The Lord said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.

Mark 8:34

Today marks the halfway point of the journey of Great Lent. This Sunday is called “The Veneration of the Holy Cross,” or in Greek “Stavroproskeneseos.” During services today, there will be a procession of the Holy Cross on a tray of flowers. The Cross is the focal point of today because we are reminded of the purpose of the Lenten journey, which is the journey to the Cross of Christ on Good Friday, so that we can come to the empty tomb on Pascha.

The Gospel lesson, taking from St. Mark, begins with the words of Jesus, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” The “cross” each person carries is different. The Cross of Christ, a literal cross He carried to crucifixion on Golgotha, was an instrument of suffering. While it is unlikely we will carry a literal cross on which we will suffer as Jesus did, each of us carries some cross of suffering, as a result of the fallen world in which we all suffer. Jesus carried His cross on behalf of the fallen world, so that the end of the journey would be the triumph of eternal life, rather than the punishment of eternal condemnation. The journey for Him, and still for us, is one of suffering in the fallen world. Those who complete the journey with faith and work then can receive God’s grace and enter into eternal life.

The cross each of us carries is different. Some carry a cross of illness, some of poverty, some of a learning disability, insecurity, anxiety, depression, addiction, impatience, etc. The cross of each person is unique, and many people carry more than one. We each carry a cross requiring us to survive temptation. The idea of denying oneself does not mean that we have to deprive ourselves of any sense of joy. Christ wants us to enjoy our life. Our life is not something to be hated and despised, but rather something to be understood as a means to get to eternal life. Thus, when there is a conflict between our will and the will of God, we are supposed to deny what we want, and follow what He wants. There is no conflict a lot of the time. When we are doing something wholesome, when we are helping others, when we are taking a rest, when we are using our talents, etc., there is no conflict. The conflict comes when there is a temptation to sin, and especially when the sinful activity is attractive, this is when we are supposed to deny ourselves the attraction to the sinful thing and follow Christ. This is easy to write about, easy to talk about, but very hard to do.

We know that Christ suffered during the Passion. He felt the blows of the whipping, beating and scourging as a human being. He felt the light-headedness caused by loss of blood and dehydration. He felt the pain of the crown of thorns piercing into his head. Jesus had been beaten and tortured for many hours when the time came for Him to carry His cross to Golgotha. He struggled under its immense weight.

I once had the experience of carrying a railroad tie at our summer camp when we needed to move it from one area of the camp to another. It probably weighed more than me. I couldn’t carry it alone and someone had to help me. Only when we put it on both of our shoulders could we carry it. Whether Jesus carried one beam of the cross, or both of them, He was carrying a lot of weight. (Some historians believe that the vertical beam of the cross was permanently in the ground so the condemned prisoners would only have had to carry the horizontal one. In either case, the weight of the beam would most likely be more than the person carrying it.) In His condition of severe medical distress, He could not carry the cross, it was simply too heavy.

The Gospels of Matthew and Mark each mention a man named Simon, from Cyrene, who helped Jesus to carry His cross. Matthew 27:32 records: As they went out, they came upon a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; this man they compelled to carry His cross. We don’t know whether they carried the cross together, or if Simon carried it alone—there are different depictions in movies on the Passion—what we do know is that Simon was crucial in helping Jesus get the cross to Golgotha. The Cross Jesus carried were the sins of humanity. Each of us carries a different “cross.” And just as Jesus needed help carrying His, we, also, will need help carrying ours.

Many people suffer under the weight of their crosses, but choose to suffer in silence. There is no shame in asking for help. There is no shame in saying that your “cross” is heavy. We know that the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. The way we love our neighbor is to serve our neighbor, and one way to serve our neighbor is to help our neighbor carry his or her cross. Simon of Cyrene did not get crucified. Jesus did. However, Simon of Cyrene was helpful in the process. Many crosses cannot be taken away. I suppose a cross of poverty could be taken away if someone was given a lot of money, but most crosses, like health issues, mental issues, etc. cannot be taken away, but they can be helped. A neighbor should be looking to help a neighbor in need. A neighbor in need should accept help (some people have a hard time accepting help) and ask for it as needed.

The cross of the priesthood is very heavy. While no one shares in my priesthood, there are many who share in the ministry, who help me in my priesthood. People help most especially with prayers, but also with encouragement, a shoulder to cry on (yes, I need this once in a while), and with tangible support—helping to chant, or make prosphora, etc., the many things that need to be done in ministry which help lessen the immense workload of the priest.

In Exodus 17, we read the story of how the people of Israel fought with the Amalekites. Moses was the leader of the Israelites, that was his cross. In Exodus 17:11-13, we read:

Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat upon it, and Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

As the leader, Moses had to hold up his hands and with this gesture, God would make the Israelites prevail. But he couldn’t do that all day. None of probably could. So he had help. It’s not that he took the day off. He still had the “cross” of holding his hands up so Israel. But without the help of Aaron and Hur, he wouldn’t have been able to carry his “cross.”

The Gospel lesson from today includes the words of Jesus in Mark 8:36-37, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (In many translations, the word “soul” will be translated as “life,” but this is incorrect, because the word being translated is the Greek word “Psihi” which means “soul”). Our souls will live forever, it’s just a question of whether they will live with God or be estranged from Him. To the reward of our souls, we must carry our crosses, however heavy or inconvenient they are. Because to put them down would be to the detriment of our souls. And in carrying them, sometimes we need help. And sometimes we have to put aside pride and ask for and accept help. We also need to look for those who need help.

Establish upon the rock of your commandments my heart, O Master, sorely shaken as it is, O Lord. Only You are holy, and again only You are Lord.
(Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, Ode Three, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

Even Christ needed help carrying His Cross. We shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help when we need it. And we should look for opportunities to play the role of Simon of Cyrene, in helping others to carry theirs.