Taped to my filing cabinet is a memorandum to myself with the subject: “Your Death.” It reads: “Dear Sir, this letter is to inform you of your death. You are going to die. Thank you for your attention in this matter.”
I keep this near my desk as a way of reminding myself that someday I will die. In realizing that my time here on Earth is limited, this memo motivates me to live completely. More importantly, it reminds me to take up my cross.
What is the cross? To a Christian, the cross is a symbol of death. It is the symbol of naked humiliation, of suffering and sorrow. It pictures for us the suffering a Christian must go through in this life.
The cross is our example. It is the promise that we will suffer as Jesus suffered. The Christian faith has become a cultural norm. There is no cost demanded of us for being Christians. We are not persecuted, and we have reduced Christian life to church attendance, occasional service and financial donations. The cross reproves us for our weakness and apathy. The symbol of the cross reminds us that Christianity is not just a lifestyle choice; it is a sacrifice.
It is impossible to think of taking up the cross without reflecting on what the cross was to Christ. It was not merely symbolic; it was a heavy timber designed specifically as His instrument of death. When Christ tells me to take up my cross, I must picture Him lifting a cross up to His shoulder. When Christ tells me to follow Him, I must view myself behind Him as he slowly drags His cross to His place of execution, the cross bumping with a hollow sound on the cobblestones.
The cross was the source of ultimate suffering: physical, emotional and spiritual. It was the place of death. But the cross was much more than an instrument of death for Christ; it was a place of utter abandonment by God.
After contemplating Christ’s suffering, death and separation from God, we have to ask: “What did Jesus mean when He told His disciples to take up the cross and follow Him?”
[DENY YOURSELF] Christ’s stated prerequisite for being His disciple is to deny yourself. Human nature rebels against self-denial. If we must carry a cross, we want to stand out—we want to carry a heavy cross and proclaim our suffering to everyone around us. We try to “encourage” other Christians by testifying about how blessed we are by the cross Christ has given us.
The significant fact about Christ’s cross is that it held no personal benefit for Him. He did not take up the cross in order to grow in His relationship with God, to build character or to gain “insights.” His cross was completely for the benefit of others. The temptation I face is to glory in my cross, to take pride in my ability to endure suffering. Christ’s example warns me that I may not get any personal benefit from my cross—the benefit may be intended for others.
Christ’s instruction to deny myself is an indication that my concept of identity is unimportant by itself. If I brag about how good it is to carry my cross, I am only a bystander. Denying myself means that I must suffer without seeking a personal benefit.
[TAKE UP YOUR CROSS] The cross has an intensely personal element, a unique call for every believer. When Christ told Peter of His manner of death, Peter turned and saw John. “What about him, Lord?” You can hear the rebuke in Christ’s voice as He refocused Peter’s attention on His own cross: “What is that to you? Follow me.”
Atop the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome are statues of the Apostles, Christ and John the Baptist. Each statue literally portrays the idea of taking up the cross by carrying the instrument of His death, whether it be a cross, a lance or a knife. These statues reinforce the idea that our cross is always with us. It is a constant presence. As such, it should not be difficult for us to recognize the cross we are to bear.
How do we recognize our cross? It is a matter of identifying that which kills self-love and our personal agenda. Jesus did not want to carry His cross. He begged God to take the burden from Him. We need to realize that His example sets the bar for the rest of us. Taking up my cross will not be easy because my cross is probably something I do not want to face.
Not only is the cross personal, it is deadly—when we take up our cross, it is with the knowledge that it is intended for our deaths. No Christian denies the need to live for Christ, but do we ever acknowledge the need to die for Him? “Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” The early Christians were forced to consider the cost of their faith, but we in modern America have been lulled into the comfort of a complacent faith. Christ’s words jar us back into reality: “Deny yourself! Take up your cross!”
Christian devotion requires a contemplation of death: of Christ’s death, and of our actual and symbolic deaths. The cross represents these deaths. For Jesus and many of His followers, the cross meant actual death. For the Christian today, it is at least a symbolic identification with Christ—it is a spiritual death.
But why this fixation with death? Is this some sort of morbid exercise recommended by Trent Reznor or Jonathan Davis? The answer is that only in death do we understand life. The memo on my filing cabinet reminds me that one day I will die and that I should live fully while I am alive.
More important than our physical death is our spiritual death. We are crucified with Christ—this means that his death vicariously benefits us; we engage in a new spiritual life because of the spiritual death we experience. But the cross does something else: It continues to crucify the self in us that is controlled by the flesh. We love to stand out, even if it means refusing to allow Christ to wash our feet. The cross is the cure for the narcissist.
The cross is the place of forgiveness for Christians. It is the place to remind us that we cannot approach God’s fearful holiness and that our sin requires total payment. Ultimately, the cross points us to the crucified one. It is our link to Christ. We can only follow Him when we bear our cross. This intimacy with Him burns away pride and individual glory.
This relationship is much deeper than wearing a WWJD bracelet. It is a participation in suffering, a relationship forged by pain. It is Christ’s fellowship of suffering.