We think of the cross as the great symbol of our Christian faith. We wear it around our necks and otherwise display it proudly. But during the first century it was nothing of the sort; it was a cruel instrument of execution used by the Romans to make a statement: unfortunate people died long, painful, and shameful deaths on crosses. The intention was for their wretched example to strike fear in the hearts of would-be traitors and rebels. No one at that time honored the cross in any way, and certainly no one thought that God’s Messiah would die on one.
Our Lord’s disciples, like other Jews, apparently expected a successful king, someone like King David, who would destroy Israel’s enemies and give them privileged positions of power in His kingdom. So it made no sense at all to His disciples when the Savior told them that He would be rejected, suffer, die, and rise again. When St. Peter tried to correct Him, Christ called him “Satan” and said that he was thinking in human terms, not God’s. To place the pursuit of worldly power over faithful obedience was a temptation Christ had faced during His forty days of preparation in the desert before His public ministry began. Then that same temptation came from the head disciple, and the Lord let Peter know in no uncertain terms that He must serve God and not the powers of this world. To place worldly success over sacrificial obedience was simply the work of Satan.
Then Christ told the disciples what they really didn’t want to hear. They too must take up their crosses and lose their lives; that’s the way to enter into the blessed salvation of the Kingdom of Heaven. Though it is shameful in the eyes of the world, the cross will be their instrument of victory. The false gods of this world are passing away, and we will not save ourselves through them. Instead, we must lose our lives in the service of the Kingdom in order to become our true selves in the divine image and likeness.
The hard truth that the Savior broke to His disciples was that we can’t jump ahead to the joy of the resurrection. We must first go with our Lord to the cross; we too must die in order to rise again. That is what the Holy Great Martyr Euphemia did, giving up her privileged life as a Roman senator’s daughter to endure horrible tortures for Christ and to die after being wounded by a wild bear in the arena.
Of course, martyrdom and persecution of believers continue in the world today. The Communists martyred millions in the 20th century. The Christians of Egypt are especially vulnerable right now, as are those in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and many other places. We must support them by our prayers, generosity to charitable organizations like IOCC, and by doing what we can to make their plight known in our own country. It is shameful that a nation like ours with so many Christians makes alleviating the sufferings of our brothers and sisters such a low priority. No prominent group or individual in American culture or government or politics has placed much emphasis on helping persecuted Christians around the world. How sad.
Even though probably none of us will be called literally to die for Christ as physical martyrs, that doesn’t mean that we are exempt from the Lord’s teaching to take up our crosses and follow Him. For every last one of us needs to become a living martyr by dying to our sinfulness, to how we have distorted ourselves, our relationships, and our world. Christ offered Himself in free obedience to the Father, taking upon Himself the full consequences of sin and death to the point of a horrible execution; He did so out of love for us. And thus He opened the way to the Kingdom of heaven, to life eternal, for you, me, and all humankind.
And that way is the cross, for if we want to share in the joy of His resurrection, of His victory over death, we must first participate in the struggle, pain, and sacrifice of crucifixion. No, that does not mean trying to put ourselves in situations where we will be persecuted or convincing ourselves that all our problems are the result of someone being unfair to us because of our faith. Instead, it means that we must die to our sinful desires and actions and that we must crucify the habits of thought, word, and deed that lead us to worship and serve ourselves instead of God and neighbor. We must kill our obsession with hating our enemies, judging others, with getting our own way, living only for ourselves, and satisfying every self-centered desire.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to do that in a culture that encourages us to worship at the altar of self-glorification. If we have enough money or social standing or power, we think that we will be happy. If our bodies look a certain way, if we find the friends and the spouse that we want, and if our candidates and our teams win their contests, we think that all will be well. And if our desires are frustrated, we feel justified in falling into anger, hatred, and condemnation toward those who stand in the way. If we get what we want when we want it, we think that we have found the good life. So everything centers on us, our desire, our will, our pleasure, our obsessive need to build ourselves up even as we put others down.
The sad truth is that even those who succeed in such idolatry are still miserable, are still looking for true peace, joy, and fulfillment. They may gain the whole world, but end up losing their souls. And how many people throughout history have been poor and miserable by worldly standards, have had no power or prominence at all, and perhaps have literally suffered torture and died as martyrs like St. Euphemia, but still shined brightly with love, forgiveness, and holiness; they saved their lives by losing them in the service of God and neighbor.
Saint Paul said of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” In other words, by dying to his sins, Paul became a living icon of the Lord. Our Savior’s glorification of humanity was made present in Paul’s life. He became truly himself in the divine image and likeness by sharing in the Lord’s death and resurrection.
Do you see the connection? If we want to share in Christ’s life, we must also share in His death. If we want to participate in His glory, we must share in His humiliation. If we want to become our true selves in Christ, we must die to the distortions and corruptions we have welcomed into our lives. That’s how we become who we are created to be in the first place.