The Gospel reading for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, the Adoration of the Cross, centres on Christ's words to his disciples and all the people around Him that “whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”. But what are we to make of these words, “take up his cross”, what is Jesus asking us to do? I'm sure that each of us has our own ideas about what our cross, or crosses, consist of. For some people, it means putting up with someone they don't like or perhaps an aspect of their daily life that they find irksome, for others it represents a long-standing problem such as illness or the constant misery of poverty or loneliness. Yet, although these examples are all 'crosses' in their way, I'm not sure that this is quite what Jesus was talking about.
I remember my first confession with Father John after my baptism, thirty years ago. I had prepared carefully for it and I remember trying hard to list all the faults and sins I had committed and which, it seemed to me then, had blemished the pristine-ness of my baptism. I made my confession and was mortified when at the end of it Father John snapped at me, “stop feeling sorry for yourself and pick up your cross!” I remember feeling genuinely hurt and confused by his obvious irritation with me. Although at the time, I wasn't really sure why my confession had provoked such a reaction, that moment has stuck with me throughout my life.
As time passed, I began to understand what Fr John had meant when he told me to pick up my cross. He wanted me to realise that God's grace, as wonderful and necessary as it is, did not relieve me of the responsibilities that God had given me. I had expected God to take responsibility for keeping me in a pristine baptismal state – I had wanted to be saved without doing anything in return.
Immediately, before today's reading, we are told in Mark's Gospel that Christ had revealed for the first time to his disciples the truth of what He would face in Jerusalem, His suffering and death. Peter had tried to argue with Jesus, presumably to deny the truth of what he had been told, and Jesus turning to Peter had rebuked him with the words, “Get thee behind me Satan”. Clearly then, Jesus' words to the people, “whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”, are a direct reflection of what Jesus himself was required to do. Picking up our cross means following Christ's example and teaching by giving up our own power and the belief that we can pick and choose what is best for ourselves in life. It means embracing powerlessness and losing our life for His sake in order to save it. Or, as Father John might have put it, it means getting with the programme that God has set for us.
Each and every life is full of trials and it is tempting to try and get rid of all the things that don't suit us or which we feel we wouldn't have chosen for ourselves. Taking up our cross is taking up our life as God gives it to us. In this sense, it is truly living. The cross is not only a way of embracing life here and now, it is also a path that leads us to eternal life. Amen.