This is not the case for the Lord’s call for anyone who would seek to be His follower to “take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). This teaching is found in each of the four Gospels, suggesting that it was important to the first Christians throughout the early Church. One could not be a Christian without carrying one’s cross, they all affirmed, but what does this key passage mean? What is one’s cross? Is it one’s spouse, or one’s rheumatism, as is often held, or is it something more?
In the ancient world, the cross was a symbol of shame reserved for executing the least important members of society. From about the sixth century bc until the practice was abolished by the Emperor St Constantine the Great in the fourth century ad, crucifixion was the “preferred” method of executing slaves, captives and the worst criminals who had no rights in the ruling culture. The painful nature of this punishment is the source of our English word excruciating.
For Christians, the cross quickly became the symbol of sacrifice, of self-giving in imitation of Christ. As Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was the moment of His glorification, so the Christian’s sacrifice would be seen as the time of his or her exaltation with Christ as well.
Sacrificing One’s LifeThe first Christians were acutely aware that they might be called to follow Christ to a literal cross, sacrificing their lives as He did. Thus the apostolic brothers Peter and Andrew and some others were actually crucified by pagan authorities. Countless others since then have met their deaths in a host of ways. Practically every day we commemorate martyrs among the saints. This week alone we honor several martyrs of the Roman persecutions: the Great Martyrs Euphemia (9/16), Eustathius and his family (9/20) and a dozen others. Local Churches may also commemorate other martyrs from the Persian, Arab, Turkish or Communist persecutions.
For the followers of Christ, martyrdom is never very far away. Christians today in many parts of Asia and Africa are giving up their lives rather than deny their faith in Christ their Savior. The demise of militant atheistic Communism was followed quickly by the rise of militant Islamism and even militant Hinduism and ultra-Orthodox Judaism as these peoples strive vainly to purify their cultures from foreign influences. Recently a watchdog group in Europe concluded that more than 100,000 Christians are killed each year “because of some relation to their faith.”
Sacrificing One’s SelfAs Christ’s death was the consequence of His assuming our whole nature, the sacrifice of blood-martyrdom is inseparably tied to the martyr’s witness to Christ. The very word martyr means witness, a witness made at the cost of one’s life. The Gospel indicates another kind of witnessing unto death in this passage, when Christ says, “let him deny himself and take up his cross…” (Mark 8:34). In addition to our physical life which may be sacrificed in blood-martyrdom, we also have an inner life: the life of our ego. We want do this, own that, eat or drink this. We can satisfy every urge that our material resources allow, or we can deny ourselves to witness to Christ. This is the heart of asceticism, whether in its institutional expression (monasticism) or in the call of every Christian to place God and others first in our lives.
The first such self-denial is that to which St Paul urges us: “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11). We are called to destroy that part of us which is bound up with sin – the passions of our broken human nature – and to be crucified interiorly.
In another place, St Paul becomes more explicit: “Therefore put to death your members which are of the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). As St Augustine noted centuries ago, this does not mean that we are to kill or maim ourselves “…but it does mean that one should kill whatever in oneself is unduly attached to the earthly, which makes one take inordinate pleasure in this present life to the neglect of the life to come” (Letter to Laetus). We are to deal violently with our sinful actions and inclinations in imitation of Christ’s death on the cross.
In no previous age has the average person been more able to avail himself of entertainments every day. In our society the stuff of popular entertainment is sin: greed, lust, violence and the rest. It permeates TV, sleazy movies, the Internet and even commercials. It appeals to the voyeur and the gossiper in us. The follower of Christ is called to put aside these entertainments, dying to internet porn, celebrity gossip, and whatever else is “of the earth.”
Our economy is built on consumerism: buying the newest, biggest whatever – simply because we can. Commercials would have us believe that doing so will make us happy and fulfilled. The message of dying to self, on the other hand, calls us to live simply that others may simply live.
Our immediate concerns, our convenience, and the welfare of those closest to us often blind us to the needs of the wider Church and the world around us. Can dying to self also involve putting to death the parochialism of our everyday lives?
It often happens, as St Augustine noted, that our cross drags us along, rather than we carry it. We find the precepts of the Gospels burdensome rather than life-giving, and we observe them only out of a sense of obligation. When we do take up the cross, the Fathers remind us, we need to keep our eyes upon Christ whom we are but following. In the words of Caesarius of Arles, “To what place are we to follow Christ, if not where He has already gone? We know that He has risen and ascended into heaven; there, then, we must follow Him. There is no cause for despair – by ourselves we can do nothing, but we have Christ’s promise… Human sin made the road rough; Christ’s resurrection has leveled it. By passing over it Himself, He transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway” (Sermon 159, 6). Come, O people and behold a most glorious wonder – let us worship the power of the Cross. A tree brought about death in paradise, but this tree has caused life to blossom forth, for the sinless Lord was nailed to it. Receiving incorruption from it, all you nations, let us cry: You who abolished Death by the cross and freed us, glory to You!
Exapostilarion of the Feast