Today we arrive at the crux of our Christian Faith: the Cross of our Lord, God and savior Jesus Christ. (Crux is, indeed, the Latin word for Cross). For if we were to eliminate the Cross (as, for example, do the Jehovah's Witnesses, who refer to it as the "torture stake"), then our Faith would be simply one more vain philosophy among the many that have arisen over the course of the ages: serving, perhaps, as a helpful guide for those seeking happiness in this world, but having no power to transform our fallen human natures.
Our Lord Himself shows us the way, though of course He would never impose His will on anyone, having granted to us all the gift (or according to Dostoyevski's Grand Inquisitor, the insupportable burden) of freewill. He merely suggests, if anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross...and follow Me.
So, what it comes down to in the end is that we must deny our selves--which goes radically beyond what we usually think of as "self-denial"--as when we deny ourselves that second piece of chocolate we would so much enjoy. Rather, we are called upon to deny completely each and every claim of that false ego that has supplanted the place of Christ in our hearts. We must, in a very real sense, cease to exist (which is what my fictional character Angel finally succeeds in doing in my novel Many Mansions).
Because it is only when we cease to exist as self-centered egos that we are truly free to follow Christ and Him alone, to joyfully take up our own cross of sacrificial love and suffering and to follow Him. Only then can we say with the holy apostle St. Paul, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ liveth in me," because it is the Cross that crosses out the I, so that henceforth we live not for ourselves, but for Christ alone, serving His image revealed to us in our neighbor.
The fact is, the more we strive to save our self-centered lives in this fallen world, the more we shall lose our true identity in God. Only if we are willing to take the plunge--to set aside our false egos that we might immerse ourselves totally in the love of God--only then shall we be granted the gift of eternal life in His heavenly Kingdom. This, indeed, is the ultimate sacrifice, and every fiber of our fallen selves will rise up in protest if we choose this path. But if we persevere unto the end, the grace of God will surely sustain us, and we shall discover that the yoke of Christ is indeed easy and His burden light.
The miracle working Kursk Root icon will be visiting this parish (the Nativity of St. John the Baptist in Blue River, WI) on the Monday of Holy Week. Further details will be forthcoming.