Life is permeated with suffering. This is not to say we have no joy, no happiness in our lives, for we certainly do. But it is important to remember that along with all the good, along with all the things which help make life worthwhile, we experience all the bad things of life. We get sick. Relationships break down. Loved ones die in front of us. Even if such things happen outside our control, much of what we suffer comes, in part, from what we have done. That is, by our actions, we establish many of the conditions which follow, making the rest of our lives full of suffering.
There is always something we want which we do not have, or something which we have which we do not want, or both. Since we do not have what we want, and we have what we do not want, we grieve. When we face such grief for a long time, we find ourselves exhausted. Perhaps, we even grow tired of life itself. This is not to say we want to die. We still want to live, and this is because of all the good which we have experienced shows us life could be so much better and we wish to live on to experience all that good. It is just that we all the pain and sorrow we experience can make it difficult for us to push on. When we find reasons to hope, the fight for life becomes easier. It is for this reason the cross is lifted up and presented to us; it shows us that that there is indeed a way out of all the suffering, for it points to the fact that all our suffering will come to a climax… and then once that climax has been reached, we can attain something greater, life without suffering, the glorified life which we desire. This is the life which is shown to us in the resurrection of Christ, the life which we can experience if we integrate ourselves to Christ and his work on the cross.
When we lift up the cross, when we look upon it, we should not only contemplate what it was used for in the past but how it also presents to us the path we need to experience the glory of the kingdom of God. We can anticipate that glory, at least in part, if we embrace the cross and die to the self. That is, we must cast from ourselves, those thoughts and deeds which lead us to create conditions which produce unnecessary suffering.
The cross presents to us hope. It is like a soothing balm, helping us find relief in our soul, so that even if we suffer, we will suffer less because of our embrace of it. Such hope can help us bear the burdens of our life, but it can also do more – with that hope, we can find our mind and body also healed, because the body is often influenced by mental and spiritual states. That is, our mind has great power over our body, able to promote its healing, sometimes in seemingly miraculous ways. With our mind focused on the cross and the hope it brings, it should not be surprising that not only will we find our body healing that much quicker, we will be able to experience the burdens of life better, as they will not be able to drag us down into the pit of despair, causing everything to seem worse than they actually are.
In Constantinople, August used to be initiated with a procession of relics taken from the holy cross throughout the city; this was done with the hope that those who saw the pieces of the cross could look upon them with hope and be healed. Even without the actual relics of the cross, the feast is celebrated throughout the Byzantine tradition; the cross is lifted up to remind us of what Jesus has done for us and the glory is to come, so that we, looking up at representations of the cross, can hopefully experience some healing in our soul, mind, and body, due to the way we engage the cross and let its grace radiate through us. Even if such effects are short lived, they help us realize, in anticipation, the glory which is to come in our resurrection.
Thus, if we take up the cross for ourselves, we find our life is full of meaning. We can find ourselves being so filled with so much hope that even with all the suffering we experience, we will realize life is good and worth fighting for. We can even experience some of the glory which is meant for us in eternity. But by doing so, we also find ourselves living under the sign of death, making us, like Paul, living as if under the sentence of death:
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things (1 Cor. 4:9-13 RSV).
Embracing the cross helps us transcend the temporal world and all its artificial glory. We know everything in it will perish. Everything in the world is transitory. Trying to hold onto that which will shift and change will only make us suffer when we lose that which we desire. We must learn to let go. Even if this should make us appear to others as being laughingstocks, fools who know nothing about the way of the world, the reality is the reverse. We know the way of the world – we understand its limitations and follies and so do not attach ourselves to that which is passing away – we embrace the cross, we present it to the world, we lift it up as a sign of our way of life. We die to the self and its attempt to hold onto transitory things. We do this so that we can truly experience and receive the glory of the kingdom of God, the glory which knows no end. But this does not mean the kingdom of God does not reach down into the world – it does, for the kingdom of God is within. It is this connection to the world which allows the world to be taken up into the kingdom and transformed into glory, even as it is this connection which allows us to take up the cross and use it to receive a share of that glory in our lives today, giving us the hope and joy which allows us to truly transcend the world and all its suffering without leaving it behind.
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