A Meditation for the Beginning of Lent.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. Gospel of Mark, Chapter8, verse 34
How many of us enjoyed pancakes last Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday? The next day Ash Wednesday was the start of Lent leading our thoughts towards Easter and what that means for all of us. Lent was traditionally a time of fasting and so the purpose of pancake day was to finish up all uneaten food before the fast. Today we tend not to fast, but there is a tradition among Christians to give up something. What have you given up this year? Smoking? Alcohol? Facebook? Computer games? However there is more to this than just giving things up for Lent. We are meant to deny ourselves in a sacrificial way which leads us to follow Jesus more closely and to have a deeper personally permanent relationship with him. Not just for Lent.
Self-denial is not easy. We all have things we want. We all have goals, but Jesus is clear that when we choose to freely follow him, we must first deny ourselves. That means that we can’t always do what we want to do, what our natural tendency is. This means that we will sometimes face tough, life changing decisions that need to be made in the shadow of the cross, and not the desires of the heart. Ha, I hear you say, where is joy in all this? However, this does not mean that we will be deprived of joy and happiness; rather it means that we will find true and lasting fulfillment, joy and happiness through dedication to Jesus Christ. Christians are potentially the most joy-filled people we could meet; because of Easter! Denial of self is placing ourselves in the hands of God at all times, no matter where his hands might lead us. We must be able to say with Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ Gal.2:20. We live no longer to follow our own will, but to follow the will of Jesus, and in that service we find perfect freedom.
Jesus also said: “Take up your cross.” In other words pick it up yourself. He didn’t say, “Grab hold of a cross to provide protection.”
This reminds me of the story of a soldier frantically digging in during battle as shells fall all around him. Suddenly his hand feels something metal and he grabs it. It’s a silver cross. Another shell explodes and he buries hid head in his arms. He feels someone jump into the foxhole with him and he looks over and sees an army chaplain. The soldier thrusts the cross in the chaplain’s face and says, “I sure am glad to see you. How do you work this thing!?”
Neither did he say, “Wear this cross as a fashion statement.” He said, “Pick it up.” This means that there is a choice. Jesus had a choice as to whether he was going to pick up his cross. He could have said, “No.” And we also have a choice as to whether to pick up our cross or not.
But what does bearing our cross mean? Let us first consider what it is not. When facing difficult circumstances I have often heard people say, “I guess that’s a cross I have to bear,” often with a poor-pity-me tone of voice. This is not bearing the cross of Jesus. When people talk about bearing a cross in this manner, they are speaking about circumstances and situations that, given a choice, they would not choose. When we suffer from sickness or mental anguish or difficult life experiences, it’s not bearing a cross; Jesus loves us and wants us to live a healthy harmonious life, whole in body and spirit. He bore his cross for us to that end.
Bearing the cross is a choice. It is a voluntary form of sacrificial obedience that identifies us completely with Jesus Christ and the love he has for us. Bearing our cross is not making the best of a situation or circumstance. It is something we deliberately take up and bear. We do not usually like that, for we would rather wear a cross than bear a cross.
We are never induced to follow Jesus by false pretences. Jesus never tried to bribe anyone by the offer of an easy way. When we accept the graceful forgiveness that Jesus offers us, when we accept him and are welcomed with open loving arms, we are accepting the burden of the cross and this will mean we have to deny ourselves. When Jesus told his disciples that they must be ready to take up a cross he was telling them that they must be ready to be regarded as criminals and to die. We in the west may not be called into that situation, but let us remember and pray for the many faith-filled Christians today in many parts of the world where that is indeed their sacrificial Cross.
No, rather than offering us an easy way Jesus seeks to challenge us, to awaken the boldness and moral courage in our souls. He came not to make life easy but to challenge us to greatness. In this call to follow him, however, he never calls anyone to do or face that which he has not done or faced himself. Jesus has the right to call on us to take up a cross, for he himself first bore one!
The cross then is an emblem which holds special meaning for every one of us who identify with Jesus. Whenever we see a cross, it speaks to us of Christ’s tenacious determination to do His Father’s will by dying, in love for us, on Calvary. The cross is all about making a choice. It is about discipline, obedience and commitment. It is not easy, but it draws us closer to Jesus and makes us more like him. For never has a symbol of such pain and torture been resurrected into a symbol of everlasting love and hope.
If anyone wants to be a follower of Jesus Christ, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. In this season of Lent let us meditate on Jesus’s will for each and every-one of us and let us ponder on what God is calling us to sacrifice in order to carry out that will, so that we can follow him more closely – even if it means a difficult cross to bear.
But let us remember that we are not alone and we share whatever cross we bear with Jesus, for he said: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11, verses 29-30.