Take Up Your Cross Daily

An article from Catholic News Service yesterday reports on the Pope's call for public and private displays of the Crucifix. The Cross, he said, is an external symbol of God's presence among us and of humanity's shared God-given dignity. We are imagines Dei, images of God, and external signs of what is inwardly true have always been a part of our Christian experience, from the Incarnation itself, to the Sacraments, to the sacramentals.

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about what it means to be an imago Dei, and this report brings into high relief some of the issues that have been on my mind. In particular, it prompts me to think again about the Synoptic passage telling the Christian disciple to take up his cross and follow Jesus. In Matthew the text is:
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
When I first encountered this verse, before my conversion to Christianity, I was perplexed, wondering whether an expression about taking up one's cross would have meant anything to those listening. Crucifixions, prior to that of Jesus of Nazareth, were viewed rather differently in antiquity--it was a degrading, humiliating form of punishment used on criminals who were themselves viewed, very often, as the dregs of society. A more sympathetic reading would put the expression into the context of the martyrdoms of the 1st century Church. But Luke (9.23) adds the word "daily" to the expression, giving it a more metaphysical meaning: it refers to our daily struggle to be Christlike in a world where doing what Christ did, in the spirit in which he did it, can be something of a challenge.

For me, the key to the passage, and the connection to the call to be imagines Dei, lies in the phrase "let him deny himself". This, I take it, is not merely advice to give up meat on Fridays or put aside some other favorite treat in order to make almsgiving easier or even as a form of mortification, but rather it is the bold directive to deny your very selfhood, your own essence, as it were, emptying yourself of your own will so as to allow yourself to be more perfectly conformed to the will of God. There is a text used at Vespers on Sundays from Philippians 2.7 that reads, in Latin, semetipsum exinanivit, formam servi accipiens (he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant). I quote the Latin because the word exinanivit seems to me to capture perfectly what this calling to denial of self is all about. The latin word does not exactly reflect the Greek text, which reads heauton ekenôsen. The Greek could reasonably be translated as "emptied", as the Revised Standard Version that I quoted has it. But the Latin word exinanivit has in it the prefix ex, meaning "out", "out of", the preposition in, meaning "in", and the root ani-, from anima, "soul". The Latin word thus means something along the lines of "he cast out from himself the very soul that was in him". That's a good deal more than is in the Greek original, but surely it captures the essence of what Jesus did: he cast off his own essence, his own selfhood, in order to be something else, namely, an image of his Father (imago Patris). He remains fully a man, of course, fully Jesus of Nazareth--he did not cast off his essence in a literal way. But he was also fully God, fully the Christ, insofar as his essence became one with the Second Person of the Trinity. He was no longer merely Jesus of Nazareth, but was two natures in one person, two natures that were in perfect accord.

That is what we are called to, I think. We cannot cease to be human, of course, but we can put off our human desires and give our very selves up to God's will so as to be imagines Dei. And that will involve taking up a cross, because of course we will continue to be weak, we will continue to have human desires and human wills, and we will continue to be tempted by the lower things that are attractive to our human nature. But we must bear those temptations as Christ bore the cross. In fact, we should be grateful, I would say, that we have such crosses to bear, because in bearing them we deny ourselves the temptations that those crosses stand for. Perhaps I am an alcoholic, and every day I ask myself, How will I get through this day without a drink? When I give up the actual drink in the face of the desire for the drink, and intentionally offer up my suffering as an attempt to carry that cross, to atone for my sins and the sins of others, I do what Christ did. Perhaps I am tempted sexually; I should not scorn my own physical nature, or curse the pleasures that tempt me--pleasure is inherently a good thing. But I can bear the temptation to pleasure as Christ bore his cross, refusing to give in to the temptation to put my cross down by giving in to the desire for pleasure, and confining myself to only those pleasures that are rightly realized within God's law. In living life in this way, we live life as Christ called us to live it; we live it as he lived it, and thus we are images of him--in this way we are the Body of Christ.

Surely the Pope is correct that the public display of Christ's Cross will remind us of our own. That is what we share in our common human dignity: an ability to carry the cross that is ours to bear, if we trust in God's grace.

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