What does it mean to “take up the cross”?

From about the age of ten until I was old enough to drive, my New Year’s Eve tradition, with either my brothers or friends, was to stay up late and watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Yes, I can recite the lines with you, whether it be the Knights Who Say “Ni”, the Black Knight, brave Sir Robin, or Tim the Enchanter, who warns of the killer rabbit with “nasty, big, pointy teeth.”  But my favorite scene is when the cohort of monks processes through a squalid medieval village, chanting, “Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem,” which translates, “Pious Lord Jesus, grant them rest.”  The Python troop’s spin on the Dies Irae is, of course, to have the monks, with each line, whack themselves in the forehead with a board.

Monty Python captures in two minutes of film what is perhaps the prevailing view of Christianity from the actual Middle Ages until today.  Whatever else our religion is, our subconscious assumptions about it include a heavy weight, self-flagellation, and an undercurrent of foreboding or even doom.  Sooner or later, Christianity seems to be about whacking ourselves about the head with a board. 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail - Wikipedia

We can surely understand why this is so, and the rationale comes from the red-letter words of Jesus himself.  This very day, immediately after Peter has acknowledged that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus explains to the disciples that he, “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.”  And then Jesus counsels those who would follow him that they must, “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

That appears to seal it.  Christianity involves sacrifice, and pain, and suffering.  While taking up the cross may be, for us, a metaphor, its associations are unavoidably ugly.  That’s why, I think, so often behind the smile of the most ardent Christian one finds a note of apprehension and unease.  We worry that if we aren’t carrying the cross we are being unfaithful, but if we do carry the cross our lives will be consigned to difficulty and pain.  Sooner or later, we sense that it’s all about whacking ourselves in the head with a board.  What are we to do?

First let me say that such an interpretation of Christianity, whether overt or subliminal, has been the root of much pervasive abuse over millennia.  For example, until very recently in many churches (and still today in some), when a physically or psychologically abused spouse would confide in her priest or pastor, she was liable to receive the response that, as a faithful and submissive wife, her husband’s anger was her cross to bear.   People of color were taught that their social location was their immutable cross to bear and that faith required them to bear it without complaint.  LGBTQ Christians similarly have been told that repressing their sexuality is akin to taking up their cross.  Innumerable others shouldering grief, or pain, or disappointment–including illness or loss of loved ones to untimely death–have been told that their suffering is from God, to be borne as a cross and that the heavier the cross the greater their faith. 

With every iota of authority that I can muster as a priest of the Church, hear me say that these interpretations are wrong.  The Church has done egregious and long-lasting harm in perpetuating them.  It is bad theology that says God will ask us to suffer for suffering’s sake.  It is bad theology that says we must passively endure terrible things as part of our walk with Christ.  It is bad theology that secretly thinks God wants us to bash our heads with boards.

How else, then, might we conceive of bearing the cross?  How might we redeem this commandment from Jesus that we claim is the source of all redemption?

File:Circle of Titian Christ Carrying the Cross.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

For that, we travel back in time millennia before Jesus, to the covenant God made with Abram.  In Genesis 17 today, God renews that covenant.  The covenant was first made five chapters earlier, in Genesis 12, and there in the covenant—the original promise from God—God explains why Abram is worthy of entering into this special relationship with God at all.  “I will bless you,” God says to Abram, “so that you will be a blessing.”

When God reaffirms this covenant five chapters later, in Genesis 17, God renames Abram, “Abraham.”  And Abraham is not the only one who receives a new name from God.  His wife, Sarai, is also renamed “Sarah.”  The change in her name is subtle but equally important.  It is a grammatical change only, altering the form of her name from what had been the possessive.  In other words, her old name had implied inward focus and concern only with what was hers.  Her new name—Sarah—looks outward, toward and into the world that she and Abraham are called to bless.[i]

Make no mistake: In these two chapters—Genesis 12 and 17—God is saying to Abraham and Sarah the same thing Jesus says to the disciples.  In the Gospel, Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  In Genesis, God says, “I bless you so that you will be a blessing.”  They are the same thing, and yet the language in Genesis sheds entirely different light on the command in Mark. 

