Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sunday after The Elevation of the Holy Cross

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the Sunday after the Elevation of the Holy Cross and as you heard, our Gospel Lesson (Mark 8:34-9:1)expounds upon the role of the cross in the daily life of the believer. The first thing I would like all of us to notice about this passage is that Mark specifically tells us that Jesus gathered all the people around Himself, together with His disciples, to teach them about taking up their own crosses to follow Him. What this means is that the message of the cross is not some esoteric teaching intended for a few insiders, but applies to all people who would become followers of Christ.

What does it mean to take up one’s own cross to follow Christ? We should be clear on this, because sometimes when we speak of having some cross to bear, we may mean that as some unpleasant burden that has been placed upon us, seemingly to keep us from enjoying life as we feel we otherwise could. We might lament, “Oh, if only this person behaved differently, or this situation could improve, or I had a better career or a bigger house, or I were married or if I were single, or if I could (fill in the blank), my life would be better. But this is my cross to bear (sigh)”.

The problem with that view is the treacherous implication behind it that if the circumstances of our lives could just be tweaked a little bit, if certain people or situations could just be a little different, then we could finally be happy. Where did we ever get such a foolish idea? We are a fallen, dying people living in a similar world. What makes us ever think that we could find happiness under such conditions? Yet isn’t it true that we spend way too much of our lifetimes vainly pursuing just that, trying to manipulate and improve the circumstances of our lives to bring us happiness, even while we are slowly dying. It’s as if we think (and if we are honest perhaps we will admit that we do think this way) that life should be good, and if we could only free ourselves from these crosses God has placed upon us, it would be.

Let us go back and examine the text of the Gospel a little more closely. Jesus never said, “Bear well the cross that I place upon you”. Rather He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me”. God does not place any cross upon you. The burdens and difficulties we face in life come from that same reality that we are fallen people in a fallen world; a reality that we constantly seem to want to ignore or work around as if it weren’t true. The cross we are asked by Christ to take up is entirely different and completely voluntary. This is the cross that, if you will, lifts us up to the viewpoint that allows us to see this world as it truly is and discover the need to die to it and its vain pursuits, so that we might begin at last to come alive to God.

The language that Jesus uses in regard to this is rather shocking. He does not tell us that we need to be sick of this world. He doesn’t say that we need to run a little fever and have a scratchy throat. He says we must die to this world. Now He’s not talking about throwing ourselves off a bridge or the like, but something actually much more difficult. He is asking us to first of all recognize how much we invest in this temporal existence; how much time and effort we spend in trying to make a bad situation good, trying to make ourselves happy and content and secure in a dying world in which no such thing is guaranteed or even truly possible. He wants us to see that most of our choices and decisions in life are not based upon the will of God, but upon whatever pleases us. Our perceptions are upside down and backwards. We find sin pleasurable rather than repulsive and spend many happy hours pursuing our own destruction. At the same time, our souls heave with great weariness at the thought of prayer or spiritual reading or doing works of charity or even of coming to church. His words to us are shocking and vivid because extreme action is called for on our part to break away from our attachment to this world and its path of death, in order to find the path of life.

The cross represents both of these things. It is not only a symbol of death, but also the greatest symbol of life. Only those who take up their own crosses and daily crucify themselves to this world and its deceptions and its endless lusts will find the doors of the kingdom of heaven opened to them, and life pure and everlasting before them. The voluntarily self-denial and death to this world of the cross is the only way to find the abundant life promised by Jesus.

And so, how do we learn to die to ourselves and come alive in Christ Jesus? Have you ever asked yourself that question? If you haven’t, that would be a good place to begin. Instead of being swept through life like driftwood on a river, or perhaps a log headed for the sawmill, each of us should slow down and make the time to ask ourselves, what am I doing to take up my cross and crucify myself to the world so that I might live for Christ? What am I doing to make Jesus Christ the most important person in my life?

Are you busy with the work of cleaning up your soul through repentance, so that Jesus might have a fitting place to reside within you? Are you expending the time and great effort required to learn how to pray and become a person of prayer, rather than a person caught up in a whirlwind of external activity? Are you taking the time to read the bible and especially the gospels so that the mind and will of Christ can begin to be formed in you until you begin at last to view life itself in the context of the gospel revelation? Have you come to the realization that your life is not really yours at all, but is on loan to you from God, and is meant to be spent not on your pleasure, but on His? Have you begun to challenge your own personal “comfort zone” in order to extend yourself more to others in service, in fellowship, in strengthening them for the building up of our holy community, as well as making yourself available to help those outside our parish?

