The Church, in her wisdom, sets before us today the Holy Cross. She sets it here as an encouragement – “Take comfort,” she says, “and hold to the Fast just a little longer. You’re almost there!”
St. Nikolai Velimirovich speaks to what we should learn on this day comparing the Cross to “medicine,” for he tells us that we are all sick and need to be healed. He says, “In our suffering and weakness, when we are sick we seek a doctor who will give us medicine. One does not look for a doctor who dispenses sweet tasting medicine. Everyone wants medicine that will heal, be it sweet, bitter or tasteless. It seems that the more complicated the process of healing, the greater faith we put into the doctor treating us.”
What a thing to ponder, as we sit here this morning now fully a year after the initial quarantine, recognizing that we’re still looking for that medicine. St. Nikolai continues in his analysis. “Are not illnesses of the spirit more serious than illnesses of the body? How then can medicines for the spirit not be even more bitter than those for the body?”
He offers these thoughts related to our Lord’s teaching us that we are to:
- Desire to come after Him
- Deny ourselves
- Take up our own cross
- And to follow Him.
The analogy to medicine to heal the spirit St. Nikolai relates to these four components of our Lord’s instructions to us on this day.
Most of us can immediately relate to the idea of our “desiring to come after Him.” Each of us, I think, would say that we truly are trying on a daily basis to find our own way to live lives consistent with our Lord’s instructions and His commandments. The single most important component of this element of today’s Gospel is that our Lord does not compel anyone to have this desire. Just as He gave free will to Adam, who used it counter to God’s will, so He gives also to us. We must CHOOSE to come after Him.
But what does it mean to “deny yourself”? Adam denied himself when he fell into sin. But his denial was of his true self, the Adam that God had created to be near to Him for eternity. In his denial of that truth, Adam “put on” the false Adam, in short – a lie. Our Lord’s encouragement to deny ourselves is therefore an encouragement to deny Adam’s lie which is present within each of us, and in denying this lie (denying the person we’ve become by our choice, not by God’s design), we return to the person God DID create us to be.
And what does it mean to “take up your cross”? This is a difficult topic to discuss, for in some instances, our cross is a particular sin or failing that accompanies us through long periods of our lives. In other instances, our cross is thrust upon us, unannounced, and immediately, we must bear it. There are many here in our little community who have been handed crosses that they did not expect, and certainly did not desire, from issues with parents to issues with children and issues with health.
In the category of crosses that have been thrust upon us, all of us have had to deal with the cross that is the pandemic. We can agree or we can disagree on the issues of has it been handled properly, should we mask or not mask, should we have locked down or not, should we accept the vaccine or not, and perhaps several other salient topics. But it has been a cross for all of us, one that we may need to carry yet for another little while.
In terms of unexpected crosses, we have Simon of Cyrene as an example. Recall his story from the Gospel of Saint Mark, who records, “And as they led Him out to crucify Him, then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross.” Here is poor Simon, trying to enter the city of Jerusalem, and as he comes to go in, the soldiers are escorting Jesus out. Simon is “compelled” – essentially, conscripted by the soldiers. “Turn about face, Simon – take this cross and go the opposite way.” This had to be a life changing event for Simon, and his faith is evidenced by the remembrance in the scripture of his sons, Alexander and Rufus. Simon was given not just any cross to bear, but the Cross. We can only imagine him at Golgotha asking all, “Who is this Man? What did He do? Why is He being slain?” In Simon’s carrying the Cross, he is immersed in Christianity and in hours given the grace of seeing, knowing, and witnessing the death of the Man Who has in a moment become his Lord!
Will our own taking up of our cross be like this? No. There are no two crosses the same. Saint Ambrose teaches, “God does not create a cross for man. No matter how heavy a cross a man may carry in his life, it is still just wood, made by man himself, and it always grows from the soil of his heart.”
If we are to take up our own cross, we will do so because of our desire to come after our Lord. But to deny ourselves and to follow where He leads us requires a yet greater commitment. We must become disciples. It’s a wonderful word, disciple! From its root comes the word “discipline”. Discipline is the condition of a disciple. A disciple is obedient to his or her Master, and is committed to learning, absorbing all that the Master teaches.
Being a disciple carries a cost. For the disciple it means a gradual overcoming of all that is “self” so that self is displaced, lost, replaced by that which is Greater than self so that a ‘new life’ is embedded within the disciple. Being a dedicated disciple begins with silence and listening. While these are required, they are not enough, for if we listen with the greatest interest, without every putting into action what we’ve learned, we’ll listen but we’ll hear nothing any more. This was the condition of the Pharisees, whose ears perceived all the same words that the Lord’s disciples heard, but the ears of the Pharisees could not hear. Metropolitan Anthony teaches, “God does not speak to our mind or to our heart if He does not receive allegiance and obedience from us. God speaks once, and perhaps twice, and then He withdraws sadly until we are hungry for Him, hungry for the truth.”
What does it mean to take up our cross? It means that we are willing to accept the medicine dispensed by God to heal our infirmities, our spiritual illnesses, regardless of that medicine’s bitterness. Abraham accepted God’s command to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Noah accepted God’s command to build a ship in the middle of nowhere near an ocean and to stock it with animals. Job accepted the loss of his children, his wealth, his health, and even his friends.
In short, God will not ask of any of us anything that He has not asked others to endure before us. When the Lord instructs us to take up our cross, He is asking us to crucify “the old man” within us, the one who holds onto evil habits, or to cleave to the ‘things’ of this world. He asks us as a disciple to put that old person to death, so that He, God, can recreate us in a new image.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich teaches it this way. “The Lord did not come to reform the world, but to re-make it, to bring it to newness of life. He is not a reformer. He is the Creator. He is not a ‘patcher’ but a weaver. Anyone wanting to preserve an old, worm-riddled tree will lose it. He can do all he can in an external way for the tree – water it, fence it around and nurture it – but the worm will eat it away within and it will rot away and fall….. He who tries to preserve his old Adam-like soul, eaten away and rotted by sin, will lose it… Whoever loses his old soul will save his new soul.”
Through the power of the Life-giving Cross or our Lord, may we be moved to lose the old so that the new may find salvation!