To Take Up Your Cross, or to Wash Your Hands of It?

A Conversation About the Gospel with Priest Alexei Uminsky, published by the “Nikeya” publishing house in 2011.
It is very difficult to speak about the sufferings of Christ on the Cross… There is a wonderful hymn in our Church, chanted on Great Saturday:
“Let all mortal flesh keep silence and stand with fear and trembling. Ponder nothing earthly minded. The Kings of kings and Lord of Lords has come to give Himself as a sacrifice and give His own self for food to all the faithful.”
When one rereads the pages of the New Testament devoted to the Savior’s Crucifixion, or when one attends church during Holy Week, the events described by the Evangelists come before one’s mind’s eye. Here is Christ remaining silent before Pilate: for the Truth did not have any need of demonstration, the Truth did not need any excuses, the Truth could only reveal Itself and provide people with the opportunity to accept or refuse It.
But Pontius Pilate, who had the power cruelly to execute this Man or, on the contrary, to let Him go in peace, knew better than anybody that absolute Truth does not exist, because he was a Roman, because he was a cynic, and because he was a pragmatist. Pilate looked at everything from the outside, considering everything to be relative. He was amazed that Christ – through His silence, through His non-resistance, in His helplessness – revealed Himself to be absolute Truth.
Pilate faced a most important question: what should he do now with this Truth? Should he accept It and leave everything he had acquired, all his power and the considerable benefits that came with it, irreversibly ruining his brilliant career? Or should he keep what he had achieved, but all the while passing by the Truth and depriving himself of any meaning for his own life?
At that moment, Pilate stood at the crossroads, just like Herod, who could have saved John the Baptist, but did not. Pilate faced the same situation as did Judas, whose conscience pricked him, not granting him the opportunity to reconcile himself to his own betrayal.
The fate of the world and our salvation depended precisely on Pilate. He held power that was given to him by God. In the Gospel of John, Christ said in this respect:
“Thou could have no power at all against Me, except it were given thee from above” (John 19:11).
Pilate felt that and was amazed. He faced a helpless and beaten Prisoner, and he did not want to murder this Prisoner. He actually wanted to give Him freedom, but meanwhile he wanted to keep everything he had gained for many years; in other words, he wished to reconcile the irreconciliable, a wish so typical of all of us. When the Lord calls us to follow Him, we should be aware of the fact that the fulfillment of this calling will definitely require our refusal of something.
Pilate faced a truly terrible choice: in order to follow his conscience, he had to deny himself and his entire previous life. In that case, he would perhaps have become one of the Apostles and probably taken the place of the fallen Judas. But it is impossible to serve two masters simultaneously.
Pilate wished to let the King of the Jews go wherever He chose, but the people continued to behave violently and cry: “Free Barabbas at the Passover!” Barabbas appeared to be a folk hero: he was among the rebels who organized an uprising against the Roman authorities, against the annoying invaders. During the uprising, people died and Barabbas was sentenced to death.
Pilate was unable to act against his beliefs. He washed his hands in a demonstrative way, stressing that he was innocent of the blood of this Just Man. However, the symbolic gesture remained a mere gesture. “I am washing my hands of it!” is a phrase we ourselves often use, trying to lie to and comfort our uneasy conscience…
After a severe beating and humiliation, Jesus was could no longer carry His own Cross, collapsing under its weight. A person comes to help Him, whom we only know as the father of Alexander and Rufus, a certain Simon the Cyrene. He was the one who took up the Lord’s Cross. That man in reality had heard God’s calling:
“Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34).
Later, we see the names of Alexander and Rufus when we read the Acts of the Holy Apostles and the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Romans. According to Church tradition, they became followers of Christ. That means that Simon bore the Cross for a reason; it signifies that it was no accident he appeared near Christ; it means that this meeting dramatically changed his life.
In any case, a meeting with the Lord means a change of life for each one of us. Although the way our life will change depends on us alone! Frightful words were heard from the Cross:
“And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34).
