Bearing the Burden of Being Christian

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.  In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.

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Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.   (John 5:1-15)

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Jesus said:  And he said to all, “If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.   (Luke 9:23)

The Paralytic in John 5 is commanded to rise, take up his bed and walk.  It turns out that his cross, the cross on which he had been crucified, is his own bed to which he had been nailed for 38 years of paralysis.   He picks up that cross so that he can walk with Christ and  follow Christ wherever Christ may go.

5729454201_3fe7828dcf_nToday’s Gospel lesson shows us how “taking up the cross” might be a very different experience than we usually imagine it to be – and it is possible that taking up the Cross is a blessing rather than a burden.  For most of us, there are enough trials and temptations each day of our life to make life difficult, and some would feel almost impossible to accomplish.  Why then would we want to take up the Cross to add to our burdens, sorrows and troubles?

What we learn from today’s Gospel lesson is that there are two kinds of burdens – the ones we should lay down and not carry because we follow God’s blessed Sabbath rest, and the burden we must carry In order to follow Christ – the cross that it is necessary for us to carry to follow Him. The issue is whether we can see what is the cross in my life that I have to take up in order to follow Christ. There are some burdens we must bear as Christians to be faithful to our Lord.

It is also true that in taking up the Cross we can find ourselves liberated from our own heavy burdens – our thoughts and ideas of justice, revenge, repentance, forgiveness, hatred and retribution.  These are the burdens we can lay down in order to hear and obey Christ.

Additionally, If we allow it to, the Cross can carry us through some of life’s trials.  Yet, this thought makes us squirm with discomfort for we are terrified at the thought of being lifted up on the Cross and we prefer an easier way in which there is no pain and no cost to us.

Today’s Gospel reaffirms the truth that God’s commandments are not heavy and difficult burdens.  God liberates us from our wearisome burdens.

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place at the sheep pool called Bethesda – a pool of water near one of the gates allowing passage into Jerusalem.  The sheep gate is first mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah, written about 450 years before the time of Christ.  Nehemiah records the building of the sheep gate.  He is one of the prophets who advocated that Israel must keep the Sabbath Day holy:

 When it began to be dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the sabbath. And I set some of my servants over the gates, that no burden might be brought in on the sabbath day. (Nehemiah 13:19)

10352434244_7eaf34629c_nNehemiah’s prohibition against carrying a burden on the Sabbath day near one of the city gates is the basis of our the Gospel lesson in John 5.   The people in the Gospel account were practicing what Nehemiah commanded the to do when they confront the paralytic for carrying his bed on the Sabbath near the city gate.  They probably thought he was a bed salesman carrying his wares!   The Prophet Jeremiah adds:

Thus said the LORD to me: “Go and stand in the Benjamin Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, and say: ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates. Thus says the LORD: Take heed for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath or do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers. Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction. ‘But if you listen to me, says the LORD, and bring in no burden by the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but keep the sabbath day holy and do no work on it, then there shall enter by the gates of this city kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall be inhabited for ever.   (Jeremiah 17:19-25)

No wonder the people were so upset with this paralytic carrying his bed on the sabbath!

So why would Jesus, the Son of God, tell this paralyzed man to carry his bed on the Sabbath at the very place where God had said through His prophets that it shouldn’t be done?

10238223875_e053b8a548_nThe answer becomes clear when Jesus asks the paralytic, “Do you want to be made well?   Do you want to become healthy?”

For Jesus the paralyzed man’s burden is not his bed, but his paralysis.  His burden is also that though he is part of the people of God, he has no one to help him.   His sickness is the burden of His life.  And on that Sabbath Day, Jesus gave the paralyzed man rest from his burden for Jesus freed him of his paralysis.  [see my post The True Sabbath Rest]  When the paralyzed man picked up his bed, he was also finally laying down his burden, his paralysis and was given health.  For his paralysis had also burdened the man with bitterness and doubt, opening his heart to the oppression of Satan.

