And he said unto them: Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his own soul? Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:34-38. From the reading for the Sunday of the Cross.)
This, the Third Sunday of the Fast, is dedicated every year to the Adoration of the Holy Cross. As the Cross is at the center of our Faith, it seemed natural to the Church over the course of history, to place this “weapon of victory” in the midst of the assembly mid-way through the most spiritually intense season of the year. Gazing and meditating upon it, the faithful, who have chosen the way of the Cross as the way that leads to life, are renewed and strengthened for what remains of their Lenten pilgrimage to Pascha.
It has been said that Lent is a time for returning to “the basics” of the Faith, for re-evaluating priorities, for renewing one’s commitment to Jesus Christ. The Cross, in a profound sense is basic to our Faith. Its acceptance, therefore, as the way of life for Christ’s followers lies at the very heart of any understanding of Lent. The Cross is our badge and emblem as Christians. Remove the Cross from our lives and we have nothing. Without the Cross, both in Christ’s life and in ours, there is no genuine Christianity and, consequently, no reason to observe Lent or any other sacred season.
This fact may seem self-evident. Yet ours is a time in which words like sin, repentance, sacrifice, the Cross and crucifixion, are misunderstood, being viewed even by some Christians with suspicion, as “negative” terms, at least when applied to our own lives. Acceptable, very popular “religious buzz words,” are resurrection, triumph, victory, peace, and the like. “These are the things,” one is told, “that will motivate people, what they want to hear about and acquire for themselves.” The problem is that these so-called “positive” elements of the Christian life are unattainable apart from the so-called “negative” elements. Acknowledging sin’s existence and its consequences, and being co-crucified with Christ on a daily basis, are all part of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
In speaking of the Cross we must take note of its constant use by Christians. We adorn our church buildings and homes with it. We carry it reverently in procession and venerate it. The Cross is worn around our necks as a daily reminder of who we are: people who have died and risen with Christ. In addition we sign ourselves with the Cross. In so doing we mark or brand ourselves, on the one hand, with the emblem of shame. For our Lord, pure, undefiled, and guiltless, was put to death in a manner reserved for the worst of criminals. It is written, cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree (Galatians 3:13; Deuteronomy 21:23) Indeed, He was condemned between two thieves, one of whom confessed, we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss… Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom (Luke 23:41-42). By suffering crucifixion our Lord endured the penalty that each of us deserves for our many sins, for our wickedness.
In and through Christ, however, the Cross, once synonymous exclusively with humiliation, becomes His glory and ours as well. It becomes His victory over sin and death and ours also. Through the Cross and its completion in the Third Day Resurrection we have everlasting life. Thus the Cross is the main emblem for Christians of joy and strength. Along with St. Paul we glory… in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:14).
The Christian must take very seriously the words of our Lord in the Gospel lesson quoted above: Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. How do we deny ourselves and lose our lives, in order to come after the Lord to save our lives? The answer is very simple, but its very simplicity makes it the hardest thing on earth to accomplish. Nevertheless it must be done, by putting God and our relationship with Him, first, above every other consideration: before business, pleasure, country, family, friends, or reputation. What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? What a price to pay in order to enjoy a few fleeting years of earthly goods, or brief moments of fame, that we value so highly. Yet, there is no denying it, our Lord stated repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, What shall a man give…?
Taking up the Cross and following the footsteps of Christ is not merely a formal compliance with a set of external religious or charitable acts. To be sure, such acts are necessary. We must demonstrate openly how we feel towards Him. These acts, however, cannot be some sort of mechanical or self-affirming performance. Rather they must proceed from the depths of the heart, a heart turned completely toward Christ. Our Lord wants His followers hot, not lukewarm (Revelation 3:15-16), as hot as the flames that burn before icons of His saints. During Great Lent, Orthodox Christians are quite accustomed to celebrating the weekday penitential services with great solemnity, almost entirely by candlelight. The burning wicks, illuminating the temple in which God is being praised, are vivid reminders of the heat and intensity of the saints’ devotion to Christ. What we say, in effect, when we light candles in Church or before our personal icon corners, is that we now light the flame of devotion in our own hearts. The act of lighting a candle is a pledge of our promise, with God’s help and the intercessions of the saints, that we will kindle the fire of faith within ourselves.
Once again, the Cross is at the heart of our “religion.” Thus we find its veneration in the middle of the Fast, the great season of repentance and spiritual renewal. The Church reminds us that our minds and our hearts must be on the Cross. Upon it God’s only begotten Son gave His life for us. In turn, we must lose our lives for His sake and the gospel’s, and thus find salvation.