Our Lord Jesus Christ says to us today, “Whosoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” And yet, the very idea of denying ourselves anything, sounds foreign to us. But here is Christ’s call standing before us, confronting us.
The death of Jesus of Nazareth is a historical fact, but many live today as if this death and the empty tomb that followed are irrelevant, preferring instead to put off grappling with the ramifications of this truth and its calling on their lives: Out of sight, out of mind! But then, they find themselves empty, hopeless, alone, robbed of the peace only Christ can give, striving in vain to fill their lives with distraction, entertainment, addiction to stave off the hunger of their souls, which only God can fulfill.
Without the cross, this is all there is to life no hope, no rescue from ourselves, our passions. Without the victory of the cross, each person has no reason not to live for his own pleasure, to deny himself nothing. Without life with God, Nihilism, in all its despair and insanity, is the only rational recourse. God has desired better for us all along. The reality of who we are as human beings, whom God created us to be is not fallen, depressed, lonely, slaves to the passions. God has created us to be bearers of His image and likeness, angels in the flesh, children of God.
God has created us for glory, life with Him, but how often we exchange this glory for enslavement to the temporal attachments of this world. We exchange the glory of God, the freedom to grow, heal, and work out our salvation, for that which is passing away.
Christ’s death on the cross reminds us, first, that by the tree our first parents, Adam and Eve fell into sin through their disobedience and were exiled from paradise; they preferred relationship with Satan and his lies to relationship with God and His life. They introduced death into the world through sin, that is, through apartness from the life that is in God alone.
Our first parents and we, every time we sin, willingly “play with death,” we choose apartness from God, Life itself. The Fall, in this sense, becomes personal for us because of our choices. But Christ descended into Hades and raised the dead who were there, who had longed to see His day—this victory over sin and death. Christ died the vilest of deaths so that He could defeat on our behalf the vilest of our sins and passions, yes, even our indifference.
Third-century Saint Irenaeus, explains the Mystery in this way: “He (Christ) by His obedience on the tree renewed [and reversed] what was done by disobedience in [connection with] a tree…” Likewise, St. Paul says, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.”
Christ inaugurates a new race of Adam—a race no longer enslaved to sin and death, but one capable of healing from sin-sickness and growth into the likeness of the Holy Trinity. In Christ and His Church we’ve been given the tools of salvation by which we overcome our greediness, our reliance on having things ‘our way,’ on living for self in all its pride and loneliness.
If those who touched the hem of Christ’s garment found healing, what would happen when Christ entered Hades and confronted death head on? Who would emerge the victor but the Lord of Life Himself, the only One who could offer Himself to death and emerge victorious?
We venerate the cross of Christ then, not just as a symbol, a sign, but a reality, marking that final victory over sin and death, over our passions that have darkened our human nature and obscured the image and likeness of God in us. By Christ’s death on the cross, death is transfigured into life for all those who live for and with God. Christ beckons us then to die to life apart from Him, life for and of ourselves—in all its vainglory, loneliness, and separation, and to live instead in Him, that we may also become fellow partakers of the resurrection and co-heirs with Him.
For this reason, we herald the cross in the hymnography of the Church as the “trophy invincible.”
We sing in the Canticles from Matins for the Feast, “Thy cross, O Lord all-merciful, is honored by the whole world, for Thou hast made the instrument of death into a source of life. Sanctify those who venerate it, O God of our Fathers, who alone art blessed and greatly glorified.”
How then do we interiorize and apply the cross to our lives? It’s not enough to carry the cross around our necks; we also need to carry it on our hearts, in our souls.
Jesus says, “whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it.” Christ, in denying Himself for us, gave Himself, His own life, to defeat death. So we, in order to live, in order to obtain the true life that is in His life, learn to take up Christ’s call. In self-denial and love for God, we fight our vain attempts to create the mirage of temporal ‘stability’ in and around us with all the creature comforts one can accumulate. We learn through our fasting that we don’t live by bread alone. We learn that the pursuit of all the world has to offer, can’t bring us true joy. This realization is the first step.
Because He loves us, Christ God warns us by asking us, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” In other words, Christ is saying, “What are you doing, man, living as if there’s no God, no resurrection from the dead.” Without Christ’s victory on the cross and our participation in it, there’s nothing left but emptiness, which would be all there is to life without Christ, without the cross and its victory for mankind and for each of us personally.
This truth is summed up in this hymn from Matins for this Sunday: “I died through a tree, but I have found in thee a Tree of Life, O Cross of Christ. Thou art my invincible protector, my strong defense against the demons. Venerating thee this day, I cry aloud: Sanctify me by thy glory.” May this be our prayer too this day, “Sanctify me by thy glory.”
The second step is the appropriating of the cross in our own lives: Make us, O Lord, pilgrims on the way of the cross. Teach us to say no to our own self will and yes to Thy will, so that we may be deified, changed, more and more into Thy likeness. Help us, Lord, by Thy great mercy, that we too may deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Thee, dying to self, that we may live with Thee for all eternity.