Essential for All Disciples: Mark. 8:34-9:1, especially vs. 34: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” God reveals that He is searching for those who will freely obey Him, admit their sins, and struggle for purity. To enlarge our vision of what is essential in this struggle, the Lord Jesus foretells His Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection (vs. 31). He encourages every disciple to take up the cross and follow His way, in spite of whatever suffering may ensue (vs. 34).
Let us first consider self-denial. The serious Christian undertakes such practices as fasting, vigil, prayer, and almsgiving with a specific end in mind. According to Saint Paul, we deny ourselves that we “may gain Christ and be found in Him” (Phil 3:8-9). Standing in the way of this undertaking is our self-will – the rebellious soul that wants its own way. Our inner self can be likened to a raging, 2,500-pound bull – no one is prepared to control such a self.
Still, we endeavor to throw down this rebellious self a thousand times over “for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus [our] Lord” (Phil 3:8). And God, in His mercy, has revealed to us a superior opportunity to master our rebellious self in order to gain Christ’s will as our own. According to Elder Joseph the Hesychast, “if you endure the daily ascesis, every time you coerce your soul to bear a cold word, a derision, a reproach, you become a confessor. Every time you have patience, you receive a crown, and it is considered by God to be a daily martyrdom for you” (Monastic Wisdom, p. 162)
Closely related to self-denial is taking up one’s cross. This cross is not the Lord’s Cross, but my particular cross – the one with my name on the placard. My cross is to embrace with the love of the Lord Jesus all who surround me in life, especially those who wave red the flags that provoke the fighting bull inside me. God brings into our lives people who aggravate us, irritate us, and inflame our passions, giving us opportunities for suffering love. We do not need go to far places in order to seek out suffering, for He allows it to come to us in our daily circumstances: our residence, financial agreements, social and professional relationships, and parish life.
The Lord Jesus shapes our cross in order to develop commitment in those He loves, so that we will die to our desires and exhibit only His will through our words and deeds. Nothing is forced on us, but the Lord reminds us what is at stake: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35). Salvation lies in our persistent efforts to tame the raging bull.
How can we know if we really are denying self and taking up our cross? The Lord indicates the way: we simply follow Him, doing what He says without shame (vs. 38). In every circumstance, choice, and challenge, He leads us in His direction. Every decision constitutes a “yes” or a “no” to Christ, no matter how small or inconsequential it may seem.
When Christ says, “If any man will come after Me,” He neither forces nor compels us. Rather, according to Saint John Chrysostom, He makes each one of us “lord of his own choice. For to good things do I call you, not to things evil or burdensome; not to punishment and vengeance, that I should have to compel. . . . Although it be in My power, as Son of God, to hinder you from having any trial at all of those hardships, yet such is not My will for your sake, that you may yourself contribute something, and be more approved” (“Homily 55 on Matthew,” NPNF First Series, vol. 10, p. 339).
To Thee, O Savior of the world, do we travel early, praising Thee, having found safety in Thy Cross, through which Thou didst renew mankind and led us to the never-setting light. – Verse for the Adoration of the Cross