We often hear people say, when they are facing a difficult situation, that they are bearing their cross. But though this is a common way for people to speak, it is not Scriptural or Orthodox. We have to be careful how we speak, because if we misrepresent aspects of our faith we can be led astray. When we say that we are bearing our cross we usually refer to a sickness or illness, or to a difficult relationship with someone close to us, even a husband or wife, or perhaps to other testing circumstances in our life. But this is not what the Lord Jesus means when he instructs us to “take up our cross” and follow him.
When the Lord Jesus asks us to take up our own cross, he has in mind exactly what the cross was in the first century. It was an instrument of death. When a condemned man made the journey from the prison cell in Jerusalem, to Golgotha, the place of the Skull, the place of execution, he carried himself the cross beam on which he would be killed. He bore his own cross, the means of his own death.
In the Gospels of St Matthew, Mark and Luke, when Jesus tells his followers to take up their own cross, it was while he was talking about the cost of following him. In the Gospel of St Matthew and St Mark, Jesus gives this command when St Peter is trying to tell him that he does not need to face death. In St Mark’s Gospel he repeats it when he tells the rich young ruler to give up everything and take up his cross and become a disciple. In St Luke’s Gospel it also is given when Jesus is teaching about his own path to death for our salvation.
The cross we are to bear is not the human experience of suffering and difficulty. It is the deliberate choice for the death of self. We bear the cross, our own cross, when we deny ourself, as the Lord Jesus commands, and put all self-will to death, and choose Christ in every moment. We may have no problems at all in our life, but we are still to take up our own cross and put all self-will to death. We are to say and do as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, your will be done, your kingdom come. This is the meaning of the cross we bear.
Every person born into the world faces trials and difficulties of various kinds. The world is filled with illness and disease, and there are obstacles places in our way by the weakness and sinfulness of others, as well as by our own faults. But these are not the cross of which the Lord Jesus speaks. When we say that these things are our cross, we are liable to make several serious mistakes in our thinking. In the first place we can imagine that God sends these difficulties into our life, and that they are something he has chosen for us. This is not what we understand of God. Sin, weakness, illness and death are not the will or the work of God. They are caused by the sin of Adam bringing death and darkness into the world, and by the sin of others and of ourselves.
God will give us the strength to bear with these difficulties in life, and to become united to him in our adversities. But he does not send them, and they are not the cross that he asks us to bear. The cross is always the death of our self-will and obedience to the will of God. Sometimes this cross, this dying to self, must be expressed and experienced in difficult circumstances, but these circumstances are not the cross which we must take up and they are not sent by God.
In the second place, we can too easily come to believe that we must put up with the abusive behaviour of others, even physical and verbal violence, as if this was also sent by God. It is not. It is sin. It may even be criminal behaviour. We may choose, in the wisdom of God, and in denial of self, to bear with such abuse for a while, but we should never imagine that this is the cross we are to bear, or that it is sent from God.
God is not the author of sin, or sickness, or death, or violence, or abuse. He does not ask us to submit to these as if they were good, but to discover him in the midst of them, and to find freedom in union with him. The cross we are to bear is always and only the death of our own self will and the discovery of new life in Christ. Such a cross leads to life and liberty, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit who becomes our own life.
Scriptures – Matthew 16
1 The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing him, asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 But he answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 In the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but you can’t discern the signs of the times! 4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there will be no sign given to it, except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” He left them and departed. 5 The disciples came to the other side and had forgotten to take bread. 6 Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 They reasoned amongst themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” 8 Jesus, perceiving it, said, “Why do you reason amongst yourselves, you of little faith, because you have brought no bread? 9 Don’t you yet perceive or remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up, 10 or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you took up? 11 How is it that you don’t perceive that I didn’t speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he didn’t tell them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. 13 Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” 14 They said, “Some say John the Baptiser, some, Elijah, and others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” 20 Then he commanded the disciples that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ. 21 From that time, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up. 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This will never be done to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? 27 For the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will render to everyone according to his deeds. 28 Most certainly I tell you, there are some standing here who will in no way taste of death until they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.”
From the Fathers
Cyril of Alexandria (376-444 A.D.)
Peter did not say “you are a Christ” or “a son of God” but “the Christ, the Son of God.” For there are many christs by grace, who have attained the rank of adoption [as sons], but [there is] only one who is by nature the Son of God. Thus, using the definite article, he said, the Christ, the Son of God. And in calling him Son of the living God, Peter indicates that Christ himself is life and that death has no authority over him. And even if the flesh, for a short while, was weak and died, nevertheless it rose again, since the Word, who indwelled it, could not be held under the bonds of death.
