‘Tis the season of Lent, the forty days before Easter. We deck our sanctuary in deep purple and sing about it in our gathering hymn. Traditionally, it’s a time of self-sacrifice...giving up something for Lent in order to feel what it’s like to be without, to repent for our missteps and self-centeredness, to reflect on our lives, a time for a spiritual “wilderness journey” in order to prepare for Holy Week ahead.
I’ve often said that, in New England, nature and the seasons around us give us a perfect back drop for this penitential season. The trees are stripped bare of their leaves, so we see things with raw clarity, just as we’re invited to look into our own hearts with similar honesty.
That being said, we’re given sustenance along the way. In most grocery stores at this time of year you can find a nice little sweet bun, lovingly called “hot cross buns,” just big enough to fit in your palm or your pocket, and decorated with a sticky sweet icing cross on top.
Hot cross buns started as a pagan celebration of spring. As Christianity spread, the sweet dough studded with dried fruits and baked into small loaves began to be marked with a cross. Marking baked goods with the sign of a cross was a common thing for a baker to do. The cross was supposed to ward off evil spirits which could affect the bread, and make it go moldy or stale.
So powerful a symbol they became...these buns, or more to the point, the marking of a cross. Marked with the sign of a cross...that makes these buns so special.
For children, they are also a great way to teach about the cross. And there are many simple interpretations for kids. For example, cross has two parts...a vertical line to remind us that we are connected to God, and a horizontal line to remind us that we are connected to each other. Simple. Sweet. For kids.
But the cross is the most powerful symbol of Christianity. The central story of our faith. And it’s a hard one. Complex.
The story of the crucifixion is a cruel, harsh, tragic story. We, Protestants don’t typically show Jesus hanging on the cross in our sanctuaries. But in the Roman Catholic Church, or in the Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, the brutal reality of Jesus on the cross is right there, front and center. But even for us from the reformed church, you and I, how many of us wear a cross so it is with us always, close to our hearts? That simple symbol contains...expresses...the very essence of our faith.
What did Jesus mean when he said “take up your cross and follow me,” as we read from the Gospel of Mark? It’s hard for any of us not to interpret this text through all the layers of meaning it has accumulated for us...everything from our relationships with God and each other, to the mark of the cross on a hot-cross bun, to poignant and painful passion story that leads to the triumph of the resurrection.
What we know from scripture is this. Jesus makes this statement, “take up the cross,” at an important turning point. At this moment in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his followers are about to make a turn in the road. It’s here, in Caesarea Philippi, that Jesus and his disciples make the turn from his preaching and healing ministry to a focus on the journey to Jerusalem and all the events that await them there.
In this moment, he turns and asks his closest followers who they think that he is...do they really understand the road they’re on? Then, he tells them, frankly, that the road ahead will lead to suffering and rejection. And again, do they really understand what following him will mean?
Turning to the wider crowd gathered around his disciples, Jesus says to them, “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.” (Mark 8:34b-35)
"Take up their cross." Maybe his words were a reflection of the horrific reality of the Palestinian people at the time of his earthly ministry. Death on a cross was a cruel and merciless form of capital punishment used by the Roman Empire. Those who were to be crucified were sometimes forced to carry their cross to the place of execution. So the phase, “taking up the cross,” would have communicated something painful, life threatening, beyond difficult...a cruel death.
Or perhaps he knew exactly what was to come. Or the Gospel writer was foreshadowing his crucifixion.
Whatever Jesus was saying, it’s clear we was not sugar coating his message, like the cross on a hot-cross bun. His words challenge them, shaking them up, even his own beloved disciples. There is cost to this choice...this choice to follow. Jesus was emphatically telling his disciples, in this turning point moment, that following him was going to call for personal sacrifice in ways they could not yet imagine.
In this Lenten season, I reflect with raw honesty of my own discipleship. When and where do I make the choice to “carry the cross”? Or am I lulled into complacency by the sweetness of the theology “Jesus Loves Me,” and not truly taking up the cross to the places that are risky, edgy, or painful? Am I willing to die? Dying to myself in order to be reborn?
Am I ready to reach out to people who are strangers and different;
Am I willing to let go of the comfortable and familiar;
Am I prepared to commit to give more than I believe I have to give;
Am I open to being reborn in a way that is overwhelming, risky or dangerous, potentially painful, possibly costly, ...taking a leap of faith because God is calling me to do so?
For, as Jesus said, “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.” (Mark 8:34b-35)