Whatever it may mean to bear the cross of Christ as faithful disciples, it must always be a means by which the world is blessed.  If there is a litmus test by which we can judge whether the burden laid upon us is part of our walk of faith, or whether it is laid upon us by God, then that is it, and it is worth saying again: Whatever it may mean to bear the cross of Christ as faithful disciples, it must always be a means by which the world is blessed.  Bearing the cross of Christ may include suffering at times—indeed, it will—but only if that suffering is a blessing to someone.  Bearing the cross may bring challenge; it may lead to difficult decisions; it may sometimes disrupt relationships; and it will definitely require us to confront powerful forces that can do us harm; but it will only ask such things of us if doing so facilitates God’s blessing upon the world. 

Blessed to be a Blessing — Salt + Light Hawaii

Jesus indicts Peter today because Peter here (and not for the first time) has no interest in being a blessing.  He will later learn and change, and he will become a blessing to many (including in his own suffering), but at this point in the narrative, Peter is completely self-absorbed by what being a follower of Jesus can do for Peter.  And Jesus knows that faith, and our walk of faith, whether in time of ease or difficulty, whether in comfort or suffering, always begins with the question, “How can I be a blessing today?  How can I bless those I love?  How can I bless the stranger?  How can I bless God’s good earth?”  

The miraculous thing is, when we understand bearing the cross in this way, rather than as some foreboding and myopic walk of doom, we begin to experience intuitively what faith really is.  When we bless, we become agents of grace and of God’s own gracious will.  That Christian smile ceases to crack like a thin veneer and instead becomes an authentic expression of who we are and who we strive to be in the world.  In other words, somewhere in the midst of our cross-bearing—somewhere in the mix of faithfully following God and pursuing grace—we find joy.  Joy can reside alongside challenge, or sorrow, or pain, and joy’s presence redeems all these others.  Joy renders them ultimately transient, whereas joy is permanent.  This is what it means to lose one’s life for the sake of the Gospel and thereby regain it.

As we walk through this Lenten season, I pray we will be willing to bear the cross of Christ, in the deep knowledge that what is asked of us is that we be a blessing in our doings large and small, so that in us all the world will be blessed. 

[i] https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/the-meaning-of-the-hebrew-names/

Jesus and the Tempest

Jesus Calms a Storm | Pitts Digital Image Archive | Emory University
“Jesus calms the storm,” by Gustav Dore’

One of my favorite Gospel passages is Mark 4:35-41, in which Jesus and the disciples are traveling across the Sea of Galilee at night. A supernatural storm arises and begins to capsize their boat. The disciples are terrified, but Jesus sleeps serenely through the storm. In the disciples’ fear and anxiety, they awaken Jesus, who then stills the storm and asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have so little faith?” Often this passage is taught and preached as if Jesus means by his questions, “Didn’t you know God wouldn’t let our boat capsize?” But Jesus means no such thing. He doesn’t promise that everything will turn out just fine, or that the boat will keep an even keel. Jesus lives in the gritty, real world, and he knows that sometimes storms upend our lives. What Jesus means to convey to the disciples is that, even when the storms sink us, God is with us. That is how he can sleep in peace while the tempest rages.

God abides with us in love when we sail and when we sink. God shares our joy and bears our sorrow. Faith is the recognition and trust that there is no fathom we must endure without God. I have thought of this passage and this promise repeatedly this week as, for so many of us, brief periods of light and warmth have been surrounded by long stretches of cold and darkness. There is no storm in this life greater than the God who creates the heavens and the earth. There is no darkness in this world that can overcome God’s light. It is my prayer that God’s ever-presence with each of us be felt palpably in these days. We are, each and all, loved beyond measure, and, as we support one another every way we can, I pray that warmth of heart sustain us until warmth of hearth returns.


