Lent is here and there is much talk of service and devotion and walking with Jesus through the Lenten experience. We followed Jesus from his baptism, dripping wet after hearing loving words from God's own voice, to the wilderness, led by the Spirit, accompanied by wild animals, cared for by angels, to the place where he began his life of service and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come near. Jesus told those who were listening to "repent, and believe the Good News".
It's funny....I said those same words to those who attended our Ash Wednesday Service a week ago. As they came down the aisle, I put my thumb in the ashes and made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and said, "Repent, and believe the Gospel." The words "Gospel" and "good news" come from the same Greek word from which comes the word "evangelize". Believe the good news and tell others the same good news that you have believed.
So, now week two of Lent is here and this week we see Jesus teaching and telling people that they have to "deny themselves" and "take up their cross" and "follow me". Jesus' words are not as appealing to us as simply believing or repenting. We think we can do that fairly easily as we ask God to forgive our sins and we attend worship services and hear what is preached. The themes for this week though imply that we have something that we like or do that we should put aside (deny yourself) and that there is something like a cross that may be in our lives that we should affirm or avow if we are to truly follow Christ.
I wonder what first century Christians thought about these words when they heard them. After all, Mark's Gospel is believed to be the first Gospel written and was being read aloud in house churches before the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE. Those early Christians could literally see the signs around them of the days to come when they would flee to the countryside lest they be murdered by the Roman soldiers stationed in Jerusalem. They may have witnessed many times the crosses by the sides of the roads leading into the city where those convicted of crimes against Rome hung in agony till they died. Hearing the words of Jesus read that encouraged his followers to "take up their cross" may have seemed puzzling or even threatening to them. How does one accomplish this and still live to tell the story of Jesus to those who would hear him? After all that is what believing and telling the good news is about.
Modern Christians have to think about these words and how they apply to them also. Denying yourself, as it pertains to Lent, may make us think it means not to have that piece of Coconut Cream Pie that we crave or to pass on seconds when we think we are still hungry. This is denying oneself, when we do not have or enjoy something that we can reasonably allow ourselves to have in order to prove to oneself that we have the will power or fortitude to do so. But, denying oneself also has to do with giving devotion to a higher power, a heavenly kingdom instead of an earthly one. When one denies ones humanity in favor of citizenship in God's Kingdom, then one disallows what it means to have attachments to earthly things. The word "attachments" is important here because things in themselves are not an issue for us. It is the attachment we have to what we own that separates us from our true purpose in Jesus Christ.
Taking up a cross is a bit more problematic for Christians, though. We all live with crosses of one kind or the other. We have health issues, job related complaints, family discord, emotional distress to deal with in our lives so those are all crosses we must bear constantly. Bearing them or taking them up, however, means that we do not complain about them but we instead seem them as fruitful or beneficial to our lives.
"I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place, I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of his face, Content to let the world go by, to know now gain or loss, my sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross." (Beneath the Cross of Jesus, stanza 3, words by Elizabeth Clephane)
Taking up the cross implies that we bear the cross and accept it as a part of our lives rather than trying to rid ourselves of it. Living with constant pain is a cross many are called to bear. They would rather not have it in their lives and they try to cope with it thanks to modern medications that can relieve pain. Accepting that pain is inevitable is taking up the cross. That does not mean that we stop taking the medication. It just means that we admit that we may suffer pain as we continue to live in this broken world. The shadow of the cross brings us a place to contemplate what life is about and what suffering means to each of us in light of the cross being a part of our lives.
Follow Jesus, he says, and if we can truthfully deny our attachment to the world and its possessions, not do without them, just deny that we must have them even when we possess them, and we can affirm that the cross we may bear may be part of our lives always, then we may follow Jesus on the road to the cross because that is what a life lived through him and in him leads to. His cross became his reality when he denied his attachment to this life and his affirming of the pain that accompanied the cross. Jesus' words sound hard and challenging, and they may be, but followers of Jesus find peace in the knowledge that their lives are buried in his life, death, and resurrection and what lies ahead for us is eternal joy.