Twice a year the Church brings before us the Cross, on Sept. 14, Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross, and on the Third Sunday of Lent. Then as today, Sunday after the Exaltation of the Cross, we hear the same words of the Lord: “Whoever wants to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” I want to offer a few reflections on this radical call of the Lord, that we may gain a fuller insight of this fundamental Christian calling, and apply it in our lives.
In the first place we notice that the Lord does not compel anyone. He respects our freedom. However, if we choose to be His follower, then we must do what the Lord prescribes: first deny ourselves, second take up our cross, and third follow the Lord. If we want to follow the Lord, self-denial and carrying our cross is not an option. As He also said, “He who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me!” (Mt. 10:38) But what does the Lord mean when He says we must “deny” ourselves? And what is this “cross” we are supposed to take up? And what does “follow” the Lord mean?
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
— Saint Paul
To deny ourselves means to refrain from satisfying our desires or needs. Some Christians understand fasting as refraining from having any candy, or something like that. The Lord demands from His followers a radical change: “Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:33). The Lord wants it all. To the young rich man He said, “Go, sell everything, distribute it to the poor and come and follow Me.” More than the physical parting of our goods the Lord wants our detachment from them. So what does the Lord want from us, Christians: to be destitute, not having anything to provide for our children, rely on God to feed us and to clothe us? What He wants is to be attached to Him, and Him alone, and not to rely on our abilities, our ingenuity, our efforts. So they are not needed? They are needed very much. But while we use our God-given mind and intelligence, we should give glory to God, by living for His glory. God expects us to detach ourselves from earth and attach ourselves to heaven. He wants us to cease being self-centered, loving ourselves only, seeking only our self interest, gratifying our needs, striving exclusively for what is to our advantage, which might hurt others, ignoring our suffering fellow human being. Is there anything more un-Christian than this?
St. John the Evangelist urges us: “Do not love the world or the things of the world. If any one loves the world, love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:15-16). We are all called to renounce the comforts of the world, the pleasures of the flesh, and our own will. We all need to practice self-denial, live for Christ, live the life of Christ. Listen to the Apostle Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Here, then, is our motivation, here is the power that propels us to renege ourselves, to lose our very life: the love of Christ.
To love Christ we need to know Him. Once we get to know Him we are attracted by Him, because He can, He alone can satisfy all our needs. Says again the Apostle Paul: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ…and may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8.10-11). Elsewhere he writes these astounding words, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is the Church” (Col. 1:24). Yes, if we love Christ, then we want to become sharers of His suffering. We embrace Christ’s Cross, because, as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says, “Outside of the cross, without the cross, living knowledge of Christ does not exist!” But what is this cross we are supposed to take up?
Take up your Cross
To take up our cross means to crucify “the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). Our cross is to resist the temptations of life, to struggle to subdue the passions, to avoid immorality, to abstain from criticizing others, to swallow our pride, to strive to be pure, meek, humble, holy and blameless, patient, loving one another—to be Christians (1 Pet. 4:16), to be true followers of Christ. Out of love for what Christ did for us we should be willing to embrace voluntarily what He embraced. This is the distinguishing mark of Christ’s followers: “To this [suffering] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). This radical call is universal, embraces everyone: “The same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Pet. 5:9).
The apostles and their disciples had to suffer persecutions and even death for their faith. But we too have our crosses. All of us do. We’d better. For without cross, without pain, suffering, death there is no resurrection, no glory. Listen to the Apostle Paul: “Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). St. Isaac the Syrian has this to say: “The way of God is a daily cross. No one ascends to heaven living a “cool” life (i.e. comfortably, carefree, pleased with himself, without struggle). And we know where the cool path ends” (Works, p. 158). Indeed St. Luke calls the cross “daily” (Lk. 9:23). We need to die daily to sin, to evil, to desires, to selfishness, to passions.
How to follow Christ
Who is then a follower of Christ? Who is a Christian? Are you a Christian? Careful! “If you are a Christian,” says St. John Chrysostom, “you don’t have a city on earth. The artisan and builder of our city is God. Though the entire universe be ours, we are strangers and sojourners in it. We are citizens of heaven.”
Christ leads us to the summit of human possibilities, to union with God, to theosis. Let us follow Him with confidence.
True and genuine followers are those who let Christ lead them! You want to get to the top of Mount Everest. You’ve never been there. But you selected an experienced climber. Are you going to argue with him which way to go? Christ leads us to the summit of human possibilities, to union with God, to theosis. Let us follow Him with confidence. Let us take Christ’s yoke and learn from Him. Learn what? To be gentle and lowly in heart (Mt. 11:29). Followers of the Lord are those who follow His example, washing each other’s feet (John 13:13-15). Followers of the Lord are those who love Him and obey His commandments. Do we love the Lord? Do we want to be with Him? Then let us embrace the crosses of our daily lives gladly, knowing they are temporary (1 Pet. 1:6, 5:10), and that a Kingdom awaits us. We do it not reluctantly, not being gloomy about it, but rejoicing. The apostle Peter enjoins us: “Rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13).
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: No one forced us to be Christians. We chose to follow the Lord with our free will. But have we fully realized the profound demands exerted on us by such decision? Christ wants us to surrender whatever we hold most precious, our very self, our will, entirely to Him. He calls us to set aside everything we hold dear, our spouse, our children, our possessions, our lifestyle, our goals and aspirations, our plans, and love Him with all our soul, with all our mind, with all our heart, with all our strength, with all our being. When we were baptized we pledged to enlist in Christ’s army. But for most of us someone else made this pledge, because we were infants. As adults, being conscious of the demands of our Faith, can we in honesty say we are followers of Christ? Do we acknowledge Him as our Lord and Master? If we do, let us let Him be our Lord and Master.