The third week of the Great Lent is called the Week of the Veneration of the Holy Cross. We venerate the Holy Cross of the Lord and kneel before it throughout the week. Why did the Fathers institute the veneration of the Holy Cross in the middle of the Lent, and what do the Lord’s words “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34) mean?
Many Church Fathers understood the commandment to take up one’s cross and follow the Teacher literally, especially in the first centuries of Christianity. That’s natural because the Church was going through hard times of persecution. Almost all apostles really suffered martyrdom, and many of them were crucified, too. The spirit of martyrdom permeated the whole Church. The very declaration of your Christian faith could get you executed. Tertullian writes that taking up your cross means taking up “all hardships and sorrows, or your own body, which has the shape of the cross.” (On Idolatry, C1. 0023, 43.13). We know that Tertullian promoted extreme asceticism with regard to flesh. The quotation above may already hint at his extreme view on the human body, which has to be crucified for the sake of spiritual advancement.
Irenaeus of Lyons was a martyr for Christ and he also interpreted the Lord’s words literally: “For these things Christ spoke openly, He being Himself the Savior of those who should be delivered over to death for their confession of Him, and lose their lives.” (Against Heresies, 3.18.4).
Although Saint Gregory Palamas lived much later than the ancient apologists, his time was no less dangerous for the Church because the Turks had already conquered large swaths of the Byzantine Empire. That was why he also interpreted the taking up of one’s cross as an opportunity to suffer for Christ. The bishop of Thessalonica writes that whosoever wants to follow Him must deny himself, take up his cross and not spare himself any longer if time comes but to be ready for a shameful death for the sake of virtue and truth of divine doctrines (Homily 11).
Cross as the tool for crucifixion of the old self has traditionally had an important place in the patristic writings. When the persecution was over and the Roman government adopted Christianity as the officially recognized religion, the level of piety within the Church rapidly deteriorated due to a massive influx of those who were Christians in name only. It was no longer possible to be persecuted for Christ’s sake. That was why the Church came up with a new way of carrying one’s cross, i.e., monasticism. Ascetics started to withdraw into the deserts where they could lead a truly ascetic life of celibacy, voluntary poverty, and obedience. This kind of asceticism also counts as martyrdom because the monk totally surrenders his will and mortifies his old self for Christ’s sake.
Saint Barsanuphius the Great teaches us, “What did Peter abandon if he wasn’t rich? What was he proud of, if not of his relinquishing his natural desires? For, if one doesn’t die for the flesh and remain alive in the spirit, his soul won’t be able to get resurrected. A dead person does not have any natural desires at all; neither does a person who died spiritually for his flesh.” (Manual of Spiritual Life: Answers to Disciples’ Questions. Question 59). St. Macarius of Egypt seconds that, “We mustn’t understand those words as if we have to hang ourselves on a cross and thus follow the Lord; <…> A monastic must crucify his desires with regard to earthly things so as not to be attached to them; he must also crucify his mind in prayer all the time so as not to be negligent of his salvation.” (Selected Manuscripts, type II. Homily 56).
St. Theophan the Recluse sums up the monastic tradition of carrying the cross: “You cannot follow the cross-carrying Lord without a cross. Everyone who comes after him must inevitably carry their crosses. What is that cross like? It consists of discomforts, burdens, and sorrows that beset us from the outside and from the inside as we tread the path of scrupulous fulfillment of the Lord commandments in conformity with the spirit of his instructions and requirements.” It must be underlined that many Christians are unable to achieve the ideal of monastic living. Not every Christian is called to spend his or her life in a monastery. However, every lay person regardless of whether he is a monk or has a spouse must obey the Lord’s commandments, fight his passions and do his best to acquire the Holy Spirit in the course of his life. The main prerequisite of Christian holiness is love of God and of one’s neighbor, which all Christians are called to.
Finally, the third aspect of carrying one’s cross that Holy Fathers emphasize is love and sympathy for other people. The Lord once said, And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold (Matthew 24:12). That is why the Church Fathers urge us at least to learn to love our neighbors, for love is the core of all Christian virtues. This is what Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh writes about it, “He doesn’t tell us any longer: Go straight to Golgotha. He is risen and victorious, so He tells us, ‘Don’t be afraid. Pick up your life’s cross and follow Me because I have gone all the way down this path, I’ve made it smoother for you, I’ve tested it for you.’ If we want to give someone a gift of love, we can do so only by giving away our own life. When I say ‘giving away’ it doesn’t mean that we have to die physically; it means that we have to be aware that we are God’s messengers and that we must spend up or give away our ego and everything we have to every hungry and needy person. I’m not talking here exclusively about material gifts but about all kinds of things that we can give to others, e.g., the knowledge of God’s truth; God’s love; hope where there isn’t any hope; and joy where there isn’t any joy.”