Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Take up your cross

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’

- Mark 8:34-9:1

What does it mean to "take up our cross?" I think this is an important question, because it goes to the heart of Christianity and its enduring symbol. To take up the cross might mean many things to many people. For me, it means taking up a life of prayer, of seeking communion with the Creator, and accepting that this will change us.

To understand prayer and connectedness in spiritual terms is next to impossible a subject to talk about, because it is so intimate and because what happens in this process of development of spiritual life and this spiritual connectness is also very mysterious. It can be attributed to "facts" such as our own psyches at work deep inside of us, social pressures we somehow absorb unconsciously, ideas we've picked up without being aware of it. But the deep spiritual transformation that happens through a life of prayer, such as times we suddenly find forgiveness inside of us for old hurts that we hadn't consciously thought of to begin with, or a great understanding that comes without conscious pondering of a question, are things that develop through and by this prayer life.

The process of taking up the cross, thereby, becomes a way of giving up one's life in the sense that who we think we are becomes something malleable, subject to change and transformation. In our relationship to Creator we become a person who is given gifts that denote identity: a kind of discovery of the self, or "true self," happens through this "giving up." When Jesus speaks of giving up one's life in order to save it, I believe he's talking about the relatedness that teaches us about ourselves, allows us to separate ourselves from sin, from desire, from - according to my study bible - "all that the world holds dear," and choose for ourselves with a spiritual freedom that comes from relationship to something that is much greater than all of that. There are times, in discipleship of this sort, when we have to choose what's more important: a relationship to God, or a goal, ambition, prized value, that stands in the way of that relatedness making itself deeper within us. The cross becomes that great symbol not only, of course, because of Jesus' crucifixion and his willingness to go to the end of his life itself in order to serve that relationship himself, but also because for each of us this road can be painful. It's hard to give up things you held dear, ideas you cherish; it's hard to grow! It's hard to separate oneself from what one held dear as a treasure: a goal, an ambition, an idea or image of oneself. But this is the cost of maturity, of the spiritual freedom that comes from clinging to this particular truth.

When we "take up our cross" then, we are thinking of relatedness to something much greater than ourselves - and therefore to something that allows us to go beyond ourselves, to separate ourselves from whatever it is that we have so far in our lives continued to think of as precious or dear to our idea of identity. Am I limited by my ethnic background? Am I a slave to what I learned as a child in my parents' home? Does even my gender tell me what I must be? There is a relatedness that takes us beyond even that, every factor in our lives, every "should" and "must" - and that is this most basic relationship to Creator. Jesus gave us the example. It is not very popular, I fear, to talk this way now. So much of what passes for Christian is about fulfillment in the here and now, a great synthesis of life in the world and life in the Spirit. But I believe that for our own sake we really should not forget these words or the spirit of them. Narcissism is the great heart of what ails us so often as modern affliction of all kinds. Our humanity really depends upon a clearer picture of ourselves than our desires so often offer to us. We need something, Someone, outside of ourselves to help us to spiritual, mental, emotional and even physical health. We draw upon our resources and all that is available to us, of course, but we do not forget to call upon the Source of all that is good, of every good gift.

Finally, Jesus' words touch upon Judgment. The relatedness to this Person that will come in glory becomes a question of what survives us when we leave this life - and ultimately in that place of understanding we find true freedom, that we are more than our possessions, that a person is more than his or her image in the world. What beauty we find in the world, then, becomes more than what we can possess or own, it becomes a reflection of its Source, which can shine in us.

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