Galatians 2:16-20; Mark 8:34-9:1
In our time and place, there are dangers in being too comfortable with the symbol of the Cross. Some people wear one around their necks simply as a piece of piece of jewelry without any particular spiritual significance. Across the centuries to this very day, some nations and groups use it as a vague symbol of religious endorsement for whatever they want to do, regardless of whether that has anything to do with the way of Christ. We ourselves may fall into the bad habit of making the sign of the Cross mindlessly, for we may only do so with integrity if we are actually obeying our Lord’s command to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him.
Even as we continue to celebrate the Elevation of the Holy Cross today, we must not think that we check off a box of religious devotion by bowing down before it. Doing so invites us to pursue the difficult daily struggle of offering ourselves to Christ in ways that demand sacrifice. Our songs, processions, and prostrations before our Lord’s Cross are the beginning, not the end, of our discipleship. By lifting up our hearts in worship of our Crucified Lord, we open ourselves to receive strength to take up our own crosses as we come to share more fully in the great victory that He worked through the Cross. But if we do not use that strength to die to the corrupting power of sin in our lives as we rise up with the Savior into a new life of holiness, then we will condemn ourselves as hypocrites.
In our epistle reading from Galatians, Saint Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself up for me.” We do not have to know much about this Apostle to know that his path was not easy. Of the many struggles and difficulties of his ministry, Paul wrote that “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church.” (Col. 1:24) Obviously, there is nothing lacking in the Lord’s great Self-Offering on the Cross for the salvation of the world. However, the Church is our Lord’s body of which we are unworthy members who must take up our own crosses in order to find healing for our souls and strengthen the Church in faithfulness. All that is lacking is our obedience to the Lord’s call to deny ourselves and follow Him. Because of our own passions and the brokenness of our world of corruption, the struggle for faithfulness will require suffering. That is not because suffering is somehow pleasing to God in and of itself, but because of the inevitable tension we experience when we seek to offer our lives to Christ. Taking up our crosses requires that we embrace the difficult struggle to die to all the distortions of soul that have become second nature to us.
Christ prayed the night before His crucifixion, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He ascended the Cross in free obedience, and we must remember that no one forces us to take up our crosses either. That may seem hard to accept, for so many problems and pains come upon us without our asking for them in this life, even to the point of death. It is entirely possible, however, to refuse to suffer in a spiritually health way. We can follow the bad advice of Job’s wife to “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9) in the face of losses, obstacles, and disappointments. No one can keep us from doing so, for freedom is an intrinsic dimension of being in God’s image as human persons.
We may, however, use our freedom to take up our crosses and refuse to fall into despair. That means we may make any instance of struggle, pain, or suffering an opportunity to deny ourselves and follow our Lord. Difficulties by their nature present challenges to which we may respond in a Christlike way or according to our passions. He offered up Himself fully and without reservation of any kind upon the Cross, and we may unite ourselves to Him in every dimension and circumstance of our lives. Illness, broken relationships with others, worries about the future, regrets about the past, crushed hopes, and even the worst losses imaginable present opportunities to grow in “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Saint Paul wrote that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:22-24)
Experience teaches that our self-centered and distorted desires can quickly rear their ugly heads when we face trying circumstances. Sometimes it does not take much at all to set us off and we become like Jonah when the vine that provided him shade was eaten by a worm. That was a very small thing, but Jonah became so angry that he wished he would die. (Jonah 4:5-11) Other times we face circumstances so grave that they call us into question from the depths of our souls and tempt us to fall into despair about the meaning and purpose of our lives. Whether in matters small or great, most of us do not have to look far for opportunities to take up our crosses as we struggle to find healing for our inflamed passions.
In order to find that healing, we usually do not have to do anything particularly dramatic or extraordinary. Instead, it is normally a matter of refocusing ourselves on the basic practices of the Christian life, such as refusing to accept sinful thoughts in our hearts, forgiving those who have wronged us, and trusting that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:39) The more that we open our souls to the Lord’s healing strength through prayer, repentance, asceticism, and serving our neighbors, the less time and energy we will have for stirring up the impassioned thoughts that lead to sinful actions. The struggle to undertake this way of life is at the very heart of taking up our crosses, denying ourselves, and following Christ.
We must also remain on guard against the various forms of idolatry that tempt us to gain the world at the expense of our souls. The Lord rejected the temptation to repudiate the Cross for the sake of gaining earthly power and establishing a kingdom for the Jews. We must likewise refuse to allow loyalty to any worldly agenda or group to obscure the demands of faithfulness to the way of Christ. There are severe points of tension between His Kingdom and all the popular political and cultural movements that compete for our attention today. We cannot serve two masters. Those who try to do so will risk losing their own souls in a vain effort to gain the world. The message of the Cross remains foolishness to those who make any vision of success in this world their false god, and we must not become so enamored with serving them that we become ashamed of the One Whose Kingdom remains not of this world.
In order to take up our crosses, we must embrace the struggle of doing that which is neither easy nor popular. We must persist in the struggle, even when we stumble and fall flat our faces time and time again. Our hope is not in our ability to obey a commandment by our own willpower, but in the gracious mercy of the One Who offered up Himself for our salvation purely out of love. We open ourselves to receive His healing energies whenever we refuse to be distracted from offering ourselves to Him as best we can in humble faith, no matter what challenges and pains life brings us. Let us Elevate the Holy Cross by denying ourselves and taking up our own crosses as we follow the Savior each day of our lives.