If anyone wants to be a follower of mine,
let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me
On Friday we celebrated the feast of the Triumph of the Cross – a kind of ‘second look’ at the crucifixion of Jesus after Good Friday. The cross has become, of course, the Christian symbol par excellence but it was not always so. In the long years of persecution before Constantine the Great Christians used a different set of symbols such as the Chai Rho and the fish – but there were others aswell. Up to the time of Constantine the cross was just too raw a symbol to use or wear. In those days criminals and political prisoners and Christians were still being put to death using the cross.
But Jesus insisted that his followers should take up their cross and renounce themselves. What did he mean?
The answer is clearly connected with suffering and with principles that, if upheld, will cause suffering. So, in this context taking up one’s cross means to stand up for or against something. A principle, a right, a truth or, and this is sadly more often the case than not, standing up against crude evil – the being in the wrong place at the wrong time kind where one has a split second to make a right choice that springs from within – a place of integrity.
You see, when Jesus says we should take up our cross he is thinking of a kind of battle in which the cross is the surprise weapon of choice. The cross is Jesus’ weapon in his fight against sin and evil. But it is a weapon that carries a personal cost even though, in the long term and against all expectations, it is the weapon that triumphs.
Think for a moment of the different examples of moral stand that have been taken by brave individuals just in our recent times. What about Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Dickenson’s fight for women’s suffrage? Pankhurst’s war was at great personal cost but never advocated violence. She chose the weapons that would change minds and hearts not kill and maim. She chose clever. Dickenson’s aims were similar and she lost her life in the cause. Both gave their lives in support of a greater good and at some personal cost in terms of suffering.
Then what about a great figure such as Dietrich Bonhoefer – a promising theologian and ecumenist he opposed the Nazification of the protestant churches in Germany – stating that the “head of the Church is Christ – not the Fuhrer” – he, and many other brave souls formed the “Confessing Church” which among other things affirmed God’s faithfulness to Jews as His chosen people. He was arrested in 1943 and imprisoned until almost the very end of the second world war – but as the concentration camp he was in became in danger of being liberated by the Allies he was executed by his SS Guards after a trial without witnesses, records, or an opportunity to defend himself. This, just three weeks before the surrender of Nazi Germany.
What about Martin Luther-King? As a Christian pastor and a black man, he lived daily with the paradox of being a child of God along with all other Christians, yet deprived of rights and freedoms that white people took for granted. He took the path of non-violent resistance as had Bonhoeffer and Pankhurst before him and urged civil disobedience as a protest against injustice, violence and oppression of his people. It’s astonishing to think that white Christians could not, and some still cannot, make the intellectual leap in understanding that all people are created in the image and likeness of God and that we are all brothers and sisters. But it took the witness and leadership of a man like Luther-King, and others like him who stood up to hatred and violence in the cause of right. He was assassinated y those who opposed him and the cause of black suffrage and freedom.
I could spend the entirety of this homily just listing great women and men who have stood up for what is right and true and who have paid the price with their lives. I could have mentioned Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, perhaps just to mention two more.
Going back to the gospel Jesus says that “if you wish to be a follower of mine” then you have to take up your cross and renounce yourself. In this sense renouncing oneself means to let go of all things that are not committed to the cause however good and true they may be. Anything that deflects from the purpose that is ‘your’ cross has to be set aside. This means, above all, I suppose the thinking that there could be another way that does not involve a cross – a simpler, or less painful or less costly way. Perhaps the way of the world -0 the habitual use of power and violence to settle problems and scores.
Taking up your cross means to face the things in your own life that are out of kilter, that are not in harmony with the values of Jesus and the Gospel and to take them on directly. This may mean facing up to a particular evil that you recognise or it may be dealing with the hatred and ridicule of others who are quite comfortable with the status quo and who do not wish to see it changed. It may be something about you that is a burden to you – an illness, a responsibility that you know you have to take on. Perhaps a difficult situation at home or at work that needs transforming.
The transforming bit is the key to the cross however. The cross transforms through love. The cross takes hatred and violence and turns it into life. But only through and after suffering. Strangely enough if there is no suffering it probably isn’t the cross!
The triumph of the cross is the triumph of love over hate; of light over darkness, of non-violence over violence, of patient suffering over easy answers, of hard graft over simple solutions, of hope over despair. Your cross is what will set you free of yourself and whatever binds you and limits you on earth. Your cross will lead you to eternal life – but only if you take it up and allow it to change you. You have to, first of all, make the discovery that if you love and love completely and utterly then you have no choice but to take up your cross. And then, as Jesus says – You will be my disciples.