Jesus said: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…
At Virginia Theological Seminary, in Alexandria, there’s an iconic tower that sits atop Aspinwall Hall. It’s been part of the campus since 1855; it’s rendered on their logo; and you just can’t miss it when you visit…it really stands out. As impressive as it is, though, it seemed out of place to me; while the rest of the building is Gothic Revival in style, the tower bears a strong Asian influence. And while I was attending, it was known as, “China’s Revenge.”
I don’t know how much influence the Chinese had on Virginia Seminary architecture, but I do know that a number of early VTS graduates volunteered to travel to China as missionaries. Tradition has it that when those VTS graduates volunteered to serve in China, they would buy a coffin and pack it with their belongings for the voyage, with the sure knowledge that they’d die young, and far away from home.
Take up your cross and follow me.
Of course, there’s a cross atop the tower atop Aspinwall Hall. It’s beautiful, reassuring and familiar. A cross is always a familiar sight; people wear the cross as jewelry, perhaps as a statement of faith. Our Eucharistic ministers commonly wear a cross as part of their vestment, as does the bishop, as a symbol of episcopal office. And, while I honestly have no complaint with wearing the cross as an adornment, I can’t help sometimes but wonder if we truly understand what it is we’re wearing: an instrument of execution, the equivalent a tiny gold noose dangling from a lovely gold chain.
Death on the cross was a humiliating and hard form of execution. And the cross used for executions was not at all lovely or blessed. It was large, heavy, rough, and above all, ugly.
But it is at the center of our faith…and it’s at the center of Mark’s gospel.
Mark’s gospel - as I often point out - is short, but quite powerful. And in part, the power is due to its sheer economy of words. His gospel isn’t brawny and partisan, like Matthew. He wasn’t dreamy like John. And he didn’t weave layers of narrative like Luke. His episodes come in small, explosive packages. He tossed meaningful words into a story like they were hand grenades. And the reading today demonstrates that.
This episode begins simply…Then he began to teach them. It may not seem like much, but the power’s there, if you look closely. Those words - coming when they do in this story - signal that Jesus was about to reveal a truth beyond anything they’d yet to hear: a truth that would be difficult to accept: their king would be crucified. It was the first public prediction of his passion in Mark’s gospel. Peter’s response to this prediction was rash, and probably represented the feelings of most of Christ’s followers. They just couldn’t understand…but there would be no throne but first there was a cross.
It’s why he came, why he was born.
Peter took Jesus aside to rebuke him, and in his rebuke, Mark chose a dynamic word to display the gravity of the passage. When Peter rebuked Jesus, the word Mark used –epitimaw – doesn’t illustrate the word used for scolding someone you care for…like a child. Rather, it’s the descriptive word used when Jesus rebuked an evil spirit. And one verse later, when Jesus in turn rebuked Peter, Mark employed the same word.
I tend to think that Mark’s use of such a dynamic word in adjoining verses indicates something far-reaching. It may seem like Peter and Jesus just having a spat, but something else was happening. I think what Mark showed his readers in this exchange of rebukes is that a great spiritual battle was taking place, something far beyond - and far more profound - than a dust-up between a rabbi and his disciple.This was a temptation akin to the temptations in the wilderness; this was a spiritual battle…not with Peter, but with the father of lies…the temptation to simply forego the suffering and shame of the cross, to instead accept power and privilege and wealth…a real battle.
There would other battles, other temptations along the way: in the Garden, at Gethsemane when he sought to be saved from his coming ordeal; and perhaps even at the cross itself, when the temptation to save himself must have been overwhelming. Such was the incredible spiritual battle that Jesus fought: a battle of loss and shame; of pain and suffering; of surrender and death. But ultimately, it ended in victory…at Calvary’s Hill, on the cross.
The cross is the focus of Mark’s gospel. All the dynamic language, pitched spiritual battles, strong works…they all led to Good Fridayand the cross. It’s at the center of Mark’s gospel; it’s at the center of Lent. And it’s at the center of Christian faith and discipleship.
Jesus told his followers to pick up their crosses and follow. Was it just a metaphor? Possibly, but when I think about the priests from VTS who went to China, who packed up their coffins and followed, the saying tends to become literal. And I have to wonder if maybe they understood something that I don’t
Or when I think on all the Christians who are being brutalized in our time, simply because of their faith…or when I think on all the martyrs of the faith for the last two millennia, then it really does seem more than a metaphor. And perhaps that’s why the word most often translated as “witness” in the New Testament is marturion…or in English…martyr. Jesus’ words were taken literally by the early witnesses; they were called to pick up their cross and follow.
Modern, western, Christians are fortunate and blessed. We can take Jesus’ mandate to pick up our crosses follow in most any style, or to any degree we wish. We can be King James Bible righteous, or believe like Evangelical zealots; we can demonstrate Pentecostal enthusiasm, or become prim and proper Anglo-Catholics, or we can just be ourselves: plain old, low church Virginia Episcopalians. And it’s all good.
But whatever flavor of Christianity we choose, Mark’s gospel will remind us that the ugly, shameful cross is at the center of our faith; and that Christ’s difficult words in this passage call us further into the life of the marturion… the life of one perpetually dying to self… so that others may see Christ and live.
It’s all about picking up the cross and following.
Lent helps us to remember the power and purpose of the cross…the season reminds us that the familiar gold symbol we wear and display is really a very powerful symbol of liberation…powerful beyond casual understanding. The cross is our symbol…both now, and two thousand years ago…so shameful and ugly to those who lived in its shadow…but to Christians, it is at the center of our faith, and it is beautiful, because it has become the symbol of victory and life.