'Take Up Your Cross'
'Jesus said, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'(St Mark 8: 34)
'Sob, heavy world,
That note of melancholy was struck by W H Auden in his poem 'The Dirge', but he might just as well have written it about the Second Sunday in Lent. For today's passage from Mark's Gospel is full of sobbing, speaking as it does of renouncing self and taking up our cross. This solemn side to our Christian religion can sometimes bring a shadow over our hearts and a cry of pain to our lips.
The cross, of course, can be avoided. There are some who manage their lives with such worldly wisdom and soft self-pleasing that it never occurs to them to take up their cross. The story of their lives is a drive for comfort and convenience, and nothing else matters. But something else does matter, for Jesus says, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.' Following Christ means taking up our cross, but if we don't take up our cross, then according to Jesus, we are not his disciples.
Years ago we used to sing,
Jesus, I my cross have taken
The words are earnest and serious, but the rather jaunty tune we sang it to, Bethany (Crucifer), somehow seemed to make taking up your cross sound an easy thing to do. But it's far from easy. Look at Jesus himself, and see what cross-bearing is about.
He took up his cross and bore it all through his ministry. At his baptism in the Jordan he laid it on his own shoulders. In his temptation in the wilderness he bound it to him with unbreakable cords. As he passed through Galilee and Judea the cross was the invisible weight he carried. In the Garden of Gethsemane he might have flung it down and gone on to make his peace with Caiaphas, or sit at Herod's dinner table, or find himself an honoured guest in the house of Pilate. But no, he held true to the cross. His cross was all the life he lived as well as the death he died: every day was a cross-bearing day for Jesus. And from that experience he says to you and me today, 'Take up your cross, and follow me.'
It's never easy to take up our cross and follow Christ. It could mean being held back in our own career or in the development of our powers in order to help someone who is finding life difficult. It could mean declining a position of influence, or refusing to indulge a desire for pleasure, in order to meet the call of our conscience. It could mean enduring misunderstanding and gossip and shame and ignominious disgrace, even when one word from us could prevent it. And it will always mean being just and true and loving to those who scorn us, and living honestly and purely in a confusing world.
No, it is never easy to take up our cross and follow Christ. But neither is it dismal or cheerless. For we are following Christ, who 'for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.' (Hebrews 12: 2) He bore his cross, and his example teaches and inspires us to bear our cross. And not only his example, but the blessing of his presence as well, for he is with us every step of the way, encouraging us and putting new heart into us. When our strength seems to falter and the cross seems too heavy to bear, there he is - supporting and strengthening us. When we are plodding wearily along, as though the journey with its pain will never end, there he is - cheering and enlivening us. When it all becomes too much for us, and we are like to rebel and to cast our cross from us, there he is - showing us the footprints of his loneliness and pain, and assuring us that as it was with him so it will be for us, well and worthwhile in the end.
There is never a moment when he is not with us, and every moment he is with us his shoulder is under the heavy end of our cross. Today, he is binding himself to us yet again, and urging us to lean more of the weight on him. In the end, there is nothing morbid, morose, or melancholy about our cross-bearing: we do it after the example of Jesus; we do it in the company of Jesus; we do it to continue the work of Jesus. It is, therefore, a thing we can do with gladness, for, as St Thomas a Kempis said, 'If we bear the cross gladly, it will bear us'. (De Imitatione Christi bk. 2, ch. 12, sect. 5 Thomas a Kempis)
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