Only a few women – the Most Holy Theotokos, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Cleophas – stood near Him. His most beloved disciple, the future Evangelist John the Theologian, wept tears, but the other Apostles had run away, each his own way. But this betrayal was nothing compared to the loneliness that He suffered, having accepted all the sins of the world together with their consequences, the most terrible of which is man’s Godforsakenness.
Sometimes people who happen to be in difficult situations in life, or those who see the triumph of evil everywhere, fall into despair and rebuke God, saying: “Where were You when the Nazis used their gas chambers in their camps? Where were You when the tragedies occurred in Beslan and in Dubrovka?”
But Christ’s words put everything in its place. At that moment, the Lord was at the most terrible places, including Kolyma, Auschwitz, and Katyn.
There is no state of human despair that the Lord did not experience on the Cross: further evidence of this comes from an examination of the Shroud of Turin. That is why a person who cries out to Him from the depth of his sorrow will always be heard by Him, if he accepts his sufferings as the path to Christ: not as a dead end, but as a door, behind which alone he can find God. The person will find Him, if he calls upon Him from the bottom of his heart.
Anytime we are in despair and say: “My God! My God! Why has Thou forsaken me?” the Lord replies: “You are My beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. I am near you,” because the true Son of God underwent all human sufferings. There is no such terror and no such state of despair that Christ did not experience on the Cross.
The Gospel says:
“And they gave Him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but He received it not” (Mark 15:23).
Sometimes Roman soldiers did this out of mercy towards those who were crucified. Wine mingled with myrrh sent a person into a twilight sleep, a narcosis. But Christ did not accept this mercy, in order to experience the fullness of suffering.
“And they crucified Him. And the superscription of His accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS. And with Him they crucify two thieves; the one on His right
hand, and the other on His left. And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And He was numbered with the transgressors” (Mark 15:25-28).
The Crucifixion put everything in its place. Joseph of Arimathea was not an Apostle. Moreover, he was a member of the council that participated in making the decision to execute Jesus, although the Gospel says that Joseph also waited for the kingdom of God (Mark 15:43). He heard the Lord and believed in Him in secret.
At the most frightening moment, that person openly called himself a disciple of Christ. He, unlike Pilate, decidedly renounced his previous life and went to the governor and asked him to give him the Body of the crucified Christ. Joseph sacrificed his burial vault situated near Golgotha, covered the expenses for organizing the burial, and brought an expensive shroud and myrrh.
He takes the place of the run-away Apostles, along with the women, who also showed extraordinary courage. They loved their Teacher and trusted Him wholeheartedly.
Here we can see a most important characteristic of faith, which is called fidelity, when it seemed there was nothing left to believe in, because the hope of all people was being destroyed right in front of their eyes when Christ was crucified and buried. All people’s hope for the kingship of the Messiah, all their faith in His teaching, seemed to end with His death. What else could be done for Him? It appears that fidelity can be preserved until the end.
Dostoyevsky wrote that even if somebody could prove to him that the truth was not with Christ, he would still stay with Him, and not with the truth.
The Crucifixion was to have demonstrated to everyone that Christ had suffered defeat, to have proven that He was not God, that He did not manage to defeat His enemies, that He did not come down from the Cross, when the people shouted: “Ah, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days! Save Thyself, and come down from the cross” (Mark 15: 29-30). It seemed that the truth that was associated with power and authority was not with Christ. It meant that He was not all-powerful, it meant that He had no power, and that meant there was no Gospel, no truth.
People even now try to persuade themselves that acting according to the Gospel is impossible, because in that case one cannot gain anything, but only lose. Therefore, the Gospel is false. It means that there are some other truths.
So who are we with: are we with these mercantile “truths” or are we still with Christ? This question is relevant to each of us in the same way that it was relevant to Pontius Pilate, Simon of Cyrene, Joseph of Arimathea, Judas Iscariot, and King Herod.
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