self denial

Great Lent: The Feast of St. Simon of Cyrene & Cross bearing

So, today is the feast of an obscure saint in the Orthodox Christian calendar, Simon of Cyrene. Anyone who is familiar with the oldest expression of the Christian faith knows that his obscurity is not due to modern-day racism.  Orthodox Christianity acknowledges a plethora of holy men and women from the African continent as well as Europe and the Middle East.  Athanasius & Cyril of Alexandria, Anthony, Macarius, and Moses the Ethiopian with other great Desert Fathers.  St. Mary of Egypt is venerated on April 1st and on the fifth sunday of Great Lent.  Again, the first Orthodox parish I ever visited  is named for the bishop and martyr Cyprian of Carthage.  Simon did carry the cross for our Lord on that fateful day on Calvary.  But, not much else was recorded about him after the Crucifixion (Mark 15:21).

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Because of this act recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), Simon is to be respected and celebrated as an example of how to follow Jesus in His words; “Let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23) Self denial is critical to the Christian life as it allows us to struggle against our passions and draw closer to the Savior.  Simon was compelled to carry the cross.  It can be determined that he saw something compelling about the one that was to be nailed on this tree as the cross-bearer brought up Alexander and Rufus to believe in the Crucified.

We are quick to carry so many other things in our society. Flags of patriotism, clenched fist of protest, electronic devices for communication and entertainment, lucky key chains and keys for our cars and homes, purses and wallets with our earnings, and so many other things in and outside of ourselves.  But these items cannot cleanse our souls and do not require us to turn our lives to holy living.  If anything, we simply add the name “Jesus” and other religious words to such things to make excuses for our sins.  We should not be surprised to find that we still wallow in personal and social problems that we should have overcome by now.  We must carry something that can compel us to change our direction and share this compulsion with others.

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Unlike St. Patrick’s Day, there is no tradition of wearing a particular color to show one’s heritage on this day. We aren’t “required” to give gifts as with the honoring of St. Nicholas.   Nor is there any romantic inclinations similar to St. Valentine.  Perhaps that is a great blessing of an obscure feast day; it is not over commercialized.

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We can best commemorate St. Simon of Cyrene by following what our Lord taught us to do. Let us deny ourselves from our own pleasures and will and take on suffering for the sake of Christ and our fellow-man every day.  Even though we may feel that we are unfairly singled out and made to suffer unjustly, Our Lord submitted Himself to the greatest humiliation for the sake of our salvation and gained the greatest name of all.  In this self-denial and bearing our crosses, God will reveal His compelling love for us.  When we see this under such conditions, we can best share the Gospel by the way we live, even if no one notices us by name.

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Comfort With A Cost

Maybe I’m just odd. But, the same God-Man that said, “Come unto Me and I will give you rest … My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” is the same God-Man that said, “Whoever would come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” I am glad that Russell Wilson is a Christian. But, let us always seek the whole depth of faith and not just settle for inspiring sound bites.

The quote from NFL champion quarterback Russell Wilson is a good one.  There are a lot of people in our nation and the world who are searching for hope, peace in mind, and comfort.  For a man who has worked hard to earn a college degree, practiced well in his chosen field, and performed to the highest level in his sport to acknowledge Jesus Christ rather than boast about his abilities alone is a good thing.  It is my prayer and belief that Russell’s words will encourage someone to seek the solution to his or her problems in the Christian faith.  Indeed, our Lord taught in Matthew 11:29

Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

And, as He taught his disciples in the same Gospel 28:20

… And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age

Indeed, Jesus offers comfort and constant presence to all who trust in him.

I saw this quote on the birthday of one of my heroes in the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Dietrich was a German theologian who’s work is known by many modern philosophers and seminarians.  While teaching at Union Theological in New York, he was offered the chance to immigrate and remain there, or perhaps go to another school.  But, he made the brave decision to return to his homeland and conspire to end the Hitler regime.  Bonhoeffer was discovered,  imprisoned, tortured, and executed not long before the Allies would have been able to free him.

This is also Black History Month and only a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Upon graduating from Boston University, some strongly suggested that he take up the pastorate at an integrated church in San Francisco, or find a large congregation in a Northern city.  But, he made the brave decision to return to the south and struggle against the Jim Crow system.  And though we lionize his memory today, back then blacks as well as whites opposed him at every step until the day he was assassinated in Memphis working on behalf of striking garbage men and planning a Poor People’s (not just a black people’s) Campaign.

While Jesus Christ is the source of comfort for and is constantly present with the believer, these things come with a cost.  And what is the price we must pay?  Again, from our Lord in Matthew 16:24

If any man desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

As shown in the lives of Bonhoeffer, King, and so many other martyrs; Christian faith comes with a price tag.  The most expensive part of that price tag, of course, is repentance from sin.  But the other costly price we are to pay is to be willing to suffer and die for the faith.  No, not every Christian is called to take a bullet or die in a concentration camp.  But, we should and must be prepared to lose ourselves for the greater promise of Christ.  For some of us, it may be close friends and family.  Others may have to lose careers and income.  Still others may have to lose opportunities for advancement in status or fame.  We are all called to bear a cross, an instrument to die a torturous death on.  Your cross may be living in a dangerous inner city community though you have the ability to live elsewhere.  It may be to endure a painful illness and still serve others even as you need to be served.  Or maybe you have the task of spending your whole life aiding people who not only cannot repay you, but act as if they aren’t supposed to.  Each self denial is different as is each cross.  But, to follow Jesus and fully experience His comfort and presence in our lives, this cost must be paid.

As we share the Gospel with others, let us be mindful as much as possible to tell the whole story of what it is to be Christian and not just the more pleasant aspects.  I believe that Russell Wilson does speak more in depth about the faith and that this quote on the photo was just a neat little sound-bite designed to inspire someone to seek hope in Jesus Christ.  We should inspire.  But, we should also inform.