Texts: Mark 8:27-36 (“take up your cross”) * “A Deeper Awareness” by Cynthia Bourgeault
Church, for me, is a serious business; and no church season is more serious than Lent. It is six weeks in which we confront the fragility of life and the dangers of upholding sacred values. Since I returned to church twenty years ago, Lent has spoken more strongly to me than any other part of the year.
On this first Sunday in Lent, Jesus is preparing to leave Galilee and begin his journey to Jerusalem. The passage we heard is the first one in which Jesus is called the Christ, the first time Jesus tells the crowd he will be betrayed and killed, and the first time he calls us to take up our cross and follow him to his fate.
For the past 1,000 years, most churches have buried this stark message under a teaching called “substitutionary atonement.” It states that Jesus dies for our sins. But Jesus calls us to take up our own cross and die along with him. This implies that no substitutes are allowed.
By the end of childhood most of us know that everything is mortal – all animals and plants, all humans, all institutions, all empires, and, most importantly, ourselves. As Bob Dylan put it in his 1964 song “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” “those not busy being born are busy dying.”
In today’s first reading, Cynthia Bourgeault discusses what it means to “lose one’s life in order to save it.” She says that letting go of the ego sometimes help us grasp a truer identity, which she calls the capital “S” Self. Our egos are illusions while it is our unity with the cosmos, the web of life, and all of humanity that is real.
Bourgeault offers meditation as a way to confront ego. But life’s ups and downs can also do the trick. With Grace, we sometimes experience loss as an occasion to take up our cross and join Jesus on a path of death and resurrection.
This is a serious message; and sometimes serious is the best option.
A few weeks ago, a columnist in the National Post described Canada as an unserious country especially in how it has struggled to confront the challenge of COVID-19; and I found myself agreeing.
One example is how Canada has secured its borders. Starting tomorrow, people coming into Canada by air are required to have pre-booked a three-day stay in a designated quarantine hotel.
I am glad this action is being taken; but I am also aware that countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, and New Zealand have required mandatory quarantine in a hotel for people crossing their borders for almost a year now. They have also suffered a tiny fraction of the deaths due to COVID-19 compared to Canada; and have lived free of pandemic restrictions other than those at the border for most of that time.
A serious problem often calls for a serious response; and then, with luck, life in all of its colours can resume.
This week, I came across the following saying by the folk singer Arlo Guthrie: “You need two things to get by in this world: a sense of humor and the ability to laugh when your ego is destroyed.”
Jesus can be quite serious as in today’s reading, but he is hardly without humor. The gospels show him enjoying life with so-called sinners and using humour in his parables. He also models for us how to accept mortality with kind-heartedness and joy as in so many of the stories along the road.
The inevitable losses of life mean that we might hear the call to take up our cross many times. With Grace, we respond to some of them. By following Jesus to Jerusalem, with a cross over our shoulders and with an awareness that a fate similar to his awaits us, we lay aside ordinary fears and desires. We give ourselves a chance to joyously grow into a deeper aliveness in which Love is all and Love is everything.
This Lent as we take on the serious business of the journey to Jerusalem, may we take up our cross and discover it to be the most liberating burden we have ever shouldered.
May it be so. Amen.