Christians often assume that to "take up our cross" means simply to carry a burden. When we run into a life trouble, we will say things like "oh, this is just my cross to bear". We basically shrug it off, totally missing the significance of the cross.
Ever consider that the cross is not meant to be a burden? It is meant to cause death.
The cross is meant to kill us! It is an instrument of death! Oh that wonderful cross!
Change of scene:
The tail end of a baptism service at Aghía Triás.
My son Andrew is a Byzantine cantor, trained in Greece, and is often asked to chant at family services, such as baptisms. This past Sunday he chanted at a baptism and asked me to pick him up afterwards so he could get to sleep right away. (He is also a virtuoso guitarist and probably was going to be playing at a club that evening, so he needed to pre-rest.) He gave me a time to return for him, but when I arrived, the service was still going on. The actual anointing and baptism by triple immersion (of an infant) in the silver goblet-shaped font had already occurred, and what met my eyes as I entered the temple was a procession of Fr Paul, the godparents with the newly illuminated infant, and an entourage of small children from toddlers to maybe 4 or 5 years, around the font, some holding candles.
It was like suddenly coming upon a secret ceremony in the depths of the forest, like the marriage procession of the foxes in Akira Kurosawa's film Dreams).
It made me ponder once again the mystery of the cross. Little did these babies following the priest in a primitive procession around a sacred font know, let alone understand, that what they had just performed and witnessed was the death of the old man in a small child and the birth of the new. Easily described on paper and challenged by many different points of view, this mystery would, if God has His way, usher that newly illuminated child, at some future time, into the mystery of the cross. The cross that Jesus was nailed too, yes, and from which His body was taken down, and which was the implement by which, through His death upon it, paradise was opened, first to the good thief, and then to everyone who had ever lived from Adam and Eve onwards. Yet also, the cross that she (I believe the infant was a baby girl) would have to bear, if she would, and upon which she would someday also die, if she let God have his way with her. These are the thoughts that passed through my mind as I witnessed the innocents processing around the mystery that they knew not yet.
Christianity can be many things to many people, but unless it is first and foremost the cross, it can devolve into ritual, culture, or magic. Not that everyone will have the same cross to bear and to die on, not that what it looks like or feels like will be the same for all, not that those who follow Christ to Calvary will all understand what is happening to them the same way, but nonetheless the cross awaits us all, at least all of us who seek to follow Jesus.
Mother Gavrilía recommended after the Bible itself, the book The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. Except for the fourth book of this work, which deals with medieval Roman Catholic worship of "the blessed sacrament," the Imitation is good reading for the disciple of Jesus. Here are some passages from book 2, chapters 11 and 12, that I'd like to share in concluding this entry:
Jesus has many who love His Kingdom in Heaven, but few who bear His Cross. He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering. He finds many to share His feast, but few His fasting. Many follow Jesus to the Breaking of Bread, but few to the drinking of the Cup of His Passion.
At this point I want to interject an observation from my own Orthodox Church. During Great and Holy Week, it's strange how the Wednesday evening service is packed to the doors (it is the Maundy Thursday morning service, held in the Greek tradition the evening before) when everyone comes to receive the blanket absolution and anointing with holy chrism for healing of soul and body. Absolution without personal confession! And the very next evening, the longest service of the week except for the Pascha (Easter) services themselves, the Passion of Christ service, also called the 12 Gospels service, in which the entire passion is read aloud and visually enacted with icons and ceremonies, the church has ample room for more. Probably a third of those who came the night before come to this service. Why? It's about 4 hours long! The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Many follow Jesus to the Breaking of Bread, but few to the drinking of the Cup of His Passion.
Again, from the Imitation:
Why, then, do you fear to take up the Cross, which is the road to the Kingdom? In the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is excellence of virtue; in the Cross is perfection of holiness. There is no salvation of soul, nor hope of eternal life, save in the Cross. Take up the Cross, therefore, and follow Jesus. Christ has gone before you, bearing His Cross; He died for you on the Cross, that you also may bear your cross, and desire to die on the cross with Him. For if you die with Him, you will also live with Him. And if you share His sufferings, you will also share His glory.
See how in the Cross all things consist, and in dying on it all things depend. There is no other way to life and to true inner peace, than the way of the Cross, and of daily self-denial.
Go where you will, seek what you will; you will find no higher way above nor safer way below than the road of the Holy Cross.
Thomas à Kempis is not talking about making up some masochistic religious routine to follow to buy your way into heaven by your own blood, sweat and tears. Don't kid yourself or waste God's time. If pain and suffering in themselves were good, we would be right to wear hair shirts and beat ourselves bloody with cat-o'-nine-tails like some misguided medieval "saints" did. But no. The way is simple. Follow Jesus, and the world itself will supply every obstacle it can find to trip you up, keep you down, sadden and discourage you, trample your joy (if it could, if you let it), but in the following of Jesus, real following (not lip-service), you can laugh at "the world, the flesh, and the devil." The martyrs, it is written, often went to their deaths, singing. This is history, not some fairy tale. His story, as the pun goes, and it can be ours too, if we follow "the Royal Road of the Holy Cross" as Thomas à Kempis entitled chapter 12 of book 2 of his Imitation of Christ.
If you've patiently read this far, brethren, only three more words from me:
Just follow Jesus.