Fr. Matthew Thurman was baptized in a mainline Protestant denomination as an adult in 1989 and was Chrismated into the Orthodox Church in 1998. He graduated from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2006 with a Master of Divinity and from the University of Central Arkansas in 1989 with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. Prior to attending seminary, Fr. Matthew worked for the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas for over eight years, first in grant administration, then in information technology, as a certified public manager (CPM). Since 2008, Fr. Matthew has served as the Pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chagrin Falls, OH. He has been married to Kh. Rachel for over ten years and they have two school-age boys.
In mid-September, the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of the Elevation of the Cross. This feast commemorates the re-discovery of the True Cross by St. Helen in Jerusalem in AD 325. In the Gospel reading for the Sunday after the feast, Jesus Christ tells a group of people: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34, NKJV).
This is one of those passages from Scripture that we are probably familiar with, but not necessarily comfortable hearing. We live in a time when the world’s message to us is to pursue our own personal interests. We are to do this to insulate our lives from as much physical, emotional, and spiritual hardship as possible. This is central to the idea of pursuing a “better life” for ourselves.
Christ, however, next tells the group that “a better life” is not the goal. The goal is actually the opposite: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35, NKJV). Our task is not to strive for a “better life” here and now, but rather to prepare for life in the world to come. This work is a journey we are each called upon by Christ to pursue.
How are we to embark upon this journey? We actually began this journey at our baptism. After coming out of the baptismal waters, an infant is given a silver or gold cross on a neck chain. In a very real sense, the newly-baptized is given a cross to carry at that moment.
We may be taken aback at the thought of giving an innocent baby a cross to bear. How can we expect a helpless baby to carry a cross?
This stumbling block highlights another message that we are told by the world: in all things, especially in our spiritual lives, we make the journey utterly, completely on our own. It is the message of “rugged individualism” that we often hear.
Much of what we are told in church unwittingly can reinforce this as well. We can hear that it is up to me alone to say my daily prayers, live a moral life, keep the fasts and feasts of the Church year, and get myself to church for Divine Liturgy each Sunday.
To be sure, Christ’s admonition is personal: He tells the group that each person must deny himself, take up his cross, and individually follow Him. But our Church also clearly states that this task is not done entirely alone.
We even have an example of this in the story of Christ’s own crucifixion. As Christ is carrying His cross to Golgotha, the Roman soldiers compel Simon the Cyrene to help Christ carry His cross.
Looking back at the baptism service, the infant is also given godparents. The baby is not asked to carry the cross on his own; the godparents commit to being a part of that child’s spiritual life, even as the child grows into maturity and adulthood.
Think of all the ways in which we are supported by others within the life of the Church in carrying our own crosses. We have priests who can provide us with wise counsel on how to pray and how to navigate the ethical issues we confront in the world. We can fast knowing that our fellow parishioners are likewise engaged in the fast on some level during fasting seasons. The feasts we clearly celebrate together. Think of the beauty of coming together on Pascha to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection!
Although we are called by Christ to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and to follow Him, we are not called to do this entirely on our own. We travel together as the Church.
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