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(October 2016)

Bearing Our Cross

By St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) of Caucasus (+1867). From “Writings of Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov, Ascetic Sermons,”Vol. IV, published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York, 1984, pp. 90-96.

Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me, the Lord said to His disciples, calling them to Himself, as we heard in today’s Gospel (Mk 8:34).

Beloved brethren! We too are disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, because we are Christians. And we have been called to stand in the presence of the Lord in this holy church in order to hear His teaching. We stand before the face of the Lord; His eyes are fastened on us. Our souls are laid bare before Him; our secret thoughts and hidden feelings are manifest to Him. He sees all our intentions. He sees the righteous and unrighteous things that we have done from our youth. He sees our entire life, both the past and the future; what we still have not done is already recorded in His book. He foresees the hour of our passing into the unfathomable eternity, and for our salvation He proclaims to us His all-holy commandment: Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.

With the power of living faith, let us raise our mental eyes to the Lord, and we will see Him! We will see Him, Who is everywhere present, actually with us. Let us open our heart, rolling away from its entrance the heavy stone of bitterness; let us hearken to, let us consider, let us accept, and let us assimilate in ourselves the teachings of our Lord.

What does it mean, to deny oneself? To deny oneself means to leave one’s sinful life. Sin, the means by which our fall was accomplished, as it embraced our whole nature and became almost natural for us. The renunciation of sin has become the renunciation of nature; the renunciation of nature is the renunciation of one’s self. Eternal death, having penetrated our soul, has turned to us for sustenance. It requires its nourishment—sin; its enjoyment—sin. By means of such food and such enjoyment, eternal death strengthens and preserves its dominance over a man. But fallen man considers the strengthening and development of the mystery of sin in himself to be the progress and success of life. Thus he who is infected by a fatal disease is dominated by the forceful demands of that disease and seeks the food which strengthens the disease; he seeks it as something most necessary, as an indispensable and most pleasant enjoyment.

In opposition to this eternal death which presents itself as life to mankind, ailing from the terrible fall, the Lord pronounces His sentence: For whosoever will save his life, developing the life of fallen nature or eternal death, shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel’s, deadening within oneself sinful desires and rejecting sinful pleasures, the same shall save it. (Mk 8:35). Indicating the entire world present before our eyes, with all its beauties and attractions, the Lord says, For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mk 8:36). What profit is there for a man, what gain, if he acquires, not something of little importance, but even all the visible world? This visible world—merely a temporary guesthouse for man! There is not one thing on earth, no kind of property which we can call our own. Inexorable and inevitable death will take everything from us, and often even before death, unforeseen circumstances and calamities take them away. Our body itself we will lay down at the hidden threshold to eternity. Our possessions, our property and treasure—this is our soul, and only our soul. What shall man give in exchange for his soul? says the word of God. (Mk 8:37). Nothing will compensate for the loss of the soul, when eternal death kills it, seductively pretending to be life.

What does it mean to take up one’s cross? The cross was the instrument of shameful punishment for common people and criminals deprived of civil rights. The proud world, the world hostile to Christ, deprives the disciples of Christ the rights by which the sons of the world enjoy. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you... They shall put you out of the synagogues; yea the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you shall think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me. (Jn 15:19; 16:2:3). To take up one’s cross means to magnanimously endure the ridicule and derision which the world showers on the followers of Christ, those sorrows and persecutions by which the sin-loving and blind world persecutes the followers of Christ. The holy Apostle Peter says: For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps. … In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (I Pet 2:19, 21; Jn 16:33).

To bear one’s cross means to courageously endure severe unseen difficulty, unseen oppression and martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel, in the struggle with one’s passions, with sin living within us, with evil spirits who with frenzy rise up against us and with cruelty oppose us when we endeavor to throw off the yoke of sin and submit to the yoke of Christ, for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, says the Apostle Paul, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Eph 6:12). For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds, casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. (II Cor 10:4-5). Gaining victory in this unseen but arduous battle, the Apostle exclaimed: But God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. (Gal 6:14).

To take up one’s cross means to submit with obedience and humility to those temporary sorrows and calamities which it pleases Divine Providence to allow for the cleansing of our sins. Then the cross serves as a ladder for man from earth to Heaven. The thief commemorated in the Gospel ascended on this ladder; he ascended from the midst of the most horrible crimes to the brightest dwelling of Paradise. From his cross he pronounced words filled with humility. Through humility he received knowledge of God and through the knowledge of God he obtained Heaven, We receive the due reward of our deeds, he declared. Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom. (Luke 23:41-42). And we, beloved brethren, when sorrows surround us, let us repeat the words of the thief, words which purchased Paradise; or like Job, let us bless the Lord who is just as well as merciful. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, this sufferer asked, and shall we not receive evil? As it seemed good to the Lord, so it has come to pass; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21). May the unerring promise of God be fulfilled in us: Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him. (Jas 1:12).