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. For we who have believed enter that rest . . . For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  . . .  So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his.  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.  (Hebrews 4:1-11)

Yet some of those people in Jerusalem could not see how Jesus freeing the man from carrying his burden, his paralysis, was keeping God’s law.  That is why Jesus said to them:

I ask you, is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”  (Luke 6:9)

And Jesus spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. Then he took him and healed him, and let him go. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?” (Luke 14:3-5)

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Carrying a bed on the Sabbath as is shown in the Gospel might not be a violation of the Sabbath but rather might be a sign that one is entering into the Lord’s rest.  The burden which concerns God might surprise us, as Jeremiah says:

“When one of this people, or a prophet, or a priest asks you, ‘What is the burden of the LORD?’ you shall say to them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says the LORD.’    (Jeremiah 23:33)

The people’s mistaken understanding of the Torah made them into a burden, which this paralyzed man also had to bear in addition to the burden of his paralysis.  But the paralytic shows himself to be following God’s command because he listens to the words of Christ and obeys them:

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.   (John 5:24)

We have to discern what are the burden we carry from which God will free us?  Our sins, our debts, our guilt, our desire for revenge.

Sometimes, however, we act as if our burdens are prayer, fasting, confession, Sunday worship, reading scripture, forgiving others, apologizing for our sins, giving to charity, seeking forgiveness, being generous.

24878356506_e63d42795a_nWe ask: Do I have to come to church on Sunday?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: Do I need to tithe to the church?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to go to confession?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to forgive those who sin against me?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to fast and pray and practice self-control?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: Do I really have to stop looking at pornography or stop getting drunk or stop my bouts of anger and rage?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask:  Do I have to stop hating people who are worthless and do I need to show mercy and be kind to those I don’t know and don’t like?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

Jesus says to us:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)

Sometimes we wrongly believe that the way out of our problems, our passions, our sins, is more effort on our part.  If only we have more faith or fast more or pray more, then God would help us.  But the paralyzed man couldn’t save himself, no matter how hard he tried, his problems were insurmountable to him.  He couldn’t get into the pool of water first no matter how much he wanted to.  This man had plenty of faith, after all he had been waiting at the pool for 38 years for someone to help him get into the water and be healed.  He believed God was present there and continued in this hope for 38 years!  Nonetheless, his salvation lay outside himself.  It wasn’t more effort on this part that were needed – he needed Christ, he needed to wait on the Lord, he needed Jesus to be his spiritual partner.

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It is possible, my brothers and sister, that there are people all around us, like this man paralyzed for 38 years and patiently waiting for help – people for whom we can be Christ and reach out to them and help them.  And it is possible that we have been struggling with some burden for many years feeling there is no one to help me, and the solution might be outside of myself – in seeking help from a neighbor or a stranger.  The lessons for us in this Gospel periscope are many, we need to know when we are to be Christ to another and when we need someone else to be Christ for us.  As St Paul said:  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  (Galatians 6:2)

Denying the Self

Throughout our life, we go through many changes, experiences many ups and downs. Today we are children of the light (cf. Jn 12:36), but tomorrow we are filled with doubts and wonder: ‘Who is God? Where is God? God has forgotten me.’ This happens because the ego has placed itself in opposition to God, has made a god of itself, and it is impossible for the two to coexist. The presence of one requires the absence of the other. It’s as if two mighty gods, the God of my salvation and the god I have made out of myself, have come into conflict. If the ego wins, I will experience psychological isolation, which will include isolation from those around me, along with feelings of bitterness and sorrow. These feelings are the proof that the ego has rejected the God of salvation. The ‘ego’ – taken to include body, soul and spirit – has sent God into exile. Before this happens I am locked in a struggle with God, and woe to me if I should win.

…If, however, I am victorious; if I decide to put my ego to death, then the King of Glory will rise from the dead (Ps 23:7), the Lord of my salvation (Ps. 87:1; Is 38:20) for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 16:24). The darkness of my isolation will be dispersed by the light of God, and He Himself will be my companion; He will grant me genuine spiritual life, which is something greater than my life, for it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). I shall discover that Christ lives in me. His experiences shall become mine. This is the goal of my struggling; this is why I wrestle with God. And it is not just my struggle, but the struggle of every soul, and of the Church as a whole.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 218-219, 219-220).