[In this commentary on the Gospel, St Cyril of Alexandria describes Christ as the only and unique Son of the Living God, who has power over life and death, and who is by his own nature God and the Son of God. This would be enough, but he goes on to indicate that we are also to become christs, and that is what the word Christian means, little christs. What does this mean if not that in us also, because we belong to Christ, the power of his life should gain the authority over every experience of death and darkness in thought, deed, and even in mortality itself by the resurrection.]
We are fortunate that so many of those who learned how to pray, in a deep and intense manner that transformed their lives, have left their own spiritual insights and instructions. Turning again to St Isaiah the Solitary we can read,
What then is meant by the worship of God? It means that we have nothing extraneous in our intellect when we are praying to Him: neither sensual pleasure as we bless Him, nor malice as we sing His praise, nor hatred as we exalt Him, nor jealousy to hinder us as we speak to Him and call Him to mind. For all these things are full of darkness; they are a wall imprisoning our wretched soul, and if the soul has them in itself it cannot worship God with purity. They obstruct its ascent and prevent it from meeting God; they hinder it from blessing Him inwardly and praying to Him with sweetness of heart, and so receiving His illumination. As a result the intellect is always shrouded in darkness and cannot advance in holiness, because it does not make the effort to uproot these thoughts by means of spiritual knowledge.
What does he tell us here? It is that when we pray we can find that we place obstacles in the way of meeting God. We have already considered the distractions which Satan places in our mind. But these obstacles are in our control to a greater extent. They are thoughts of pleasure, they are hard feelings towards others, even hatred, they are jealousy. All of these prevent us experiencing God. These thoughts and attitudes become a dark cloud over us so that we cannot live in the divine light or advance in holiness.
What are we to do? St Isaiah will give further advice. But for now it is enough to be encouraged to examine our thoughts and attitudes. Do we have any of these obstacles to encountering God? We need to expose them in ourselves so that we can begin to uproot them, like weeds in the soil of our heart, and so that we can begin to experience sweetness in our heart during prayer.
1. Be sure to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening, with warmth and attention.
2. Prayerfully read Psalm 1 in the morning. This is part of the traditional Coptic Orthodox prayers of the morning.
3. Pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning and evening. Prayerfully repeat the words of the prayer to 25 times in the morning or evening.
4. Read the Gospel again carefully, and listen for the words that come alive by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Write this in your notebook and reflect on them through the day.
5. Do not forget to pray for those on your intercession list in the morning and evening, with warmth of heart and attention.
6. Pray Psalm 134 again in the evening. Which phrase sticks out most to you this evening.
7. Review your notebook, and the reflections you have recorded. Which ones are particularly significant to you? Try to fill in those days you have not recorded a reflection.
We have been considering baptism being understood in Orthodoxy from the beginning as the means by which we become a new person, united with God, and filled with the life of the Holy Spirit. Because baptism is the act of God in saving us, and not simply our act of testimony, it means that Orthodox believe that infants, even babies, should be baptised, just as we feed them, put them to bed, clothe them, and send them to school because these are good for them.
Infants were always accepted into the people of God, the Israelites, and baptism represents in one sense the experience of circumcision in the life of the Church. Not quite the same. But circumcision was performed on infants. We can also consider the attitude of the Lord Jesus to small children in his own ministry. Most famously, when he was surrounded by children and infants, brought to him by their parents, he rebuked the disciples for wanting to send them away. In Matthew 19:13-15 we read,
Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them and departed from there.
We can see this attitude towards infants in the life of the early Church. St Irenaeus (130-202 AD), the disciple of St Polycarp, and bishop of Lyons, in direct succession of teaching and practice from the Apostles writes in Against the Heresies 2.22.4,
For He came to save all through means of Himself – all, I say, who through Him are born again to God – infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men.
St Irenaeus tells us that he was careful to teach what he had heard from St Polycarp, just as St Polycarp taught what he had heard from the Apostle John. More than that, when writing against the heresies, the false teachings being introduced by some, the essence of his argument was that the Apostolic Church preserved in all places the teachings and practices which the Apostles had taught, and which were still taught by the bishops they had appointed in every place. Therefore, if he speaks of infants and children being born again, which must mean being baptised, then this is a practice he finds in all places and already with an antiquity so that it was not something newly introduced. Elsewhere in his writings he is often found pointing out exactly where a new teaching began and even gives the names of the persons who introduced it, to show that it was not Apostolic, but he does not criticise the practice of infant baptism, and seems to refer to it here as an expression of the salvation which is the gift of Christ by the incarnation.