Taking up our cross – Lent 2

Lent 2
Mark 1:31-38
Marian Free

In the name of God who, in Jesus, took all our burdens on himself. Amen.

Imagine the unlikely scene of a first century advertising agent speaking with a prospective client.

“Listen, I’m telling you,
it’ll never catch on!
I’m the guy with the advertising agency,
you’re the bloke with the boat, right?
You want a motif, a logo, a symbol for your set up,
and you came to me
with this crazy idea;
listen, you said your set up stands for
life, liberty, truth, love, joy, peace, hope,
all the big stuff;
well then, you’ll have to have a symbol which
a lady will wear at her wrist or her throat,
or a gent will attach to the lapel of his coat;
what d’you meant: ‘What’s a lapel?’
I mean, what set up standing for life
is going to expect its members to wear a badge
with something totally inappropriate on it,
like a, er, a guillotine,
or a gas chamber,
or an electric chair,
or a gallows?
You gotta have a symbol that’ll catch on,
a dove, an eagle,
spirit of life and freedom,
right?
Yeh, well, if that’s how you feel.

Here, George,
I just had this chap come in,
belongs to this set up,
you know, they stand for all the big ideals,
life, liberty, love, stuff like that,
and he had this idea for a logo:
a cross!
Yeh – a cross!
Your actual means of execution.
Yeh – right!
I thought what sorta lady is gonna wear a cross round
her neck!
That’s right, exactly what I said:
it’ll never catch on,
never in a thousand years!”

It is interesting that Christians have taken the sign of their greatest embarrassment and shame, the source of one of the most excruciating deaths humankind has perpetrated, and made it the most recognizable symbol of their faith – the cross. This is because the cross represents for us, not defeat, but victory. In the cross we find the source of our salvation – Jesus’ dying and rising for us. The cross for Christians is both the sign of Jesus’ total self-giving and the sign of his victory over death. The cross is empty. Jesus has risen. For us, then, the cross is a symbol of life not death, of what God gives to us, not what God demands of us.

So when Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”, it is in the context that the cross is the way to life. Jesus is not insisting that his followers seek out suffering, nor is he asking them to resign themselves to the pain and loss which might come their way. He is simply encouraging them to follow his example – to actively engage in the life God has give and to willingly take on whatever God asks, confident that even the worst life has to offer will not be able to defeat them.

The popular use of this saying, “we all have our crosses to bear”, totally misrepresents Jesus’ intention here. An attitude of resignation in the face of suffering and loss implies that God imposes burdens upon us, burdens which we must accept as part of being a Christian. This completely misses the point. The cross is something that we are asked to willingly take up, not something which we are encouraged to grudgingly endure. Taking up our cross is something that Jesus asks us to do, not something which God inflicts upon us. So when Jesus asks us to take up our cross, it is not with the intention that we readily take on sickness, disability, disappointment or sorrow but rather that we follow his example and commit ourselves to living the gospel and focusing on God no matter where that road might lead us trusting that, not only will God see us through, but that God will bring something good out of the worst situation.

“Bearing one’s cross” not only contradicts Jesus’ request that we “take up the cross”, but it also risks becoming a form of self-absorption – leading to a focus on oneself and one’s forbearance. What presents as humble acceptance of one’s may really be an unconscious way of drawing attention to how long-suffering, how saintly one is. It is a long way from the self-denial which Jesus requires. The point of denying oneself and taking up one’s cross is to gain life, not to be smugly stuck in some sort of half-life. Focussing on one’s troubles, even if only to demonstrate that one accepts them, is to look inward to oneself rather than outward to God and to others and to make the cross a burden God imposes rather than a gift God offers. To create an identity of being a burden-bearer, is to miss the opportunity to be a bearer of the life which God promises.

Burden-bearing and attention seeking are two things which Jesus explicitly rejects. Elsewhere, Jesus accuses the lawyers of loading people with burdens that are hard to bear and condemns them for not lifting a finger to help them. In contrast, Jesus claims that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Jesus is also extremely critical of the Pharisees who draw attention to their piety through their long prayers and other public displays. Taking up one’s cross he says, is not an act of public piety, but of self-denial. The verb aparneisthai (“aparneisqai”) which we translate as “to deny oneself” has the basic meaning of to act in a selfless way, to give up one’s place at the centre of things, to set one’s mind on divine things, not human things.

It would be totally out of character for Jesus to demand of his followers to do something that was difficult or burdensome, or to encourage them to make public displays of their devout behaviour.

The contradiction of the cross, which is demonstrated by Jesus’ resurrection, is that it leads not to death, not to resigned suffering but to life, fullness of life, life lived as God intends it to be lived in peace and hope and joy.

When we take up our cross we do so willingly, confidently and courageously, knowing that the road will not always be easy, but that it will lead to life in abundance and to life for eternity.

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