In the Canon of Repentance of St Andrew of Crete we contemplate the following words which mark the same struggle between ego and God:

I have become an idol to myself, utterly defiling my soul with the passions, O compassionate Lord.  But accept me in repentance and allow me to behold your presence.  May the Enemy never possess me; may I never fall prey to him.  O Savior, have mercy on me.

The Cross: The Way to the Joyous Kingdom

NOW THE FLAMING SWORD NO LONGER GUARDS THE GATES OF PARADISE;  IT HAS BEEN MYSTERIOUSLY QUENCHED BY THE WOOD OF THE CROSS!  THE STING OF DEATH AND THE VICTORY OF HELL HAVE BEEN VANQUISHED, FOR YOU, MY SAVIOR, CAME AND CRIED TO THOSE IN HELL: ENTER AGAIN INTO PARADISE!    (Kontakion for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross)

We come to the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent, the very middle of the Fast, a day dedicated to the Cross of Christ.  We have heard Jesus’ words, “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”  (Mark 8:34-35).  And the common interpretation of these words in Orthodoxy make us think about the self-denial of the fast or perhaps about the passion and suffering of Christ Himself on Holy Friday.  We are often told that the very purpose of focusing on the Cross in mid-Lent is to encourage us to carry on with our fasting and self-denial:   we may be tired of the fast or tired by the fast, but we must shoulder the cross and soldier on.

Yet, there is another connection with the Cross that we can readily note in the Epistle reading:  “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need  (Hebrews 4:15-16).   It is the Cross of Christ which enables us to approach the throne of grace boldly – with the same boldness with which we dare to call God our heavenly Father when we say the Lord’s Prayer during the Divine Liturgy.  Christ’s arms stretched out on the cross are not in our Church hymns portrayed as lifeless but rather are full of strength and are welcoming us into His embrace.

The Cross for us is our sign of victory – it is through the Cross that Christ brought humanity to the throne of the Father.  Through the Cross joy comes into all the world and we are restored to communion with our God.   We hear this in the hymns for this day.  For example from the Matins Canon:

COME, FAITHFUL, LET US FALL DOWN IN WORSHIP BEFORE THE LIFE‑CREATING TREE.  CHRIST, THE KING OF GLORY, STRETCHED OUT HIS HANDS ON IT AND EXALTED US TO PARADISE, FROM WHERE HE HAD BEEN DRIVEN BY THE DEVIL’S INSTIGATION.  COME, FAITHFUL, LET US FALL DOWN IN WORSHIP BEFORE THE TREE.  BY IT, WE ARE EMPOWERED TO CRUSH THE HEADS OF INVISIBLE ENEMIES.  COME, ALL GENERATIONS OF NATIONS.  LET US HONOR THE CROSS OF THE LORD WITH SONGS.  REJOICE, PERFECT REDEMPTION OF FALLEN ADAM.  NOW ALL CHRISTIANS VENERATE YOU IN FEAR AND LOVE, SINGING, HAVE MERCY ON US, GRACIOUS LORD AND LOVER OF MANKIND!

Doing a word count of the hymns that are found in the Matins Canon for this Lenten Sunday of the Cross we see:    the word fasting occurs only once,   abstinence only 3 times, the word sin or passions occurs 10 times, and references to the crucifixion or Christ being nailed to the cross occurs 15 times.    On the other hand words related to resurrection, Pascha, life, the destruction of hell and demons occur 54 times.  Add to those, words about rejoicing, salvation, light, paradise, and Kingdom we find 143 references in the Canon.  More than 80% of the Canon is about Christ’s victory, Christ’s triumph, the destruction of death and the resurrection of the dead.  This is the focus of this Sunday.  The Canon for the Sunday of the Cross has in it all the Irmos hymns from the Paschal Canon and thus today we are already proclaiming the resurrection of Christ.  Here are two hymns which are good examples of the focus of the hymns for the day:

This is a festival day: at the awakening of Christ, death has fled away; The light of life has dawned; Adam has risen and dances for joy!  Therefore let us cry aloud and sing a song of victory!