These are all good ways to begin that process which leads away from a self-centered existence toward being centered on Christ and the life He calls us to live. The more we consciously pursue these things, the more we awaken to the realization that our life truly does not belong to us, but to God, and that a selfish existence spent only tending to our own cares is the worst kind of life imaginable.

Because God loves us, He asks us to die to that life so that we might find the true life of joy and abundance. Each of us must make that choice to take up our own cross daily and walk the difficult and narrow path that leads to life eternal in His kingdom. May God help us to remember and put this ever before us.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 9/17/2006 6:31 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating Ere, a question (if I may)

How does the teaching in Mark juxtapose with Jesus's saying

Take my yoke and put it on you, and learn from me, for i am gentle and of humble spirit, and you will find rest

Is it a sense of duty that one is to perform when maturing as a Christian or are the two sayings basically equal with there being no preference for either teaching?

At 9/17/2006 7:32 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

That’s an interesting question, Anonymous (Gee, I wish you would sign in with your real name, or at least a better pseudonym than “anonymous”). Perhaps we should ask ourselves if the cross is the same thing as the yoke.

The cross represents dying to ourselves and to our attachment to the lusts of this fallen world, which no one ever promised to be a gentle and easy process. St. John rather bluntly tells us that to love the world (not creation mind you, but the fallen cosmos) is to be at enmity with God. Yet if we are honest, we must admit that even as Christians we are driven by many lusts and desires which seek their fulfillment in the things of this world. Learning to detach ourselves from these leanings and to live as people of another world is never an easy thing, and in fact requires much violent struggle and effort.

The yoke of Jesus on the other hand perhaps represents the fulfillment of the joyous commandments of love, which Jesus calls those who have and are crucifying themselves to the flesh to obey. In other words, it is not an “either/or” situation, but we must both suffer the violence of voluntary self-denial AND take upon ourselves the gentle yoke of obedience to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.

Ironically, the Gospel calls us to both war and peace, to struggle and to rest. The Gospel is neither all war and struggle, nor all peace and rest. Both must accompany the Christian throughout his entire life. Those who reject the spiritual warfare and struggle of the cross in their lives for the peace and rest only are surely not living as true Christians in this world.

At 9/17/2006 8:15 PM , Anonymous Jeremias said...

True, both tachings have the sense of continuation in them

"Learn from me..and you will find rest"

"Take up your cross and follow me"

One is cerebral (meaning largely spiritual/self realizational.)

The other is quite obvious and external but not in the purely physical sense.
There is no actual cross to be picked up, rather perhaps the picking up is a sign of laboring with the cross as Christ did, and even HE needed help to do it.

thought provoking as always Ere.

At 9/18/2006 4:54 PM , Anonymous Trenna said...

Thank you Father Michael. This is my favorite homily, and at the same time my least favorite homily ever:o)!

At 10/19/2006 8:02 PM , Anonymous Audrey said...

Your homily was helpful to me especially in clarifying that crosses are what we have to take up, rather than what God lays on us.

At 10/19/2006 8:04 PM , Anonymous Audrey said...

I meant to ask a question. How do you reconcile dying to the pleasures of this life/taking up one's cross with the psalms that say God witholds no good thing from those who love Him and that there are pleasures at His right hand forevermore?


At 10/21/2006 8:51 AM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Hi Audrey, thanks for reading my blog!

It is not God's intention that we spend our earthly lives devoted to the cause of "eat, drink, and be merry". May we eat and drink with God’s blessing? Of course. Is it improper for us to be merry on occasion? Obviously not. But if we give ourselves over entirely to the pursuit of earthly pleasures with scarcely a thought to prepare for the life to come (In other words, as many people do indeed live), then we are in error.

In our spiritual journey we must learn to lay aside many of the distracting pleasures of this world in order to gain the abundant pleasures of the world to come. Whatever we abandon in this life will be compensated more than a hundredfold in the kingdom of heaven.


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