To take up one’s cross means to voluntarily, and with fervor, submit to deprivation and struggles by which the irrational strivings of our flesh are bridled. The holy Apostle Paul referred to such a crucifixion of the flesh: But I keep under my body and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. (I Cor 9:27). They that are full in the flesh, that is, those who do not bridle their flesh, but allow it to rule over the spirit, cannot please God. (Rom 8:8). And therefore, while living in the flesh, we must not live for the flesh! For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die with death eternal; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live eternally, with a blessed life. (Rom 8:13). The flesh essentially is bridled by the spirit; but the spirit can reign over the flesh and direct it only when the flesh has been prepared for submission by being crucified. The flesh is crucified by fasting, vigil, prostrations, and other bodily labors laid on it, in moderation and with understanding. Prudent and moderate bodily labors free the body from heaviness and obesity, refine its powers, and keep it constantly light and ready for action. They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with affections and lusts. (Gal. 5:24).

What does it mean to take up the cross, and specifically, his cross? This means that every Christian must patiently bear, namely, those insults and those persecutions from the world which befall him, and none other. This means that every Christian, with obedience, with submission to the will of God, with the belief in the justice and mercy of God, and with thanksgiving to God, must bear precisely those sorrows and deprivations which Divine Providence allows him, and not some others which are portrayed or suggested to him by proud imagining. This means that one should be content with those bodily labors which correspond to our physical strength, which are necessary to our body to stay healthy. In no way does it mean to strive for intensive fasting, vigils, and excessive asceticism, being attracted by “vainglorious zeal,”according to the expression of St. John of the Ladder, thereby destroying physical health and leading the spirit into conceit and self-deception.

All mankind labors and suffers on this earth; but how diverse is this suffering! How varied are the passions which war against us! How many are the sorrows and temptations which God sends us for our healing, for the cleansing of our sins! What a difference there is in the physical strength and health of people! Precisely, every man has his own cross. Every Christian is commanded to receive his cross with self-renunciation and to follow Christ. He who has taken up his cross and denied himself and has come to peace with himself, with his circumstances, with his position, outwardly and inwardly, only such a person can wisely and correctly follow Christ.

What does it mean, to follow Christ? It means to study the Gospel, to have the Gospel as the only guide for the actions of the mind, the actions of the heart, and the actions of the body. It means to borrow one’s manner of thought from the Gospel, to attune the feelings of the heart according to the Gospel and to serve as an expression of the Gospel in all one’s actions, in all movements, seen and unseen. Capable of following after Christ in such a manner, we repeat, can be only such a person who has fled from self-deception through voluntary humility (Col. 2:18), and who has sought to acquire true humility where it truly abides—in obedience and submission to God. Having entered into obedience to God, into that obedience which is united with complete self-renunciation, he has taken up his cross, and acknowledged and confessed this cross to be his own.

My beloved brethren! While making prostrations before the Cross today, in accordance with the customs of the holy Church, let us also make a spiritual prostration! Let us honor the venerable Cross of Christ—the instrument of victory and banner of the glory of Christ—each one confessing from his cross, I have received the due reward for my deeds! Remember me, O Lord, in Thy kingdom! With acknowledgement of our sinfulness, with gratitude to God, and submission to the will of God, let us make our cross, instead of an instrument of punishment and a sign of dishonor, an instrument of victory and a sign of glory, like the Cross of the Lord. With the Cross let us open Paradise for ourselves.

Let us not allow ourselves to complain maliciously, and let us especially give no place to soul-destroying criticism which is often heard from the mouth of the blind, embittered sinner, who is being tortured and flogged on his cross, vainly struggling to escape from his cross. With complaining and criticism, the cross becomes an unbearable burden, drawing down to hell the one crucified on it. “What have I done?” the thoughtless sinner cries out, as he reproaches the injustice and mercilessness of the just and merciful God. He blames and rejects the providence of God. Seeing the crucified Son of God, he mockingly and maliciously demands of him, If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. (Mt 27:40).

But our Lord Jesus Christ willingly was pleased to ascend the cross in the flesh and to endure death in order to reconcile mankind with God, by death to save mankind from eternal death. At the appropriate time the Lord revealed to the Apostles that He would be betrayed into the hands of sinners, would suffer much, and would be killed and would rise again, thereby preparing the Holy Apostles for that great event which was to take place, the redemption of the human race through the suffering and shameful death of the God-man Incarnate. Such a prophecy seemed strange and impossible. Then the Lord summoned to Himself His disciples and said to them, Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.