Behold, Christ is risen! said the angel to the Myrrh‑bearing women!  Do not lament, but go and say to the apostles: Rejoice, for today is the world’s salvation! The tyranny of the enemy has been destroyed through the death of Christ!

We find this emphasis on the glory and victory of the cross in the writings of the early church fathers as well.   As some church historians have noted, the Cross as a symbol of God’s salvation and love and triumph was the focus of the early church.  Only later in history does the Cross become more a sign of Christ’s passion and  suffering.  And only when this more ascetic theme takes over does the focus of the cross turn away from our participation in Christ’s salvation and turn more toward ascetical themes of personal self-denial, fasting and abstinence.  St. Paul himself writes about how we participate in and benefit by the Cross of Christ:

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.   (Ephesians 2:14-22)

For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him…   (Colossians 1:19-22)  [For other Pauline references to the Cross and Christ’s death as the instrument of our salvation see Romans 5:6-6:11, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, Galatians 2:19-20, Colossians 2:12-15]

A few more examples of the hymns from the Canon for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross:

You have risen from the tomb, never‑setting Light, shining upon the world with the bright dawn of incorruption!  In Your compassion You have driven out the dark sorrow of death from the farthest corners of the earth!

You crushed death, O Christ, and rose as a mighty King, recalling us from the depths of hell!  You brought us to the land of immortality, granting us the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven!

Faithful, let us cry aloud with joy as we greet the Cross of the Lord.  Let us sing triumphantly to God, for it is a fountain of holiness to all in the world!

During Great Lent, we don’t just focus on Christ’s suffering or our own self-denial.  The Cross of Christ reminds us that we are to be united to God our Father and to rejoice in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Cross reminds us that Christ has obtained salvation for all.  The Cross is for us has opened the door to Paradise.

A last thought:  Frequently in the early church writings there is mention of the two ways –  the way of the world which leads to death and the way of the Cross which leads to eternal life.      You can follow the way of the world ( for example just keep watching the news  and the news feeds and you will see exactly how the world defines glory, power, what is right – might, political power, military, the kingdom of this world).  Or you can turn the news and news feeds off and  pay attention to the themes of Great Lent, the way of Christ (self denial, humility, tears, broken-heartedness, the cross, a kingdom not of this world).   You can rejoice in the Lord or lament the condition of the world.  That choice is yours.  There are three weeks left in Great Lent, three weeks for you to allow your heart and mind to give up on the way of the world in order to follow Christ.  If you give up on the way of the world –  stop paying attention to the news or new feeds and instead come to the Church services to hear about Christ and the way to the Kingdom.  You will find the way to abundant life and the joy of the Lord God.

The Cross: How Joy Comes Into the World

Faithful, let us cry aloud with joy

as we greet the Cross of the Lord.

Let us sing triumphantly to God,

for it is a fountain of holiness to all in the world!

(Hymn for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross)

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In his book, THE THEOLOGY OF JEWISH CHRISTIANITY,  Jean Danielou points out that in the literary works from the first two Centuries of Christianity which focus on “the Cross as a theological symbol” the Cross is portrayed “as the power of Christ in his resurrection, as a sign of the cosmic scope of the redemption, and as an object of eschatological expectation” (Danielou, p 265).   This focus will change over time and as monasticism gains dominance as being “normative” Christianity the Cross becomes more focused on the passion of Christ and on asceticism as a response to Christ’s passion.  The more ancient focus in the literature “… is, however, obviously not the Cross as an image of Christ suffering, but the glorious Cross which will precede him at the Parousia.  The modification of its significance in the former sense was brought about by later Christian asceticism, which saw in it not a prophecy of the Parousia, but a memorial of the Passion”  (Danielou, p 269).

