Monday, March 5, 2012

Taking up our cross daily . . .

"If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it." (Luke 9:23-24) 

“We all have our crosses to bear,” people say. Most of us have said it when we've been battered and bruised. And that's O.K., except that we end up trivialising the saying of Jesus. 

Is our mother-in-law (or our boss, our children, our financial situation, our boring job, our sore toe, our sickness, our ethnic origin or anything else like these) REALLY our “cross”? I don't doubt that these things can be difficult to cope with, to the point where we may feel “crucified” by them! Nor do I doubt that when we have done all we can do to change our circumstances and we’re still stuck with them the best thing is to offer our suffering to the Father in union with the suffering of Jesus, especially when we do it as intercession for others. 

But that’s NOT what Jesus is talking about here. Historically, when he said those words, the only time anyone would “take up their cross” was when they were about to die. That's what the cross means in the Bible: Death! Jesus goes on to say “. . . whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

We know that taking up our cross is not just bearing a burden because everyone bears burdens, whether or not they follow Jesus. No, the crushing burdens we bear are not our cross, especially if we have no choice with them. Jesus said that you and I have a CHOICE about “taking up our cross” and following him. The choice is between dying in order to live, or refusing to die and never knowing real life. 

Dying in order to live means being so overwhelmed by love divine that we want to put away the “old self", the old sinful nature with its evil desires, dreams, and ambitions in order to live for Jesus. 

Indeed, this is what happened at our baptism. 

St Paul says: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). 

The Easter Vigil Mass, to which we journey (or return) during Lent, is the Church’s main baptismal service. We don't merely celebrate the dying and rising of Jesus who came into this world out of love to reconcile us to the Father; we are actually JOINED TO his dying and rising - "merged" with him in that mystery, so as to have - even in this world - his risen life. That’s why the old fonts were so big. Those being baptized were plunged three times into the watery grave as happens to this day with both adults and babies in the Eastern Churches as well as in the Baptist and Pentecostal denominations.

At the Easter Vigil Mass we return to our baptism so as to anchor afresh into the love and power of the risen life of Christ. It is for us a powerful, even miraculous, renewal for which we prepare during the forty days of Lent.   

And so St Paul can say, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

This is the life we have in Jesus, the life we share as brothers and sisters in him, overwhelmed by his love. It is a life that I would not trade for anything; it means everything to me. 

But - paradoxically - the Bible as well as our own experience tells us that we need to RETURN to this death often. Jesus says in our text that we must take up our cross and die DAILY (Luke 9:23). This is not because he wants to crush us, but because he wants us to be truly FREE in his love.

At different times in our lives we find it a real struggle to keep making the ONGOING choice to follow Jesus. 

So, if we are new to the life of faith, we shouldn’t be surprised if after our "spiritual honeymoon" the old nature seems to spring back to life and we fall into sin and hate ourselves for it. That happens to all of us. And even when we are seasoned disciples we endure enormous struggles and temptations. Such was the experience of the greatest saints of the Church's history. 

When this happens to us, we should deal with it by faith. We should rely only on God's grace. We should remember how much he loves us. We should find a "spiritual director" who can help us understand what is happening. We should ask others to pray for us. We should dust ourselves off (using the Sacrament of Reconciliation when necessary - a real channel of God’s healing love -), where possible make things right with anyone who has been hurt by our sin, and then refocus our gaze on Jesus. We should renew our conscious choice to DIE DAILY in a surrender of our wills to his love so as to LIVE DAILY with his RISEN LIFE. That's what it means to keep returning to the cross. (And when it seems hard, it is good to read Romans 7, where we see that at least some of the time even the great Apostle Paul had a struggle to do this!) 

Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to say that the whole of our Christian journey is a gradual releasing into our daily lives of the reality and power of our baptism, when we died and rose with Jesus. I’m sure he was right!


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