In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from our enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross of strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is height of virtue, in the cross the perfection of sanctity -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ
Those who do not belong to Christ misunderstand and malign the cross. A mockery to heathens and a myth to many Jews, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is often misapprehended by Christians as well. Many believers in Christ gratefully look back upon the cross as simply a “justification accomplished” event. Attending the Divine Service, and participating in Holy Communion, is no more than a “remembrance.” Neglecting both the Hebrew understanding of “remembrance” and the “do this” imperative, many Christians give little attention to living the crucified life. As Thomas á Kempis has written, “Jesus has now many lovers of his heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross” (Imitation).
Ash Wednesday introduces us to a new Season of the Church and, as well, a renewed opportunity to radically (in our culture) follow Christ. Lent, those days of denial between Ash Wednesday and Easter Saturday, reminds us of both Christ finished work and our ongoing responsibility. Far more than our now-defunct “New Year’s Resolution,” Lent provides Church-sanctioned and (hopefully) Spirit-inspired occasion to renew our walk with Christ along the “Way of Sorrows.”
Of course, such a prospect is not entirely “inspirational”– at least in strictly human terms. Who wants to take up the cross? Who wants to deny her or himself? Who wants to die, and “daily” at that? Who wants the narrow road along the Via Dolorosa? Let’s be honest, nobody wants to– even if we want to, in the broadest sense, follow Christ. It is, indeed, a hard road.
Thomas á Kempis, quoted at the introduction of this article, provides us with a different perspective on the cross. While certainly a “cross,” á Kempis highlights the “crown” embedded within it. He has apprehended the truth, communicated in one translation of a Psalm, “the Lord reigns from a tree.”
First he tells us that “the cross is salvation.” Generally speaking, Christians understand this. Without the cross of Christ, there is no forgiveness of sin or sins. Sadly, as mentioned earlier, we often embrace this as a fond (yet safely distant) remembrance. In fact, however, beyond the past, the cross is persistently present in the life of the Christian. It is salvation now…now…now…perpetually now. It is a “now” event because, for the Christian, the cross is firmly planted in the Gethsemane of our tangled emotions, the Golgotha of our minds and the tomb of our withered hearts. It hangs before our faded sight, as Constantine’s faded hope, shouting “In this sign conquer.” And in this planted sign, by God’s grace, we will conquer!
As well, á Kempis tells us that “the cross is life.” This assertion requires a new perspective. If our lives are rooted in this world, these words will never make sense. In order to apprehend and be apprehended by this truth, we need to understand that Christ’s cross is grounded in present realty as viewed from future hope. The cross is “life” as seed that was planted in Eden’s promise, Prophet’s speech, Psalmist’s song and Apostle’s testimony. The seed is Christ; Christ planted within the heart of every Christian by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus “endured” the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” Shame and sorrow were enveloped in Sovereignty. Today in our most abject poverty, mourning surrenders to the “now” of God’s presence and the tomorrow of God’s absolute and unbroken rule. The cross is life because, as Aaron’s Rod, it blossoms.
The cross is, as well, “protection from our enemies.” This is an odd statement, given the fact that Christ died at the hands of his enemies– the jealous, the grandiose, the violent, the envious, the rank idolaters and adulterers, the ones who wear our faces and bear our names. Where is protection when, naked and abused, you hang upon a cross? There is absolutely no “easy answer.” And yet, thankfully, there is an answer. When, like Christ, we come to bear the cross, when we accept this as our life-giving portion in this life, we have the protection promised in ‘a Kempis’ words. We are told that “the Son of God came forth to die,” and that we have no higher expectation. If we come to die, if we come for the cross, if our expectation is tribulation, we have no enemies to be protected from. If we embrace the worst, the cross, what more can enemies say or do? When we come to embrace what our enemies impose, what more can they do?
The cross, according to the writer of Imitation, is “infusion of heavenly sweetness.” How can this be? The answer is found in what Christ has done and what Christ will do. Our Lord knew God’s “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” the excruciating depth of which words were apparently incomprehensible to the hearers (Mark 15:33–35), so that we would not need to speak them ourselves. He knew the bitter gall (Mark 15:36) of separation so that we might be spared it. He released his Spirit, in promise (John 20:22) and in completion of his work (John 19:30), so that we might receive the sweetness of the Spirit (Acts 2) and be perpetually renewed in and by him (Acts 4). This holy infusion is the fullness of poverty presently realized (Matthew 5:3). It is the pay-off of mourning’s hard investment (Matthew 5:4). It is the inheritance of the humble (Matthew 5:5), the fullness of the hungry (Matthew 5:6), the living water of the thirsty (Matthew 5:6), righteousness for the unrighteous (Matthew 5:6), and vision of Glory (Matthew 5:7) with peace… and promise of persecution.
Given these things, in spite of the crisis and the cries, the cross is “strength of mind.” Take a moment, maybe many moments during Lent, to reflect upon Christ’s last seven “words.” Do these words in any way reflect a weak mind? Here, in spite of mockery, ridicule and abuse, we discover a most-stable and most-centered man. There are many reasons for this, but one of the reasons is that our Lord was singular in purpose. His purpose and his power were in pleasing the Father. The singular and centered mind set upon the calling of Christ, infused by the Spirit, is a most-stable mind and the foundation of a most-stable life.
There is a marked absence of joy in our world today. A similar deflation has infected the Church. We are SO VERY DESPERATE to manufacture emotionally charged worship simply because we have not really known the cross or the infusion of dynamic spiritual grace. To know the crown we must own the cross. According to á Kempis, the cross is “joy of spirit.” Are we feeling empty? Are we feeling joyless? Has life lost some (or even most) of its meaning? These experiences might simply be because we are not embracing the cross. Although this is counter-intuitive and, from a human perspective, contradictory, the cross and celebration go together. We are, metaphorically and practically speaking, raised up by the cross.
“The cross is,” as well, “the height of virtue.” How is it the height of virtue? First and foremost it is the height because it is upon the cross that Christ, the perfect God-Man, secured our salvation, sanctification and glorification. He is the reason for its height. However, as imitators of Christ who are created and called to his “likeness,” we have a share in the virtue Christ and his cross provide. Virtue is given us, but it is a process of growth as well. Growing in the virtues is our Christian vocation. Peter, the Apostle, makes virtue a priority in his second letter. Virtue, he writes, his furthered by knowledge, self-control and steadfastness. This results in, or is further enhanced by, godliness (2 Peter 1:5–6). There is no means of growth than by the cross– its knowledge (implying intimacy), and the self-control and steadfastness that it requires. The cross is a “taking up” and not an “arriving at.” It is a path, and not simply a destination.
As such, the cross is “the perfection of sanctity.” The holy person clings to the cross, as Christ gracefully hung upon his, because this is “absolute surrender” to God. It is, as well, what is best for lost humanity– even if the lost do not know it, or are entirely disinterested in it. It is in our own best interest, and in the best interest of a fallen world, that we cling to Christ’s cross. It is our “Yes” to God who, in Christ, has said “Yes” to us.
Jesus says to take up your cross. Your cross and my cross are not the same. Although there certainly will be similarities of design, there will be striking dissimilarities. Each cross is unique, designed by God for us for our ongoing “perfection of sanctity” and “joy of spirit.” Let this Season of Lent, soon to begin, set us upon the narrow path of following Christ. Lord, in your mercy, have mercy upon us.