Love comes down

Right out of college I worked in the admissions office for Hendrix College, my beloved alma mater.  Twenty-two years old, with a newly-minted Bachelor of Arts, I was a proud advocate for liberal arts education in a new J. Crew suit and power tie with a Half-Windsor knot.  Frankly, I was a little full of myself.  One autumn afternoon, I drove into the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas for a college fair at Fayetteville High School.  I set up my table and neatly arranged my brochures.  Soon, a young man with greasy hair and a black rock concert t-shirt stopped by and asked, “Y’all got comic book drawing at your college?   I want to draw for Marvel Comics.”

“Well,” I offered, entering the admissions marketing zone, “Hendrix has a superb art department.  And, you could earn a double-major in business in case you ever want to move into management.”

The young man looked at me as if I were an alien from another planet.  “Just want to draw comics,” he said again.  “Y’all got that?”

Suddenly, an idea sprang to my mind, a hook.  I had him.  “Well, no,” I carried on, “but a liberal arts degree is much more well-rounded.  If all you do is learn to draw comic books, and Marvel Comics goes out of business, what will you do then?”

The kid cocked his head and with a smirk I’ll never forget responded, “I guess I’ll stand behind a table and hand out college pamphlets.”

Believe it or not, that was not my worst experience that day.  In those days, Interstate 540 hadn’t yet been built, and the state highway down the mountain from Fayetteville was twisting, narrow and treacherous, with one side hugging the mountain and the other dropping off into abyss.  By the time the college fair ended and I headed toward home, dusk had settled, and with it came a thick fog.  At the top of the mountain, everything was clear and starry sky, but I could see, just a few hundred yards below, that the world was swallowed in dense and soupy darkness.

I began my descent, and before long my arms ached and my neck was stiff with tension.  I was scared.  And then, as if from nowhere, I came upon the taillights of an eighteen-wheeler piercing through the fog.  Light shining out of darkness.  They might as well have been Jesus himself beckoning me to follow, and follow I did.  The trucker had clearly run this mountain innumerable times before, in all weather conditions.  He knew each turn intuitively, and no cloud was going to prevent his progress.  I kept my eyes trained on those lights through the fog, and eventually they led me down the mountain and into the valley.

Image result for old hwy 71 arkansas
Old Hwy 71

Today we celebrate that feast of the church most embraced by our culture, the Feast of St. Valentine.  As I whisked through Walgreen’s this past week, looking at aisles of syrupy pre-packaged greeting cards and cellophane-wrapped, heart-shaped boxes of candy, I paused to consider exactly what it is Valentine’s Day celebrates.

The answer is simple and comes quickly.  The notable thing about Valentine’s Day is its brazen exaltation of love: romantic love, intoxicating love, mountaintop love.  And the reason Valentine’s Day is so commercially successful is that such love is not restricted to any niche market.  We all crave it.  Junior high students and octogenarians are equally vulnerable to cupid, as are people of any gender, ethnicity or orientation.  “I love her,” we say with stars in our eyes, and we mean exactly the stuff of Hallmark cards.

          And, it is an idea that is absolutely, completely, and entirely absent in Holy Scripture.  The kind of love extolled by Valentine’s Day is so foreign to the heart of Christian faith that the Roman Catholic Church ended its observance of the Feast of St. Valentine fifty years ago.  Surely, scripture knows love.  St. Paul affirms love as the greatest spiritual gift, the one without which no other gift has meaning.  St. John tells us not that God is power nor that God is justice, but that God is love.  But that love is different in kind from Valentine’s Day; it is virtually the opposite of the cellophane love sold at Walgreens.

