“Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
This passage occupies a giant place in the Christian spiritual tradition. Its implications in monastic circles, Christian ascetic practices, and social movements are obvious. But there is also something theological at stake here, on which I would like to reflect, in conversation with the thought of Fr. Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), the 20th century’s foremost Eastern Orthodox theologian, who ended his long and illustrious career as a Visiting Professor of Church History at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 70s.
Fr. Georges was a powerful and prolific voice within Eastern Orthodox and ecumenical circles. He was particularly concerned, as he put it in an unpublished manuscript, “to explain the full meaning of the Cross, or Death and Calvary, in the context of the Incarnation, as being a new Revelation of Divine Life in the fallen world—to show why and to what purpose the Life Everlasting is revealed and even conferred to us through death,” (cf. Luke 24:26).
Within this larger context, our particular passage from the Gospel of Mark reveals that Christ’s redemptive work is not merely historical, i.e. not only something that has been accomplished in a distant past. Rather, redemption is a continuous—even eschatological—reality, unfolding through history unto the present day. In fact, it continues into the future, as the full scope of God’s economy has yet to be revealed.
That’s where we come in. We have a role to play in the history of salvation. As Flovorsky put it, “being essentially historical, Christianity is, by that very reason, a personal religion. We, Christians, do not believe in ideas, but in a Person.” And that Person reveals a new way of being. Again, Florovsky:
Christ’s life itself—the life of the Suffering Servant, in lowliness and humiliation sets a new pattern and a new norm. It is the pattern of the New Kingdom. In this sense, an Imitatio Christi is required and it has a redemptive significance. Actually, there is more than a pattern or just an example to be followed. Christians are summoned not only “to follow” Christ, but to be in Christo.
Our calling to follow Christ, in other words, transcends moral or pedagogical concerns. It demands and produces an ontological change, an entry into a New Community. And our entry into this community is not a mere matter of individual choice, but rather part of God’s larger redemptive plan. Christ’s work on the Cross continues in each member of his body, the Church.
With this great purpose in mind, it’s time to embrace our own cross in faith, trusting that a sign of humiliation can become a thing of glory.
Seraphim Danckaert, Assistant Director of Congregational Programs & Assistant Director for Strategy, School of Christian Vocation and Mission