Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Recently the Church celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. It comes at a time when I am especially, profoundly aware of the crippling chains of my own ego, and have been crying out for freedom. I’m not just talking about that aspect of ego that puffs itself up and thinks better of itself than others, but that more subtle sort of pride, the kind that relentlessly accuses you of your own shortcomings. This is the aspect of ego that goes over every word I’ve said, whether it was an hour ago or a year ago, and sighs with embarrassment or cringes with concern about how I’ve been perceived.
It’s a grotesque imitation of humility, and it can be almost comedic in its bloated self-concern. I read the work of a talented writer, and suddenly my own writing seems juvenile and insipid. “I should probably just stop trying,” I think to myself. I think of how I acted when I was with someone I admire, and I cringe. My attempts to be seen as a peer to this person just made me feel like a needy little schoolboy. I think of the clever comment I tried to make with someone online, and shudder at how stupid it ended up sounding.
It’s bad enough that so much time is wasted in these attempts to be seen in a certain way, but how much more of myself is wasted in the miserable reviewing of these failures? So I pray for God to deliver me from this flesh, and soon I realize that the only means of deliverance is a cross. My ego will not simply melt away by accident or erode over time. It can only be actively put to death. And this in an age of social media, where self-obsession is not only encouraged, but rewarded. Lord have mercy! If I try to rid myself of this ego on my own, I only circle around my mistakes in an ongoing spiral of regret. I need to take my eyes off myself if I hope to be free. I need to look to an example.
So at last, I look to the humility of God.
Christ Jesus, the eternally begotten Son, born of the Father before all ages, who was and is and is to come, Creator of earth and sky and the trillions of galaxies beyond our reckoning, became what he himself had created. Infinite God, and I mean Infinite God, stepped into finite flesh. Eternal Son, who existed before time, set foot on temporal earth. Not only that, but he chose to come in just the same way as the rest of us arrive here: in the beautiful mess of birth. Not only that, but he was born in the most humiliating circumstances possible, in poverty.
Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself completely.
That would have been enough, but he went further still. He subjected himself to death. And death in itself would have been enough, even if he had lived a thousand years. But he went further still. He subjected himself to humiliation. After all that God had done to try to show himself to us in the stories of the Old Testament, in his attempts to show himself to a particular people, he wanted, at last, for everyone he created to finally know who he really was. Strangely, this meant he would have to subject himself to misunderstanding and slander. The fullness of the revelation of God to the people he created would lead to his death: the death of a common criminal.
He invites me to take up my cross and do the same. He invites me to let go of everything I feel I have the right to claim for myself, the esteem of peers, the admiration of friends, even the right to be understood, and become nothing. He shows me a cross, and invites me to die with him.
Its an intimidating invitation, because it’s an invitation to be misunderstood. It means I have to stop going over the stupid things I’ve said, stop rehashing old mistakes, and stop creating new ones by trying to make myself seen in the most flattering light. It’s an invitation to die to everything I would like to be perceived to be. I gaze up at the exalted Cross, the great paradox, the exalted sign of lowliness, and I let go. I surrender my self-concern to the wood, and let it die. As it breaths its last breath, I realize I am at last alive and free.
Sadly, this is not a one-time event. I soon discover that I need to practice this every hour, at every moment. But this was not a one-time event for Christ, either. Christ, the eternal Son of the Father, stands outside of time, so the the self-emptying event of the incarnation is something that, in his experience, is ongoing. The humiliation of the cross is a constant. He submits himself to misunderstanding and slander at every moment. He gives all of himself to us at every moment. He empties himself, pours himself out like a libation, at every moment.
But his exaltation is a constant as well. His resurrection is an ever-present event, resounding throughout eternity. We catch a glimpse of this paradox of humiliation and glory whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. His self-denial and his glorification by the Father is eternal, ever-present, and ongoing.
So perhaps I can keep practicing this taking up of my cross. Perhaps one day I may find it getting easier. Or perhaps it will become more difficult. I’m not sure, because I haven’t done it enough yet to find out. I only know it’s worth it. I look to the exalted cross, and I find that although it is an invitation to death, it is also an invitation to freedom. Compared to the crippling weight of my pride, my tremendous ego, this burden of self-denial is easy, and the yoke of this cross is light. Here I can lay down every burden, every mistake that makes me cringe with shame, and at last be free.