The Command to Take Up Your Cross

On the third Sunday of Great Lent we read the Gospel of Mark 8:34-9:1 as we commemorate the  precious life-giving Cross of our Lord:

When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”

Fr. John Garvey (d. 2015) writes: 

“We believe that God has been revealed in Christ crucified, in the person who died a shameful death for us. The God we see in the incarnate Christ is the only God that exists. This is how we understand what it means to be God’s son, what kind of Father God is, who the Spirit is and why the Spirit was sent. This certainly upsets certain prevailing notions of power, and if this is the God who is also creator, sustainer of the universes, king of kings, lord of lords, if this is the revelation of the Father’s love, then things are not as we thought they were or would like them to be. All of us love the control given to us by the idea we have of God and our relationship to God; we love to think that our kinship is one where we retain some hold, where we manage the degree of our commitment. But our being is completely contingent on the love of God revealed in Christ crucified. We do not naturally participate in that life. It is offered to us as a gift by the One who wills us into being, moment by moment. The important thing for us is to understand that it is a gift, and the proper response to a gift is gratitude. Of course the Christ we see on the cross would not be good news if that were the end of it. But before moving too glibly to the resurrection, it is important to see that the cross really is the obvious and crushing truth of too many lives, and the truth finally of all lives.

When Jesus says that we must take up out cross and follow Him, He does not suggest that we will not be crucified if we choose not to be. We will be crucified in any event. How will we respond to it? How will we see, straight on, the fact that all of us will suffer and die, or (if we avoid this by being hit by a fast-moving bus) we will see the suffering and death of people we love? He speaks of ‘taking up your cross’ as if the assumption is that the cross will be there, whether we feel like taking it up or not. And not taking it up – given its inevitability – reminds me of a terrifying line from Tolstoy: After a stupid life there shall come a stupid death. The cross is there. Most interesting philosophical thought has been a result of looking dimly, obliquely, at what the cross presents us with explicitly. The good suffer, as do the evil, as do we all. And still we say that God is good, the world is good, life is good. In speaking about the resurrection, Christians say that the power of death has been overcome. The Orthodox liturgy sings at Easter, ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.’ We say this, knowing that we still live in a world where death seems to reign, a world in which suffering continues. But we insist that the reasons for hope lie not only in the future, but are present with us now. We eat and drink now the bread and wine of the kingdom to come – even as we wait for its coming.” (Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox, pp 79-82)