Crosses are for Crucifying

by Jacob Sparks

Crosses are for crucifying.jpg

On February 13th, 2016, Antonin Scalia, the controversial Supreme Court justice, was found dead at his ranch in Texas at the age of 79. A few days later, his son, the Catholic priest Father Paul Scalia, officiated his father’s funeral. He began his homily after the funeral with the following words:

We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us [and] known only by reputation to even more. A man loved by many [and] scorned by others. A man known for great controversy and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.

This short statement contains much truth alongside its literary and oratory brilliance. The Jesus of Nazareth that many of us think we know is not the Jesus presented to us by the Gospels and Orthodox Christianity. The Jesus of Christianity is, as Father Paul Scalia says, scorned and controversial. A striking example of Jesus’ controversy can be found in the middle of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus gives words of warning to the crowds who follow him at his preaching and healing:

And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?  For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
— Mark 8:34-38

What does Jesus mean by this harsh saying? What does he intend for the crowds to understand when he tells them that in order to come after him they must take up their crosses and follow him?

One must keep in mind that Jesus said this to a first century Jewish audience subject to Roman imperial authority. The cross was Rome’s way of dealing with lawbreakers, troublemakers, and anyone who attempted to disrupt the social order that Rome had established. The cross meant public shame, suffering, and ultimately death. To take up one’s cross meant to voluntarily accept the brutality of torture and death. Jesus’ audience knew he was asking them to die. No one misunderstood his words.

This message is just as relevant to Orthodox Christians today as it was to Jesus’ audience in the first century. However, we Orthodox in the western world are largely sheltered from physical religious persecution. The cross, for westerners, has often become a quaint cultural symbol of Christianity and nothing more. Those in the eastern lands who are killed and persecuted daily for following Christ know better than this: they know the cross means death. They know crosses exist to be crucified on. We have much to learn from our brethren in the east.

To be an Orthodox Christian means to be willing to die for Christ. Anything less than this is simply not Christianity. The centuries Orthodox Christian martyrs faithful to Christ to the point of death understood this. The Coptic Orthodox in Egypt who are kidnapped, bombed, and shot for their faith in Christ known this. The Palestinian Orthodox who go to liturgy surrounded by war and bloodshed understand this. It is time for us in the west to also understand this. The least we can do is accept our own status as strangers and outcasts of modern society for our obedience to the faith “which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3:3). In this way, we truly become blessed and disciples of Christ:

Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
— Luke 6:22-23

Actually try to be an Orthodox Christian. Pray. Fast. Go to church. Pick up your cross and follow Christ.

Jacob SparksComment