In a very fortuitous way, the Epistle to the Galatians, chapter 2, read on the Sunday after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, is complemented by the gospel of the day, from St Mark, chapter 8. Saint Paul says to the Galatians, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2.16).
It is not the law or the works of the law, though not easy to fulfill, that saves us but faith in the Savior. Let us relate these to the first verse of today’s gospel: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8.34). The primary condition is self-denial. Implicitly, if we corroborate it with the epistle, we ought to renounce what we believe is right or should be done, akin to the Jews and their works of the law. They thought if they did all those works, they would be saved, but it was not the case. We do the same. On our way to God, we make our own path, or we hold on to certain things. A great contemporary father, Aimilianos the Simonopetrite, commenting on a text from the Philokalia, said, “You want to go to in the desert, to do asceticism and this and that, but what does God want? Is this what He wills? You didn’t ask yourself that.”
We take it for granted that what we believe is good and God wills it. Well, no, that is now how it works. Both the apostle and the Savior tell us the same thing, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself…” The first requirement is self-denial, denying our righteousness, our way of seeing things, so that we may accept what Christ means for us.
Let us continue with the epistle. Toward the end, St Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (2.20), so that we may see what faith in Jesus Christ means. So then, what saves us?! Faith in Christ! And what does this faith mean?! Believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God incarnate, who came to tell me something. Therefore, I believe in everything He said and did. Well, what did He do? We know what He said because we read it in the Holy Gospel, and we must fulfill it. This belief in Him entails not only believing in what He said, but also putting it into practice. Everything He said was to engage us, to transform us. So, when I say that I believe in Christ, I believe in everything He said and did. This is faith! And we see how St Paul lived his faith, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I live now in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (2.20). This is what we mean when we say, “I believe in Christ. I believe in everything He said and did. “
And now let us return to the gospel, where the Savior talks about this particular aspect when He says, “Whoever desires to come after Me.” So whoever believes in Me and wants to imitate Me must “deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” Let us connect the two: Whoever believes in Christ takes up his cross. Faith is connected to the cross, and not just in name only. My faith shows if I carry my cross. St Isaac the Syrian and all the saints also say that the Christian’s way to salvation is the daily cross. And according to Father Arsenie, “The cross means bearing that which you do not favor.” This is how I show my faith every day.
“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” is the equivalent of “whoever wants to be saved because there is no other way but He.” If you want to be saved—in other words, get rid of death, of sin—you must follow Me; and to follow Me, you must take up your cross. It’s not easy, the Savior knows it. But He explains a little later, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it,” meaning we flee from the cross, we flee from fasting, from spiritual striving, from asceticism, because we are afraid we will die and we do not like to die. We run away from the cross, but He says if we run from it, we lose our souls. When we try to escape, to live well, to live happily, we lose our soul. The Savior tells us, “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. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8.35–38).
The Savior begins with an invitation, “Whoever desires to come after Me,” but then tells us this is the only way. And if we do not do it, we will be ashamed when all things are revealed before the Heavenly Father and the angels. There is no other way but He. And this is also linked to St Paul’s words. “Neither the works of the law nor anything human justifies you. Nothing. Only Christ and faith in Him.” Only faith understood as working faith. I believe in His words and what He has done for me, and I follow Him. This is how my faith is shown—if I follow Christ and I carry my cross every day.
The Savior says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14.6), as the answer to a question from the apostles. Today He told us, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” This is the way. And if I am on the right path, I am with Him because He is the Way. Father Arsenie Papacioc said that “once you have set out on the way that leads to Jerusalem—that is, on the right path—your heart feels as if it has already arrived.” Why? Because if you are on the right way, you are with Christ, who is the Way. He is on the way alongside us. The heart feels Him and feels as if it has already arrived. It has not yet, but it will. This makes our path beautiful and easy—the fact that we are always with the Savior, who is with us and teaches us and strengthens us to follow Him. And not from far away, but side by side, shoulder to shoulder with us.
Whatever man does in this life will be hard, with suffering, with sorrow, with pain, with difficulty But difficulty for the Savior’s sake beautifies us, enlivens us, widens us, grows us. Being with Him is a life-giving struggle. Otherwise, we still suffer, but unto darkness. For sinning is not that easy either. It still torments us, but it is a torment that bears no fruit; on the contrary, it lessens you. The good news is that Christ didn’t tell us, “Do this and see you later.” No, He said, “Do this, and if you do it, I am with you.” He is the Way.
Christ brought us this way—there is no other. It is the cross. By following it, we find Him and we reach our goal. That is the beauty of our faith. And there is no other way. If there were, God would show it to us. And even though it is paradoxical, and it might not seem like a path, it is the path. And it is the key to the kingdom; it opens everything. May God help us to be strong in our faith and to be determined to follow Christ, and thus have Him as our traveling companion on the path of salvation.