“He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’
“Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.’ (Luke 9:21-26, New Revised Standard Version)”
Three metal charms swinging at the bend of the chain of a necklace have a way of reminding you they’re there. When you bend, when you stand, when you turn, when you lie down, the weight shifts, the links slither and bunch and catch, and the charms jingle and fall to rest in a dangling cluster, each piece growing more and more acquainted with the others as gravity and time dictate.
For years I wore a necklace with a crucifix that hung between two medallions, one of St. Luke, patron saint of artists, and one of St. Joseph, patron saint of fathers. Every morning before my shower, I would take my towel off the hook, lay it across the toilet seat, take the necklace from around my neck, and hang it from the hook where my towel had been. After showering and brushing my teeth, I would put the necklace on and pray that Christ would give me the strength to bear whatever cross I was given that day. Eventually routine and familiarity with the shifting weigh of the necklace numbed me to its presence. I bore the cross daily, but forgot to take up my cross. I’m familiar with a quote from Andy Warhol (though I don’t have a solid source and can’t really remember the first time I heard it):
“I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.”
That’s exactly what happened with the crucifix and saints I wore. They had been intended as spiritual symbols to remind me of my callings, but they had completely lost their meaning and significance.
Frustrated, I quit wearing them altogether.
This is one of the greatest dangers of following Jesus today. The more we’re exposed to the familiarity of who we think he is, the more likely we are to set up idols to our own understandings of who Jesus was and what he stood for. We have a tendency to settle into our own limited perspective when we should be immersing ourselves in who Jesus is and what he stands for here and now. Should we have a deep knowledge of the Christ of history? Of course we should. But without interpreting history’s relevance now, the stories from the past are just that – stories. Without connecting with the living person of Jesus, we risk becoming like the people at the left hand of the King in Matthew 25:41-46:
“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (NRSV)”
I’ve missed out on so many opportunities to serve the living Jesus, service that comes in serving and pursuing justice and mercy for others. Sometimes it was out of fear, sometimes it was out of selfishness, sometimes it was out of greed or anger or hardheartedness. The ideologies of this Christianity thing can be hard enough, but taking up the devices that will torture, humiliate, and maybe even kill us EVERY DAY? It’s impossible without prayer, study, and our best efforts and maintaining a working relationship with God.
Lent challenges us to refocus and rediscover the true Christ who calls us to return to the path and follow him. In the age of Americanized Christianity, we need real Jesus more than ever. When the deluded demagogues on either side of the aisle hold up their tarnished crucifixes and shout, “LOOK! LOOK HERE! WE HAVE JESUS WITH US! JOIN HIM BY JOINING US!”, but both sides fail to take seriously key things the encounterable Jesus values, it’s essential that we acquaint ourselves with the weight and cost of the crosses we’re called to bear. Its as easy and as infinitely complicated as loving God and loving your neighbor. Know your own heart. Search deeply, prayerfully, knowledgeably for the living Christ, the eternally complex Word in whom we see God most visibly. When you think you’ve found him, get to know him better by searching deeper. He’s been around since before the beginning. The joy of a lifelong love is that you journey deeper and deeper into who that person is. You can know that person for a lifetime and still discover more. That’s the beautiful nature of investing in a relationship. Jesus offers us all an invitation into such a relationship. Answer the call. Chase who he is with all you are.