Monastic asceticism turned the focus away from the Parousia to the Passion of Christ.  But then the humanism which followed in European Christianity turned the focus ever more on the human suffering of Christ.  In Orthodoxy this tended to manifest itself by focusing on Mary’s own lamentations about the suffering of her son, while the West developed not only Mary’s suffering but also the human agony of Christ Himself as he is tortured and dies on the cross.   I find it interesting that in the Canon for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross (the midpoint of Great Lent), we see that focus on the glorious and life-giving Cross far more than on the passion of Christ or on asceticism or fasting.  The Cross thus is not so much a symbol of Christ’s death as it is a sign of His triumph over death.  The Lenten Sunday of the Cross appears to be more in line with the earlier Christian emphasis.

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In the Canon for the Sunday of the Cross we see what Danielou describes in his book as the focus of early Christianity:

“The Cross has thus been promoted to represent the whole plan of redemption.  It reaches out to the whole of Creation; it symbolizes the action of the Word as well in the farthest heaven as in the abysses of hell, and represents the spread of this action over the breadth of space and the length of time.”  (Danielou, pp 291-291)

The Cross represents Christ’s cosmic victory over all evil whether in the air, on earth or in hell.  It is the sign of God’s triumph in which heaven and earth are full of God’s glory.

We also see the Cross as a sign of victory when the hymns of the Canon make reference to the Old Testament:  Moses prefigures the Cross with outstretched arms in defeating Amalek, Moses prefigures the Cross in dividing the sea with his rod and then causing the sea to close on the Egyptians, Daniel stretches out his hands cross-like in the lion’s den, the wood is thrown into the bitter waters to make them sweet and drinkable, Jonah arose on the 3rd day from the whale.  The Old Testament thus anticipates the Cross of the Lord, making it possible for us now to see God’s victorious triumph over death through Christ’s death on the cross.

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On the Lenten Sunday of the Cross, the canon also contains all the same Irmos hymns that we sing in the Canon for Paschal Matins.  We begin the Matins Canon for the Cross with:

THIS IS THE DAY OF RESURRECTION:
LET US BE ILLUMINED, O PEOPLE!
PASCHA, THE PASCHA OF THE LORD!
FOR FROM DEATH TO LIFE, AND FROM EARTH TO HEAVEN
HAS CHRIST OUR GOD LED US,
AS WE SING THE SONG OF VICTORY!

We are already proclaiming the resurrection.   The Cross is a festal sign, it celebrates the victory of Christ over sin, death, demons and Satan.  The theme of the Sunday is not “Lent is long and hard and we have a lot more fasting yet to go.”  Rather the theme is resurrection and we already know the destination because it is the basis for our daily life in Christ!   The following are all hymns from the Canon for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross to give us some of the themes emphasized for this mid-Lent Sunday:

Today there is joy in earth and heaven,

for the sign of the Cross is made manifest to all the world!

The thrice‑blessed Cross is set before us;

a fountain of ever‑flowing grace to all who show it honor!

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You arose on the third day from the tomb,

as one waking from sleep, O Lord.

By Your divine power, You struck down the keepers of hell,

raising up all our ancestors from the beginning of time,

for You alone are blessed and greatly glorified:

the God of our Fathers!

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On this day, the Cross of Christ, the Wood anointed with life,

fills all things with the fragrance of divine grace.

As we smell its God‑given scent,

let us venerate it with faith forever!

Your tomb, O Christ, has brought life to me,

for You, the Lord of Life,

came and cried to those dwelling in the grave:

Be free, all who are in bonds,

for I am come, the Ransom of the world!

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The Lenten Sunday of the Cross is not focused on the passion of Christ and His suffering on the Cross.  Rather, it focuses on the Resurrection of Christ, the Holy Pascha which we will celebrate in another month.  And by anticipation it looks forward to eschaton, when Christ will fill all things with Himself and death will be no more.  The Cross is the sign of Christ’s victory, and from the beginning of Christianity it was celebrated as such.   

The Wages of Sin is Death. What are the Wages for Taking Up the Cross?

