us from sharing in the Savior’s restoration and healing of the human person in the divine image and likeness.

The Lord’s command to take up our crosses, deny ourselves, and lose our lives has nothing to do with appeasing an angry Father by our suffering.  It is not concerned with the pointless task of trying to earn forgiveness by paying a debt or meeting a legal obligation.  Instead, it is about doing what is necessary to find healing.  In order to regain physical health, we may have to do some painful and difficult things at times, like having surgery, going to physical therapy, or changing our diet.  Those are not punishments, but simply what is necessary for us to regain our health in light of our particular physical condition.  If we want to get better, we will put aside our preferences and accept the inconvenience.

The same thing is true for us spiritually.  Offering ourselves to the Lord for the healing of our souls in whatever circumstances we face is how we take up our crosses.  From the origins of the Church to this very day, that has meant literal martyrdom for those who refuse to deny Christ when the powerful of this world kill them as a result.  For all who unite themselves to Christ, there must be some form of martyrdom as we die to self-centeredness by putting faithfulness to the Lord and service to our neighbors before satisfying our own desires.  If we do not take up our crosses in the challenges that we face daily, whatever they may be, then we show that we are ashamed of Christ and of His Cross.  We show that we want no part of Him and prefer to gratify our own desires instead of offering ourselves for the service of His Kingdom.

Like Peter before He denied the Savior three times, we may well believe that we would never do such a thing.  Like Peter, however, we may have such a poor understanding of the Messiah we serve that we will be unprepared when our eyes are opened to the truth.  Today’s gospel passage comes right after Peter tried to correct the Savior when He predicted His death and resurrection. The Lord said to him in response, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”   Peter had likely envisioned the Messiah as a successful military leader who would defeat the Romans and give the Jews a powerful earthly kingdom.  The idea of following someone like that appealed to his pride, for being the chief disciple of the new King David would bring riches, power, and glory.

When the Savior made clear that the religious leaders of Israel would reject Him, that He would be killed, and that He would rise from the dead, Peter was horrified to the point that he tried to set Christ straight.  That is when the Lord said in no uncertain terms that to reject the cross was the way of the devil, the way of completely rejecting His ministry for the salvation of the world.  Remember that Satan had tempted Christ in the desert by promising Him worldly power if He worshiped him.  Now Peter provided the same temptation.  That is when Christ told the disciples that they would have no part in Him if they did not also take up their crosses. In this light, it is not surprising that Peter later denied He knew the Lord three times after His arrest and abandoned Him at His crucifixion.  At that time, he and the other disciples were ashamed of a Messiah Who died on a cross.

Likewise, we show that we are ashamed of our Lord when we refuse to take up our crosses.  Our lives are filled with opportunities to turn away from prideful self-centeredness as we put the needs of those around us before ourselves.  Instead of indulging in gluttony, greed, hatred, envy, or other passions, we must redirect the energy of our souls to blessing our neighbors.  Remember that the Lord did not go to the cross for His own benefit, but for ours.  We will offer ourselves more fully to Him as we offer ourselves to serve those in whom He is present to us each day. If we do not, we will show that we are ashamed of our Lord.

The same is true whenever we refuse to keep a close watch on our hearts.  The ancient idols of sex, money, and power are worshiped openly in our culture, and we must be ready to embrace the cross of rejecting their powerful temptations.  Today reserving sexual intimacy for the union of husband and wife in marriage is widely considered archaic and oppressive.   Pornography is easily available and generally accepted, even though it is poisonous in so many ways.   Money and what it can buy often become the measure of our lives, regardless of what we say we believe.  Many people today seem to take pride in hating those with whom they disagree about politics and in self-righteously and hypocritically condemning them.  Nothing could be more contrary to denying ourselves and taking up our crosses than to embrace such temptations in our hearts.  Nothing could be more deadly to our souls.

Thankfully, there was hope for Peter and there is hope for us also through our Lord’s great victory over sin and death on His Cross.  Let us celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross by showing that we are not ashamed of His Self-Offering for our salvation.  No matter the circumstances of our lives, let us deny ourselves as we embrace the crosses of our lives.  That is how we may all enter into the joy of the Kingdom.

 

 

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