“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” -Mark 8: 34b-37
Twelve years ago this month, a very compassionate doctor taught me that the English language, already overfull of words, needs a few more. I already knew that one word – Love – could mean too many things for one word alone. I hadn’t realized that another word – Life – had the same problem. Yet as I sat in that exam room, still recovering from a life-saving surgery two months earlier, still very much protective of my body and its new physical realities, still just grateful to be alive, the doctor made me look him in the eye.
“They didn’t save your life for the sake of breathing or of a heartbeat,” he said, gently. “They saved it so that you can live it.”
I had lost my life – not the physical manifestations of it, not the vital signs, but the joy. I had lost my life to fear, to trauma; I had become so wrapped up in one event that I was letting the rest of life slip past unnoticed.
“Those who lose their life for my sake… will save it.” I have to wonder, if Jesus could see how those words have been used since he spoke them, if he might not have chosen his phrasing just a little more carefully.
It is apparent that Jesus cared for bodies. He cared for life. He taught us to honor one another’s life by nourishing and caring for one another, by granting dignity and humanity to all, by saving those on the brink of death – and even those who had gone past the brink. It is apparent that, as he prayed and grieved in Gethsemane, he did not go to his own death lightly, that he did not rejoice in the impending suffering and betrayal. Had God spared his own child, as God had spared Isaac, it strikes me that Jesus would have been perfectly content to continue living. Death was inevitable, but not eagerly anticipated.
Which, actually, doesn’t make Jesus a hypocrite.
The intervening centuries, between Jesus’ time and now, are replete with the stories of martyrs who gloried in their suffering and celebrated their impending death. These people deliberately chose the path of death, the mutilation and torture of the body, the ways of life reduced to mere breathing and circulation of blood, all in the belief that losing one’s life for the sake of Christ meant sharing in the suffering of Jesus’ last hours. “Lose your life”, to these hundreds and thousands of Christians, quite simply meant glorying in all that might hasten the time when the heart would stop beating; it meant “lose this body of flesh”.
Which is an interesting theological maneuver, since even death did not rid Jesus of his body of flesh. Just ask Thomas if it did.
“But,” protest the martyrs, “what about taking up our cross? What about denying ourselves? See? We’re meant to suffer!” (All that said with a barely-suppressed, “Yippee!”)
It’s interesting that this is the first time in the Gospel of Mark that we hear about a cross at all. Jesus did not, in his frank talk with the disciples just before this passage, mention the form that his own death would take. The word “cross”, therefore, would have come out of nowhere for them. But what an evocative word! The cross, the Roman torture device for the lowest of the low criminals, the means of a humiliating and painful death. The disciples would all have been familiar with the most humiliating part of the crucifixion: the requirement that the condemned shoulder the very cross-bar onto which he would be hung, and carry it through the town to the place of execution. It was a mark of shame, to carry one’s cross; a visible, undeniable sign of guilt; a chance for all the townspeople to hurl insults and heap on the humiliation. It was the insult added to the coming injury.
One of the only moments that I actually liked about the movie “The Passion of Christ” was the scene in which the cross is actually carried to Golgotha. Although, like the rest of the movie, it was full of gratuitous suffering, I appreciated the sense of struggle, simply to put one foot in front of the other with such a heavy load; the inability to see more than the few feet of road right in front of you; the total focus and determination that it takes to get to the end of the road, especially when there are distractions (in this case, a jeering crowd) on every side.
“Let them take up their cross and follow me.” Let them shoulder the burden, the responsibility that the teachings of Christ put upon all disciples, and then resolutely put one foot in front of the other, following along the Way, ignoring the humiliation, the insults, the temptation to toss aside the burden and run away, the desire to throw a few insults back. Those who do what is right, rather than what is convenient or popular, will be mocked. Those who do what is compassionate will be scorned. Those who love will feel the pain of the poor, the needy, the unloved, as deeply as though it were cut into our own flesh. That is the burden of the Cross: that and no other.
Will there be suffering? That depends on how much we take the jeers to heart, how much we are tempted to abandon the burden by the side of the road, how much we are able to love despite it all. Will there be suffering merely for the sake of suffering? No. Will we lose our life in the process? Absolutely.
Not that our hearts will stop, or that our breathing will cease. Because those are only the mechanisms of life, as I was reminded so many years ago. I don’t think any of us would be content with a life that consisted only in physical survival. But as we take up the Cross – the only Cross, the burden of discipleship, the humiliation of truly being followers of Christ along the very narrow way he has set before us – we make a choice about how our life will be lived. In taking up the Cross, we chose obedience. In taking up the cross, we eschew vanity, complacency, selfishness. In taking up the Cross, we suffer not because Jesus suffered, but because our fellow humans are suffering, and the burden of relief weighs upon us. In taking up the cross, we chose to live mindfully, deliberately, lovingly. We chose to give up our lives to the service of God in Christ.
“Those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Lose your life, not to fear, or temptation, or the delights of suffering, but to the responsibilities that Jesus so clearly laid before us. Lose your life, not to the condemnation of others, but to the work of love. Lose your life, not to the reality-TV style contests and entitled attitudes that our culture ardently promotes, but to the dignity and humanity of the “least of these”. Lose your life, above all, to the one who is Love incarnate.