By H.G. Bishop Serapion – Bishop of Los Angeles and Metropolitan of Southern California and Hawaii.
Our Church celebrates two feasts for the Cross. One is on Parmhat 10th (March 19th), which always falls during Great Lent. The other is on Tout 17th (September 27th), which falls at the end of our celebrations of the The Coptic New Year (The Feast of Nairouz), and this latter Feast of the Cross is celebrated for three days.
Our celebration of the Cross is actually a celebration of Christ’s victory over Satan and conquering both sin and death. Also, in celebrating the Feast of the Cross, we are reminded that we are called to carry the cross. As our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, we also must be crucified; we must have fellowship in the likeness of His death so we may enjoy the blessings of His resurrection, as St. Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)
Our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to carry the Cross. This calling is illustrated in the following sayings of our Lord:”If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matt. 16:24). “And he who does not take his cross, and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matt. 10:38). “And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” (Lk. 14:27) “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” (Lk. 13:24). “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 13-14)
What Does It Mean to Carry the Cross?
1. Carrying the cross is bearing suffering for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Carrying the Cross is partaking in Christ’s suffering. St. Peter considered that bearing suffering for the sake of Christ is the same as partaking in Christ’s sufferings; he wrote, “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.” (1 Pet. 4:12) Those believers, who bear sufferings for the sake of Christ, partake of His sufferings. Therefore, St. Peter called them to rejoice and added, “If you are reproached for the Name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” (1 Pet. 4:14) But St. Peter also warns the believers not to consider all sufferings as a partaking in Christ’s sufferings. The person, who bears suffering as a result of his own mistakes, is not considered to be suffering for the sake of Christ or partaking in His sufferings; he wrote, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.” (1 Pet. 4:15-16)
2. Carrying the Cross in the form of spiritual struggles and self-control. The person, who strives in his spiritual life to control his thoughts and senses, as well as struggle in the ascetic life of prayer, fasting, and prostrations (metanoias), is carrying the cross of spiritual struggle. The early Church, especially in the first few centuries, experienced persecutions and presented thousands of martyrs. Then the life of monasticism appeared and thousands raced to struggle in the ascetic life by living in the wilderness and deserted places, because of their great love for Christ our King. These ascetics, as they struggled in their spiritual life, presented a new and renewed form of martyrdom without shedding of blood.
3. Struggling in the service and seeking the salvation of all souls is another form of carrying the Cross.
4. Enduring with thanks the trials of illness and poverty is yet another form of carrying the Cross.
St. Paul Carrying the Cross:
The life of St. Paul presents to us a unique example of carrying the Cross in all its forms.
1. St. Paul suffered greatly for the sake of Christ. When our Lord called him, He said about him, “For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:16) St. Paul also talked about some of his sufferings when he wrote, “From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of water, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in cold and nakedness.” (2 Cor. 11:24-27) In the end, St. Paul received the crown of martyrdom when he was beheaded during the reign of Nero.
2. St. Paul carried the cross is his spiritual struggles; he wrote, “But I discipline my body, and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:27) Towards the end of his life, he wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.” (2 Tim. 4:7-8)
3. St. Paul also carried the cross of service. He was the great evangelist, who traveled land and sea, preaching the name of Christ in many countries. The Book of Acts mentions many of his journeys, and how he suffered in his missionary work. He said about his own preaching ministry the following, “so that from Jerusalem and round about Illycrium I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.” (Rom. 15:19) St. Paul also carried the cross of pastoral care, when he cared for all the churches he established. His epistles to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Colosse, and Thessalonica witness to this fact. He also said that in addition to bearing sufferings and tribulations for the sake of Christ, “besides the other things, what comes upon me daily, my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?” (2 Cor. 11:28-29)
4. St. Paul carried the cross of illness. He described this cross as “a thorn in the flesh”. He wrote, “And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.” (2 Cor. 12:7) St. Paul pleaded with the Lord to lift this cross from him, but the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9), and he accepted this cross joyfully.
Carrying the Cross with Joy:
It is not sufficient that we carry the cross, but we must follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who carried the Cross with pleasure, as St. Paul wrote, “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2) St. Paul himself endured the cross in all its forms and wrote, “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9-10)
We ask our Lord, Who joyfully carried the Cross for our sakes, to grant us the endurance to carry, with pleasure, the Cross behind Him that we may have fellowship with Him and can say with St. Paul, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” (Phil. 3:10).