THE MYSTERY OF THE CROSS OF CHRIST IN OUR LIFE
The holy apostles Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the holy Gospel almost identically relate Christ’s edifying words to His disciples: ’’If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his soul will lose it, but whoever loses his soul for Me will find it'' (Matthew 16:24-25; Luke 9:23-24; and Mark 8:34-35). These words, with which the Lord addresses each one of us, in our time are even more current, and will remain to be so until the end of this world and age.
We observe two parts in this teaching. In the first part – when He tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him – the Lord Jesus Christ calls us to pass the three stages of our spiritual development: purification of the heart from passions, illumination of the mind, and deification of the person. Thus, the Godman Christ intentionally puts emphasis on the three stages of spiritual development, for our instruction, otherwise he could have simply said: he that desires to be with Me, let him follow Me! In the second part the Lord reminds us that our soul is ill and bound by the passions, and if we wish to save it, we ought to heal it of them. The second part of the teaching brings to our awareness the importance of the first part. Indeed, if we do not become aware of the fact that we are ill – that is, bound by the passions, by sin, by the demon, and by death – we will never feel the need of a Physician and Saviour of our souls and bodies. People with high opinion of themselves, also they who live in ignorance, happen to become aware of the fact of their captivity only after they have experienced grievous misfortunes and diseases in their life. Let us not be like them!
1. Denial of oneself corresponds with the first stage of spiritual development – purification of the heart from the passions, and extends to the opening of the heart for the mind-and-heart prayer. Denial of oneself implies denial of our ill I, which due to the sinful habit simply identifies itself with its passions: self-indulgence, avarice, and vainglory. It is exactly for this reason that the Lord calls us to deny ourselves – because of our identification with the passions. Moreover, by naming this stage of our spiritual development denial of oneself, the Lord wants to warn us that this struggle is not in the least easy and that we are really to undergo denial of our ill self. It is the passions that defile our heart and hold the Baptismal grace buried and inactive within it. We live as if unbaptised, not knowing the fullness of life and joy of God's grace. Our mind remains unillumined, while the demon, making use of our passions, unhindered leads us from temptation into temptation. Our whole life turns into endless uncertainty, anxiety, insecurity, suffering, and torment. Denial of the ill self is a precondition for a healing union with God. This denial takes place from the moment we have confessed our sins and started living under the guidance of a spiritual father. Only for the love and faith in God, man can deny himself and his passions. The more we fulfil God's commandments, the more we are healed of our passions and the more we love God: ''If you obey My commands, you will remain in My love'' (John 15, 10). The fulfilment of the commandments is ascetical love in practice towards our fellowmen, too, since in that way we are sparing them from being an object or the means of satisfaction of our passions.
2. Taking up, that is, carrying the cross is related with the second stage of spiritual development – illumination, and with the gift of the mind-and-heart prayer. On the one hand, it is a great prayerful feat, that is, love for God; and, on the other hand, because of the people who assault and hate us, it is a great feat of ascetical love towards our enemies, too. At the first stage the demon assaults us from inside, through the passions that hold us captive; whereas, at the second stage the demon cannot assault us from within, since our heart is no longer bound by the passions, and so he attacks us from outside, through people who are his servants. Carrying the cross signifies exactly the love for our enemies as well, in the way that Christ showed us on the Cross: ''Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing'' (Luke 23, 34). The Lord has devised our spiritual perfection so wisely that without the love for them also who do us evil in any way (by evil thought and feelings, by talking against us or by evil deeds), we cannot pass from the second to the third spiritual stage – from illumination to deification. Love for the enemies as well is the ultimate annihilation of all vanity, high opinion, and pride in us.
3. Following Christ, in the real sense of the word, refers to the third stage of spiritual life – deification, when man is freed from the passions and the demon's operation, and gracefully loves all without exception. The rarest gift of God that adorns the highest degree of man's spiritual perfection is the unceasing mind-and-heart prayer for the salvation of the world. A characteristic occurence for this spiritual stage is the so-called rapture of the mind, when, united with God, the mind resides in His glory and light. The prayer of the holy people is the highest creative achievement that man can attain. The prayer of the holy people keeps the world in existence and saves all of us for the Heavenly Kingdom. Such prayer have the Theotokos and the Saints of God.
As we have seen, the Mystery of the Cross of Christ comprises both dimensions at the same time: both the love for God and the love for every man. Or, we can say that the love for the Godman Christ shows that the love for both God and every man is a biune and indivisible love: If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, Whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20); or, ''They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help You?' He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me'' (Matthew 25:44-45). The Godman Christ identifies Himself with every man, and whatever we do to anyone, whether good or evil, the Lord takes it as something done to Him. Therefore in the gospel sense of the word, every man whom God's Providence brings into our life in any manner, is our fellowman! May the Lord prevent us from evil thoughts and feelings, from evil words and evil deeds towards our fellowmen, and in particular, may He prevent us from sin towards them who stand before the Holy Altar and pray for us!
Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica