“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Lk. 9:23)
As we look at this biblical commandment said by our Lord Jesus Christ and mentioned in all the synoptic gospels (Matt. 16:24; Mk. 8:34; Lk. 9:23), we may find ourselves puzzled and at loss. As Orthodox Christians, we certainly want to follow our Lord Jesus Christ and fulfill His commandments in our lives, but this commandment seems to ask too much! How can we reconcile living in a society that places incredible importance upon the self and self-gratification with the requirement of discipleship of not only denying oneself, but also additionally carrying the cross and on a daily basis? Why would God want us to suffer every day? We need rewards to motivate us and build our self-esteem. But crosses, who wants suffering?!
Obstacles to walking the road of the Cross:
Let us first examine our condition and popular ideologies. Our society is obsessed with self-gratification in an unholy way. These satanic ideas have been injected into our collective thinking and consciousness through the advertisement industry and the media in general. Technology has allowed us to be pampered, and we want short cuts and quick fix solutions for everything. In short, we want the easy way out, and this is certainly reflected in our spiritual life. Daily labor and carrying the cross are in definite contradiction to these ideas.
One of the great falsehoods that Satan wants us to believe is that in following God, we are supposed to have an easy time and everything should be rosy. So, we follow Christ so long as He grants us what we want, and sadly enough we deceive ourselves and think that we love our Lord. But in reality, when “the rubber meets the road”, heat rises. This happens to us in our daily lives with the problems we face, the crosses that God sends our way. It is at these moments that our true colors show and the extent of our love is revealed.
Let us re-examine our values and way of thinking. We must not allow ourselves to be consumed by a compulsive society and the “idols” in our lives that affect even our spiritual lives. We march the beat of a different drummer!
The Necessity of Walking the Road of the Cross:
Where one goes in life depends largely on the goal and destination one chooses. One of the spiritual fathers of the past century, the late Fr. Pishoy Kamel, used to advice his children in confession that “if one wants to succeed in life, one must go to school daily, work hard, and graduate. Similarly, if we want to succeed in our spiritual life, we must enter ‘the school of the Cross’ daily, work hard at it, so we can graduate into eternal life.” Some of the Desert Fathers also compare our earthly life to a journey with the Heavenly Jerusalem as our destination. It is not a single grandiose event, but an every day action through spiritual struggle. St. Isaac the Syrian said, “The way of God is a daily cross. The Cross is the gate of mysteries.” Therefore, as with any journey, one must have the correct maps and follow the right path towards the destination. In our journey, we follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who traveled the road of the Cross and showed us perfect righteousness.
It is important to remember that when our Lord Jesus Christ asks us to carry the cross and follow Him, He knows we are weak sinners. But He is actually asking us to show our real freedom to follow Him in love. Christ our Lord is our companion along the road, and in fact, He Himself will carry the heaviest portion of the yoke. The paradox of Christian living is that in sacrificing everything, we gain unimaginable riches and in dying to passions, and ourselves we live forever. Whereas, in grasping to the temporal and visible, we lose the eternal, for our Lord said, “He who loses his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt. 16:25) Therefore, the road of the Cross must be our experience in the here and now.
How Do We Walk the Road of the Cross:
In fulfilling Christ’s commandment of carrying the cross daily, there are several elements to be considered that are essential for the success of the journey. Self-denial is a pre-requisite for this journey; it is an act of loving submission, done freely. This is translated into our everyday life when we do not do anything out of self-love or desire, since this is directly related to pride, the mother of all sins. In walking the road of the Cross, self-denial means loving in a way that does not demand its own way, a thoughtful way that constantly seeks to encourage and please. It means putting the desires of others before my own. Self-denial is when we don’t insist on our own way, for we often do this, not only with other people, but also even with God. Self-denial must be manifested in all our relationships; we pour our life for our spouse, children, fellow servants, and those whom we serve. We serve others at the expense of our own personal desires, dreams, and comfort. How difficult can that be? By all human standards, very difficult! But when we carry the Cross, we enter the realm of God, where strength comes from weakness. Again, this is in contradiction to popular cultural thinking. In modern society, people stay in relationships so long as there is self-satisfaction. But once it ceases to exist, so does the relationship.
The second pre-requisite is self-crucifixion, which is the purification and cleansing from the inside from all sinful passions and desires. It is crucifying the pride, jealousy, desire to be first and greatest, revenge, sensual passions, etc. If offended, even by those to whom I have done good to, I forgive. We are all caught in situations, where all our choices result in evil. We can all say with St. Paul, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good results; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do, but the evil that I will not to do, that I practice….O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:18,19,24)
On our way to freedom by subduing the ego and passions, ascetic practices is the third pre-requisite. We crucify our body by nailing it with strict discipline. Our thoughts and imagination must be strictly controlled and nailed by words of prayer, praying the psalms, Bible reading, reading the works of the Holy Fathers, fasting, metanoias, etc. St. Paul tells us, “You have not resisted to bloodshed striving against sin.” (Heb. 12:4) When our false and fallen self is crucified and dies, and we bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:5), then we discover the true self, created in the likeness of God, and experience yet another paradox of the Cross: strength and victory.
The End of the Road of the Cross:
With Christ as our goal, we start on the journey, following in His footsteps along the road of the Cross. It is in our daily cross-bearing that we come to discover the mystery of the Cross, which St. Paul described, “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things,” and most of all “as dying and behold we live.” (2 Cor. 6: 10,9) We are confident that in every storm along this journey, our Lord will be our shelter. In every weakness, He will be our strength. Most of all, in our death, He gives us eternal life. In voluntarily carrying the Life-Giving Cross, we carry the tree of life, which brings forth the fruit of the Holy Spirit in abundance and brings about our growth in perfection.
Only when we crucify the old person and the old self, will we be able to enter the Heavenly Jerusalem, for the Cross will be our symbol. With St. Paul, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16) By the prayers of all the martyrs, saints, and cross-bearers, may our Lord Jesus Christ inspire us to carry the Life-Giving Cross and follow in His footsteps, so that we may, ever more perfectly, be one in Him, complete our earthly journey, and fulfill our true destiny for which we were created.