Today’s Gospel passage comes exactly in the middle of Mark.  It is the hinge of Mark’s story, the spine of his book.  It is the Transfiguration, and everything else Mark tells us is oriented to it.  The first eight chapters of Mark lead up to it, and the latter eight chapters follow from it.  Consequently, this brief passage is key to our understanding of who Jesus is and who we are called to be.  This story also gives us the true definition of love, and we are fortunate it appears on our calendar immediately after the alternative definition offered to us by Valentine’s Day outside these walls.

Peter, James and John follow Jesus up the mountain, and once at the top Jesus is transformed in their eyes.  They see him as he is, not the ragged and mud-splattered man who walks the roads of Galilee, but the Son of God, Incarnate Deity, the very completion of every promise God has ever made to humanity.  And they are star-struck.

“I love him,” the disciples likely spontaneously say.  It is, after all, the mountaintop experience!  It is, on a cosmic scale, the Hallmark moment.  Were the disciples Shakespeare, they’d compose sonnets.  Were they Hershey they’d whip up boxes of candy. 

Image result for transfiguration mural mount tabor
Mural in the church on Mount Tabor, traditional site of the Transfiguration.

The disciples say they want to stay atop the mountain, basking in their bedazzlement in the presence of this one they adore.  But almost as soon as they’ve said so, clouds begin to descend.  They are blinded by soupy fog, and when they begin to see, Jesus is ragged and mud-splattered again.  He looks, well, ordinary.

Uh oh.  We know that experience.  It’s the day after Valentine’s Day, the day after the allure wears off, the day when the Hallmark card gets used as scratch paper for the grocery list.  It’s the day when sickness befalls, or financial pressures crowd, or arguments outweigh sentiments of joy.  It’s the day the clear and starry sky is swallowed by the clouds.  This is where Valentine love proves to be no more substantial than cellophane.  And, this is where, Jesus teaches us, real love begins.

You see, in his first act after revealing the fullness of his nature, Jesus walks down the mountain into the fog.  For the rest of Mark’s Gospel he will march steadily toward Jerusalem, where he will receive the blows and taunts and pain of a confused and hurting people.  He won’t walk way.  He won’t quit.  He won’t find excuses.  And he surely won’t debase real and true love by staying safe above the clouds.  He walks down the mountain, and the next time he ascends any hill he will have a heavy wooden cross on his back. 

Starting today, Jesus shows Peter, James, and John—he shows us—what real love does, how real love acts, what real love looks like.  And this is not only the love between lovers, but between parents and children, friends, and, it’s worth saying, fellow Christians.  Fleming Rutledge says, “Love comes down…Love is grateful for the experience on the mountaintop, but knows that it cannot stay there.  Love persists when glory has faded, when the romance has fled, when the curtain has been dropped on the stage set.  Love never gives up.”       

Many of us have been on the receiving end of cellophane love that abandons us when the clouds descend.  We have been hurt by lovers and friends and the church. 

Many of us also, ashamedly, have extended such pitiful, sorry love.  We have loved on the mountaintop but failed to love in the valleys.  We have given up and walked away and left those we professed to love lost in the fog and darkness. 

And we have been Peter, James and John, misunderstanding that Jesus—that love—only first dazzles in order to provide the light we need to see us safely through the clouds and down the mountain.

Today, blessedly, we are reminded that, no matter who has failed us in this life and no matter when and how often we have failed, Jesus does walk down the mountain.  Jesus does enter into the cloud and into the hurting heart.  Jesus does provide light out of darkness, and if we cling to his light we can navigate the most twisting, narrow and treacherous roads.  Just as importantly, pointing to his light we can truly love each other and make sure we all know the way.

The clouds will descend, people of God.  They always do.  They descend in our lives and they descend in our world, as we’ve been so potently reminded this past year.  But don’t fear.  Jesus isn’t staying on top of the mountain.  His light is on the way down to where we are, into the depths of broken promises, loves lost, and sorrows deep.  He travels to where love is most needed, and his love is solid and sure.  Love comes down and meets us.  Thanks be to God.