God’s covenant with ancient Israel: circumcision/election, passover/redemption, sabbath/holiness. These were the most essential parts of the Law, the Torah. Sabbath came first, at creation, but it became canonized at Sinai.
Sabbath was the sign of holiness to ancient Israel – and yet it belongs to all humanity from the 7th day of creation. The cross is the sign of holiness for Christians. They are related.
Jesus died on the cross right before the Sabbath – an especially holy Sabbath, for it was Passover. Jesus rested from his labors on the Sabbath (Holy Saturday) and rose early at dawn after the Sabbath.
Jesus often broke the Sabbath laws – not for disrespect of the Sabbath, but because the Sabbath had become something external, legalistic, and had lost its meaning. It was no longer holy, it was just a law. The same has happened to the cross. We wear it as an external adornment. It no longer has any deeper meaning, it’s just a symbol.
The words Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel (Mark 8:34-9:1) strike us as extreme, and they are.
The Lord said: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Deny ourselves? Sounds harsh and the exact opposite of every message we receive from our society, the media, school, even church. Deny ourselves? What’s wrong with us, that we have to deny ourselves? Deny our inflated ego, deny our arrogance, deny our ingratitude…..
Søren Kierkegaard (in his Papers and Journals) said something truly profound:
When he had created the whole world God looked upon it and saw that it was good; when Christ died on the cross, the words went ‘It is finished’.
A brilliant statement. What began at creation was completed on the cross. Tetelestai, It is finished. The cross of Jesus Christ is God’s final statement, his final act. And what have we done with it? Constantine turned the cross into a weapon, with which he won control of the Roman Empire – and the cross has never been the same since. We don’t have to deny ourselves now, because our religion won the battle long ago, we are the winners – and winners don’t deny themselves. Winners like their ego.
That is why today’s Gospel reading sounds so strange, so extreme, so depressing really! And yet, it’s the good news of liberation. It’s the good news that we can be delivered from the slavery of our over-inflated egos and selfishness, so we can live for each other and share God’s goodness….