…for the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23)

“In Matthew divine recompense is given in response to the work demanded of those who would follow Jesus; it is a wage, not a reward. For instance, in 16:24-28 Jesus explains the necessity of cross-bearing in terms of the eschatological repayment:
Then [after rebuking Peter] he said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow behind 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 on my account will find it…

Like the Markan parallel (8:34-9:1), this pericope explains that following Jesus entails giving one’s life to gain it back – that is, to follow Jesus who will be killed and then raised from the dead (see 16:21). Matthew, however, explicitly frames this “losing in order to regain” in terms of eschatological repayment; those who lose their life following Jesus will regain it because the Son of Man is about to repay to each according to his deeds. The crucial point here is that Jesus is not calling the disciples to perform some supererogatory deed that will earn them a “reward.” Rather, all who follow Jesus are expected to take up their cross, lose their lives, and be repaid in the resurrection…The recompense described here is not a mere token of God’s gratitude for those who go the extra mile. It is, rather, the recompense for obligatory behavior….But these workers receive a generous wage, not a reward. ”  (Nathan Eubank, Wages of Cross-Bearing and Debt of Sin, 68-69)

Baptized into Christ

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And baptism into Christ means incorporated into the diverse community of fellow baptized, co-crucified, co-resurrected, justified inhabitants of Christ”  (Gal 3:28).

. . . justification is an experience of both death and resurrection, and both must be stressed. But the resurrection to new life it incorporates is a resurrection to an ongoing state of crucifixion: I “have been” crucified means I “still am” crucified. Therefore, justification by faith must be understood first and foremost as a participatory crucifixion that is, paradoxically, life-giving (cf. 2 Cor 4:7-15). The one who exercises faith, and is there by crucified with Christ, is systauroo in Gal 2:19 – as in Rom 6:6), because he or she is animated by the resurrected Christ, who always remains for Paul (and the New Testament more generally) the crucified Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 2:2; cf. John 20:20, 27; Rev. 5:6). As Miroslav Volf says in commenting on this text, the self “is both ‘de-centered’ and ‘re-centered’ by one and the same process, by participating in the death and resurrection of Christ through faith and baptism…” Volf continutes:

By being ‘crucified with Christ,’ the self has received a new center – the Christ who lives in it and with whom it lives…The center of the self – a center that is both inside and outside – is the story of Jesus Christ, who has become the story of the self. More precisely, the center is Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected who has become part and parcel of the very structure of the self.

This understanding of faith as crucifixion is reinforced by Paul’s insistence that the believer’s experience (narrated representatively by Paul in first-person texts) is not only a death with Christ but also a death to the Law (Gal 2:19), to the world (Gal 6:14), and of the flesh (Gal 5:24). The mention of death of the flesh and to the world also demonstrates that Gal 2:15-21 should not be read only as a Jewish experience of liberation from the Law. Rather, every believer begins and continues his or her existence in Christ by co-crucifixion. Gal 2:19-21 suggests that co-crucifixion is both the way in and the way to stay in the convent.

Once again, we must stress that it is the resurrected crucified Christ with whom believers are initially and continually crucified. This is important, both christologically and soteriologically, in two ways. First, as an experience of the risen or resurrected Christ, co-crucifixion is not merely a metaphor but an apt description of an encounter with a living person whose presence transforms and animates believers: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I live, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me by giving himself for me.” As Douglas Campbell says, this is no mere imitatio Christi! For “God is not asking [believers]…to imitate Christ – perhaps an impossible task – so much as to inhabit or to indwell him,” such that “the Spirit of God is actively reshaping the Christian into the likeness of Christ.”

(Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, pp. 70-71)

God So Loved the World: Unlimited Love

No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.   (John 3:13-17)

Fr Lev Gillet writes:

Limitless Love forces open doors. Perhaps I had not achieved some sort of peaceful coexistence with God. Perhaps I had succeeded in believing that, as far as my soul was concerned, I was more or less “in good order,” and so had come to feel more or less at rest…And now all those presuppositions have been turned upside down by a divine intrusion. God asks something from me that I am quite unprepared for. It is like the news of an unwanted child..to listen to this demand, to take the costly decision, ah, but why?

