Notes on carrying the cross

Some meditations never make it into a sermon or publishable article…

  • “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38).
  • “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
  • “If anyone wants to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me… And whoever does not carry his cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 9:23; 14:27).

What does it mean to “carry our cross”?

Let’s begin with what Jesus did not mean. Many people interpret their “cross” as some burden they must carry in their lives: a strained relationship, a thankless job, a physical illness. With self-pitying pride, they say, “That’s my cross I have to carry.”

When the Lord carried his cross up Golgotha to be crucified, no one was thinking of the cross as a symbol. Crucifixions were a horrific reality of life under Roman rule.

Crucifixion was not an honorable death. To hang naked on a cross until the bones rot and fall (or until they’re removed to make room for the next criminal to be executed) was the Romans’ gesture of contempt for rebels and for the worst offenders. The row of crosses outside a city was a clear warning of what offenders against the Roman Peace should expect.

In the days of Christ’s incarnation, to carry one’s cross meant specifically to carry the instrument of one’s own shameful death to the place of execution. To be sentenced to crucifixion was to be condemned to a humiliating extermination outside the city as a deterrent to others. A man carrying his cross was a dead man walking; he had no future, no honor, no ego, no plans.

What does the Lord expect of us when he says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”? (Mark 8:34).

First, to carry our cross is to confess, not just in words but in our choices, plans, and relationships, that we have no pride, glory, or ambitions apart from the life of God in Christ. Our former way of life in the world has ended. “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

It is to live as people whose days of ambitions and rights have ended. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

A man who is carrying his cross has finished working, striving, and laboring to supply food for himself, or a future. “Therefore there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest (Hebrews 4:9-11).

One minority text of the Psalms includes a phrase that has been read to see the cross of Christ as a throne. This phrase is still found in the Coptic text of Psalm 95:10 – “Say among the nations: the Lord reigns on the Wood. For He has set up the world which shall not be moved; He will judge peoples with uprightness.”

St Justin Martyr refers to this phrase in his assertion that the unbelieving Jews have removed christological references from the Hebrew Bible. His assertion in this particular case may be discounted, as this phrase does not appear in manuscripts of the Septuagint/Old Greek, nor in Orthodox liturgical texts. (Other phrases he speaks of do in fact remain in our pre-Christian Greek texts of the Psalms – cf. Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, beginning at Ch. 71.)

In any case St Augustine in the fifth century was certainly aware of this line, as he commented on Ps 95:

“Tell it out among the nations, that the Lord Reigns From The Wood: and that it is He who has made the round world so fast that it cannot be moved.”  …Let the whole earth be moved before His face: and do you say, that you are not moved? Tell it out among the heathen, that the Lord has reigned from the wood. Shall men perchance prevail here, and say they reign by wood, because they reign by means of the clubs of their bandits? Reign by the Cross of Christ, if you are to reign by wood. For this wood of yours makes you wooden: the wood of Christ passes you across the sea.

The image of Christ reigning from the tree remained common in medieval Europe at least until the sixth-century bishop Venantius Fortunatus wrote the hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt, one verse of which says “Fullfilled are all things that David sang in true song, saying to the nations that God had reigned from the tree.”

This image of Christ reigning from the wood of the cross is one reason why Eastern Christian images of the crucifixion usually differ from Western ones: Instead of a defeated or dead Victim on the cross, in the East we usually see christ standing upright on the Cross.

Every Friday, when we commemorate the Cross, the prokeimenon in the Liturgy is from Psalm 98: “Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at His footstool, for He is holy. The Lord hath reigned, let the people rage.” The Cross is his footstool, which like all opposing powers, the Father has placed under Christ’s feet. “The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand, until I make thine enemies the footstool of thy feet” (Ps 109:1)

To the Eastern Romans, the cross was primarily known as the sign by which Christian kings were victorious ever since the first Christian emperor was told, “In this sign conquer.” Since the discovery of the wood of the cross, Christians have sung the Kontakion that names the cross an unconquerable trophy that grants victories over enemies. 

Lifted up on the cross of thine own will, to the new nation that bears thy name grant thy mercies, O Christ God; make our faithful kings glad by thy power, granting them victories over their enemies; may they have thy help in battle: a weapon of peace, an invincible trophy. (Kontakion of the Cross, Tone 4)

That word “trophy” is not in common use in our age, especially as our armies no longer have victory parades bearing the treasures looted from enemies.

trophy (n.)
early 15c., trophe, “an overwhelming victory;” 1510s, “a spoil or prize of war,” from Old French trophée (15c.) from Latin trophaeum “a sign of victory, monument,” originally tropaeum, from Greek trópaion “monument of an enemy’s defeat,” noun use of neuter of adjective tropaíos “of defeat, causing a rout,” from tropḗ “a rout,” originally “a turning” (of the enemy).

In ancient Greece, spoils or arms taken in battle and set up on the field and dedicated to a god. Figurative extension to any token or memorial of victory is first recorded 1560s. (Online Etymology Dictionary at Trophy)

What a development! An emblem of humiliation, defeat, and shame becomes a banner of victory casting enemies into fear and confusion.