Some years ago I was teaching a course on the Gospel of Mark. At the midpoint, Chapter Eight, I was waxing eloquent on what taking up the cross might mean for us, when one of the students raised her hand. She declared this to be the most dangerous text in the Bible and wished we could rip it out. She went on to describe how a majority of the women with whom she worked in a shelter for battered women and children had internalized this text. They thought that by enduring every kind of suffering, including physical and verbal abuse from their batterers, they were faithfully carrying their cross with Jesus. I was appalled at such a misunderstanding of the meaning of “taking up the cross.” I soon discovered that my student’s experience was replicated in vast numbers in most every corner of the globe.
While such a spirituality of the cross has enabled many women to endure great suffering and to give meaning to it, Jesus’ invitation to take up one’s cross actually refers to a very different kind of suffering. He is speaking to his disciples about the suffering that is likely to befall a person for being his follower. Illness or disease is not “the cross” in the sense in which Jesus speaks of it in today’s Gospel. There is nothing particularly Christian about this kind of suffering; it can happen to anyone. Nor is suffering that comes from abuse or injustice something that one should “take up.” Jesus confronted and tried to stop that kind of suffering whenever he encountered it. The cross consists rather in the negative consequences to which Jesus’ followers willingly expose themselves as the cost of being his disciples.
Hand in hand with taking up the cross is denial of self. This does not refer to ascetic acts, like giving up something you enjoy during Lent. Such practices can feed a spirituality of denial of self; but when Jesus enjoins denial of self, he speaks of a spirituality by which one chooses daily to place the common good and Christ at the center, not one’s own desires. It is a free choice to live a life of ever-deepening self-surrender to love.
Just as people who commit themselves to one another for life must constantly give of themselves out of love for the other, so the love into which Jesus invites disciples is a costly one that asks more and more of us. It is a freely chosen self-surrender in love, which implies that only those who have a healthy sense of self and the freedom to choose to surrender themselves can authentically deny themselves and take up their cross. The cross of which Jesus speaks is not a suffering imposed on persons who are downtrodden.
The second reading today gives some concrete examples of this kind of costly love. If one encounters a brother or sister without adequate clothing or food or shelter, to deny oneself and take up the cross demands letting go of time and resources in self-surrender to the neediest ones. Simply talking about faith, but not making it visible in concrete deeds of self-surrender, is not authentic discipleship. Trying to skirt the cost of such love, as Peter did when he insisted to Jesus that the cross was not necessary, is an all-too-human way of thinking. To think as God does results in godly action, a lifelong surrender to a free and costly love.