Everything seemed to be going so well! Must I have new uncertainties and anxieties?…And now limitless Love wants to erupt into my life. It comes to upset everything in it. It comes to break up what seemed stable and to open new horizons to which I had never given a thought.

(in Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church, p. 94)

The Marriage Crown

Before the final blessing of the marriage, the priest prays that God will “take up their crowns.” This image is an encouragement for married couples to live in holiness and follow the ways of the martyrs and married saints to salvation. Salvation is a gift that is tried by many obstacles and temptations; yet, it is expressed as joyful life in the presence of God in his kingdom. This joy is not as fleeting or simple as temporary “happiness.” Rather, it contains within itself the fruits of labor and assists in the development of the unquenchable desire to serve the other in accordance with one’s natural inclination as a communal being.

Then secondly, the glory and the honor is that of the martyr’s crown. For the way to the kingdom is the martyria–bearing witness to Christ. And this means crucifixion and suffering. A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. (Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

Crowns become the reward for and sign of carrying the cross. Before marriage a specific cross is given to the individual, but now a new cross is given to the two united as one. This new cross requires cohesive work with the other in a way that is unique to the individual and is bearable only in services to Christ, through the spouse, by the Holy Spirit and in concordance with the Father. In this sacrificial love, martyrdom is made manifest. Again, in the words of Fr. Schmemann,

In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross joy [and not ‘happiness’!] entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.

(Bp. John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey, Building an Orthodox Marriage, pp. 57-58)

The Way to Joy? Take Up Your Cross

“The kingdom of God cannot be imposed; if it is to be brought about we must be born again, and that supposes complete freedom of spirit. Christianity is the religion of the Cross, and it sees a meaning in suffering. Christ asks us to take up our own cross and carry it, to shoulder the load of a sinful world. In Christian consciousness the notion of attaining happiness, justice, and the kingdom of God on earth without cross or suffering is a huge lie: it is the temptation that Christ rejected in the wilderness when he was shown the kingdoms of the world and invited to fall down and worship. Christianity does not promise its own necessary realization and victory here below; Christ even questioned whether he will find any faith on earth when he comes again at the end of time, and foretold that love itself will have grown cold.

Tolstoy believed that Christ’s commands could be easily fulfilled simply by recognizing their truth. But that was a mistake of his over-rationalizing consciousness; the mysteries of freedom and of grace were beyond him, his optimism contradicted the tragic depths of life. “The good which I will I do not,” says the apostle Paul, “but the evil which I will not, that I do. Now if I do that which I will not it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” This testimony of one of the greatest of all Christians unveils the innermost part of the human heart, and it teaches us that the “failure of Christianity” is a human failure and not a divine defeat.”

(Nicholas Berdiaev, Tradition Alive, pp. 96-97)

The Purpose of the Liturgy

“This gets more to the heart of things,” said Father. “What does each of us do? Only we can answer that for ourselves. Doesn’t Christ say, ‘Where your treasure is, there also is your heart’? If you remain passive or a spectator, you never experience the inspiration and challenge of liturgy. You remain locked within yourself. You rate the liturgy like a TV show and grade it on the basis of how it entertains–without it ever entering your mind that the purpose of liturgy is not entertainment.”

Father’s voice grew passionate. “Liturgy truly is ‘work’ in the sense that it requires us to move outside ourselves, to prepare, study, attend, sing, and listen together in faith and love. When liturgy is celebrated correctly and with care by everyone involved, its beauty and majesty does nourish and inspire us. These become the very vehicles that enable us to meet the mystery of God, giving us the strength to live life well and deal creatively with its problems. Only then does this ‘work’ bring us to Christ. Let’s face it: Liturgy is also about energy and belief, life and death. It’s not about comfort, amusement, entertainment, and distraction. Christian liturgy is about dying, leaving behind the old self and becoming a new person, so that we may life more fully, more abundantly.”

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, pp. 227-228)