“If anyone whishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
On the evening of Ash Wednesday, I went to the home of a family from the parish and watched the new movie “Mary of Nazareth.” For me, two scenes were of particular interest. The first was the Annunciation – it was the first time I have ever seen someone attempt to depict it. Frankly, it was a little creepy. Gabriel had a man’s voice and a woman’s body. I get the whole genderless thing with angels, but genderless doesn’t mean “mixed gender.” It was a nice effort, but odd.
The second scene that made an impression on me was when Jesus spoke about taking up one’s cross and following him. When he said it, the people sitting around him erupted in shocked protestations.
Sometimes as we get familiar with the Scriptures we can lose something of the originality of what is being said. Any serious Christian has certainly heard numerous times about the necessity of the cross and carrying it well in union with Christ. We may not always admirably execute that command; we may not accept the teaching; we may be filled with fear and trepidation, but we’ve at least heard about it. In Catholic Churches and Catholic homes throughout the world, we encounter depictions of the crucifixion. We see the Stations of the Cross in chapels and sanctuaries. The cross fills the religious imagination of a Catholic. In the United States, many parishes, including mine, have enormous crucifixes dominating the sanctuary. We might not actually do it well, but we have some idea of what taking up our cross means.
But as I was watching the reaction of the people listening to our Lord, I realized that I had missed an important point. When our Lord’s contemporaries heard of the cross, they didn’t think of a crucifix they had hanging in their bedroom blessed by the Pope or the cross on the chain around their neck or about the homilies they have heard about suffering. They thought about the detestable Romans and their particularly public, painful, and humiliating form of tortuous murder known as crucifixion.
There was as yet no dolorous or glorious cross; it was just a means of execution. I think the equivalent for us today would be something like this: “If anyone wishes to follow me, he must deny himself and take up his electric chair daily.” Or gas chamber. Or lethal injection…
The sentence doesn’t even make sense, and it’s a little offensive. What does it mean to take up my electric chair? To daily embrace public execution while denying myself. Think about it…it’s just strange.
I think I can understand why people reacted so badly. The cross wasn’t a symbol of victory yet. It just a means of execution. And we are supposed to take it up and follow Jesus?
Because we have a Christian cultural formation, we can miss the scandal of Jesus’ words – and the confusion of them. When I read the Gospels today, I wonder how the disciples failed to understand Jesus’ predictions about his death, but when I take out “cross” and replace it with our modern equivalent, I can’t even understand what Jesus’ command means, except it sounds like I’m supposed to be voluntarily uniting myself to the electric chair.
Jesus is introducing his disciples to how radically different the Christian life will be. To be a disciple of Christ is to live differently, to be at war with the world to the extent that the world remains worldly. The prayer from Vespers of Ash Wednesday is as follows:
“Support us, Lord, as with this Lenten fast
we begin our Christian warfare,
so that in doing battle against the spirit of evil
we may be armed with the weapon of self-denial.”
The prayer for the beginning of Lent speaks of doing warfare with the spirit of evil by means of the weapon of self-denial! The spirit of evil is in the world! Christians are not called to retreat from doing this battle – we are not supposed to simply abandon the world to the evil one, but to do battle. “I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” (Jn 17:15-16)
To be a Christian disciple in the world is to be what Pope Francis called in “Evangelii gaudium” a “missionary disciple.” (EG §120) A missionary is one who brings the Gospel to others as his “mission.” And our Lord is warning us that to be a disciple of Christ bringing his light to the world is going to require that we deny ourselves and take up our cross – our “electric chair.” It requires us to accept the possibility – even the likelihood – of the ultimate rejection – the rejection unto martyrdom.
When we as Christians allow the spirit of the world to infiltrate our minds, our families, and our relationships, we are conceding our missionary mandate. We are salt that has lost its flavor or a lamp hidden in a basket. Our lives should be very different.
I have great love for parents trying to raise kids in the world today. It’s a particularly difficult task, given the hostility of much of our culture to goodness, beauty, and truth. One thing for parents (or anyone else) to consider this Lent is how often the fear of being different or outcast comes into play when they make decisions. One truth about kids in our culture is that they seek to fulfill their deep desire for love by wanting to be esteemed – in the right crowd doing the right things and liked by everyone. But because kids buy into the lies being told to them about what constitutes the good and the beautiful, they too often end up ceding their unique beauty and singularity to the god of popularity. And so we see young people imitating the world they see in social media, and in the process becoming a cheap copy of something that probably wasn’t real in the first place. Their desire to be uniquely loved is thrown away as they become a hollow copy of something unlovable because it is untrue.
This happens not just to young people, but to all of us, and way too often – precisely because we don’t want to be missionary disciples. We don’t want a Christianity that demands a way of life entirely distinct from the world. We want to think that Christian warfare can be accomplished in minor compromises, comfortable suggestions, and pious platitudes. But as we learn from the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday, only through self-denial can we engage the spirit of evil in this world. This will mean denying a lot of things that the world considers to be totally fine. It will make you stand out – every bit as much as you did on Ash Wednesday when people wondered what the smudge was on your forehead.
This is from the 2nd century Letter of Mathetes to Diognetus:
“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.
They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor. They are evilly spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect. Doing good they are punished as evil-doers.”
Taking up our cross in the 21st century looks a lot like it did in the 2nd. Here is a question to consider during Lent: Does this letter describe your life? Do you think it should?
Now what are you going to do about it?