The gospel lectionary reading for Lent 2 in Year B is Mark 8.31-38, Jesus’ call on all those who would follow him to ‘take up their cross’ and walk the path that he did. This includes one of the first verses I learnt by heart as a new Christian (Mark 8.34), but it is also the subject of much misunderstanding. On the one hand, the phrase ‘to take up one’s cross’ or ‘bear a cross’ has in common parlance been detached from the question of following Jesus and is now used to mean ‘carry any burden in life’. On the other hand, some traditions of Christian reading suggest that we are saved by suffering as in this Russian orthodox post:
Following Christ does not necessarily mean more happiness or less suffering. In Christ, any happiness and suffering we experience will find its fulfillment. We can share our joy with those around us, especially those who are suffering, in this way co-suffering with them. And when we suffer, we can let others co-suffer with us.
We should take comfort in the fact that Christ saved us by suffering for us. Suffering is salvific.
We need to look carefully at what Jesus is saying here, in the context of the narrative of this section and the whole gospel.
The opening of our passage ‘And he began to teach them…’ shows both how this passage is connected with what has gone before, but also how it marks a decisive change of direction. We have just had the climactic centrepiece of the gospel narrative, where, after many false starts and much misunderstanding, the disciples in the person of Peter have finally realised who Jesus is: ‘You are the Christ’. But this has come after the two feeding events, two lots of teaching, and the double healing of the blind man (‘I see men like trees walking’, Mark 8.24) shows that the disciples will need more help to understand the truth of the matter.
We saw in last week’s reading from Mark 1 that, from the beginning, there are mixed indications of Jesus’ exaltation and his humility. He is the beloved Son, but this sonship means obedience to the Spirit, and will ultimately lead to the obedience of a sacrificial death. But so far this has been a muted undertone of the narrative, and the main theme has been the dynamic power of Jesus’ ministry. But now, Jesus begins to teach them about his coming suffering and death, and this takes over as the major theme in the gospel symphony.