Jesus said, “If any man would come after Me, let Him deny Himself and take up His cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” And He said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
Mark 8: 34-38; 9:1 (Gospel from the Sunday After the Holy Cross)
In the first sentence of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus tells His us that if we wish to follow after Him, there are three things we must to—deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow. Many people interpret the idea of denying oneself as “seeking intentional suffering.” That is not what Jesus says at all.
To deny oneself means to fight against impulses we all have that are not in line with Christianity. For instance, if one has an impulse to use bad language, or to gossip, or to rip into someone, the goal is to deny that impulse and use good language, to say things that are complimentary and to encourage others. To make this more understandable, I like soda but soda is unhealthy. I have to use a degree of restraint to opt for the water that is healthy over the soda that isn’t. To deny ourselves means to make the Christians choices on a consistent basis.
To take up “his cross” can be interpreted in two ways, depending on whether the “his” refers to Christ’s cross, or the unique “cross” that each of us carries. Let’s first look at “Christ’s cross” in the context of this verse. To take up Christ’s cross means to act in a Christ-like manner. Specifically, when Christ was on the cross, how did He act? First, He forgave those who were killing Him. That was an incredible gesture of forgiveness. We have a difficult time forgiving small things. Imagine forgiving someone for torturing and killing you, as they as doing it and continuing to do it. Second, He showed mercy to a thief who repented at the last second. Again, He gave something to someone who didn’t deserve it. That is humility, to lower one’s ego to offer something to someone else which they don’t deserve. Third, He took care of His mother—even in His most trying moments, He still had the capacity to love and care for His mother, entrusting her care to His beloved Disciple, John. And fourth, He continued to trust in God, placing His Spirit into God’s hands. To take up Christ’s cross means to act like Christ—to be forgiving, merciful, caring and trusting in all of our circumstances.
Which brings me to the individual and unique circumstances we each face, the unique crosses we each carry. Everyone carries a cross of some kind—it might be a learning disability, or a mental deficiency, a chronic illness, or a difficult life circumstance, like losing a child, or losing a parent at a young age. There are crosses that each of us carries that cannot be overcome. Some can be managed but everyone has some nagging thing that they will probably never conquer. This is the “cross” we carry. To take up our own cross means to again follow Christ’s example when He was on the cross—to forgive, be merciful, caring and trusting.
Christ also had help carrying His cross to Golgotha. We also need help in carrying our crosses. This is one of the reasons we have the church—to provide the help in carrying our crosses. The church does this in two ways—first the church gives help through prayer, worship, and the sacraments. It is the role of the priest to help the parishioners carry their crosses. That’s why he wears a stole around his neck for all priestly duties, to remind him and everyone else of this sacred duty. Secondly, members of the church community are supposed to help one another in carrying crosses—it is the responsibility and the ministry of each church member to offer encouragement, to be a good listener, to pray for one another, to visit the sick, to assist the poor, to welcome the stranger, etc. To take up the cross not involves carrying your own cross but to help others to carry theirs.
Finally, to “follow” is something it seems that we have an increasingly harder time doing. We are conditioned by our parents and our peers to be leaders. We have a hard time following directions—look at how many people speed when driving. The speed limit signs provide clear direction, which we have a hard time following. In a society that champions individual freedom, it becomes contradictory to be a follower. Because a follower in some ways gives up freedom. If I am driving my car alone, I can go where I want to go. If I’m following someone in my car, I am now having to go where they want to go. To follow Christ means to let Him lead, and to follow where He leads, which does not always agree with where we want to go. For instance, Christ tells me to forgive but I want to be angry. So, will I let my anger lead, or will I follow His teaching to forgive. It’s really hard to let Him lead. It’s really hard to be a follower.
However, to get to the Kingdom of heaven requires us to be a follower. We cannot lead ourselves there. Only Christ can lead us there. Which means that we have to let Him be in the lead, which means we have to learn to be good followers. Denying ourselves, carrying our crosses and following Christ are three challenges we face on a daily basis. In fact, these ideas are so important, that this Gospel lesson from Mark 8:34-9:1 is read TWO Sundays each year—the Sunday after the Holy Cross each September and on the Third Sunday of Lent. It is the only Gospel passage that is read on two Sundays each year. (There are Gospel accounts that are similar—like the story of the rich man who went away sorrowful is read on two Sundays, but one account is from Matthew and the other from Luke. This is the only Gospel of the year that is read on two Sundays).
Rejoice, you are the guide for the blind, and the physician of the sick, O most precious Cross, and also the resurrection of all who died, lifting up all of us who had succumbed to corruption. Corruption has been destroyed, and incorruptibility through you has blossomed, and we mortals were deified, and the Slanderer has been utterly stricken down. Seeing you lifted up today in the hands of the Hierarchs, we in turn now exalt Him who was exalted by means of you, and bowing before you we adore you, and great mercy we draw abundantly. (From the Aposticha of the Vespers of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Deny yourself, carry your cross and follow today!