The Paradox of the Cross
A Reflection for Thursday after Ash Wednesday
Find today’s readings here.
Today’s Gospel passage contains something called a “passion prediction.” In these narratives, Jesus foretells his Crucifixion and Resurrection and calls his disciples to give their own lives to the same mission. Matthew, Mark and Luke each included three of these passion predictions in their account of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Traditionally, interpreters have treated these as moments of prophetic insight in which Jesus reveals to his disciples the fate that awaited him. More recently, scholars have questioned their historical value, believing these passages to have been written much later, not to record divine prophecy but to provide theological reflection on Jesus’ humiliating death. No matter which explanation one chooses, one cannot deny the literary shock value of these predictions. Within the overall Gospel narrative, Jesus’ ministry was still very popular. Even though he had courted controversy, his words still transformed hearts, and his ministries of healing and deliverance remained effective. Then in the midst of success, Jesus appalls his disciples by foretelling his own murder and he encourages them to accept the same fate. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
A cross was not something one took up or put down at will. Taking up a cross resulted in a humiliating execution, the most brutal penalty ancient justice could impose. Crucified criminals were fixed to a post or scaffold and left to die of exposure. Death occasionally came quickly from blood loss or sunstroke, but for others the process took days. The condemned were nailed or lashed to the cross in such a way that they had to flex their upper body in order to breathe. As their strength ran out, they asphyxiated and died. Bodies were usually left to rot or become food for vultures. The punishment was so degrading that Roman law actually forbade it for Roman citizens themselves (the worst a citizen faced was beheading, by contrast a relatively painless penalty). Roman justice imposed crucifixion primarily on disobedient slaves and, by extension, on conquered peoples like Jesus and many of his fellow Jews.
It is one thing to imagine Jesus taking the side of the poor. It is another thing entirely to imagine him identifying himself with insurgents, brigands, murderers and slaves, but that is exactly what these passion predictions relate.
The Romans carried out crucifixions in highly visible places, near cities or along busy highways. Jesus certainly passed these dying criminals (and their corpses) during his journeys. It is easy to imagine him looking at the condemned and thinking, “That will be me someday.” His ministry had already attracted controversy; more recently, one of his followers, Simon Peter, had identified him as the anointed liberator of Israel. Others would certainly follow until it was no longer possible to avoid Roman scrutiny. A cross was the most probable end for a person who made such claims.
It is one thing to imagine Jesus taking the side of the poor. It is another thing entirely to imagine him identifying himself with insurgents, brigands, murderers and slaves, but that is exactly what these passion predictions relate. Jesus’ heart was open enough to see in them something of himself, but his faith was rich enough to know that the cross was not the end. “The Son of Man must suffer greatly … and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
For Jesus, choosing life consisted in submitting to death. The cross was a sign of his fidelity. He would not give up his ministry under any consequences because proclaiming the Father’s love was the purpose of his life. He trusted that love to such a degree that he was confident that even death could not stop his mission.
We often talk about “taking up one’s cross” in the context of the trivial pains of Lent, but really it is a call to something existential and permanent. The cross is whatever threatens us with poverty, alienation, grief or persecution, but that we face anyway in order to follow the Father’s command and the Son’s example. When we stay faithful to God’s call to love in spite of fear, we follow exactly where Jesus trod.
I have a friend whose husband is addicted to fentanyl. He has gone through detox six times in the past six months and shows little sign of improvement. No one would fault her for leaving him and moving on with her life, and in fact she has established protective boundaries with him emotionally and materially. Still, she chooses to remain his wife even though she fears that his death will be a grief she cannot bear. Only in her dark night of faith can she find the strength to believe that her love will be enough to call him home. In this she is like Christ taking up his cross, believing that, whatever the cost, fidelity to the mission is what constitutes the life of a disciple.
Get to know Michael Simone, S.J., contributing editor
What are you giving up for Lent?
I asked the Jesuits I live with what I should give up for Lent, and they said “being an a**hole.” Which is what I’m going to do. In other words, I’ll be trying to grow in kindness this Lent.
Do you cheat on Sundays?
I think this year, no. But yes, in years past I have.
Favorite non-meat recipe
The classic tuna-noodle casserole made with cream-of-mushroom soup.
Favorite Easter artwork
Does “Easter Artwork” include Good Friday? If so, then it’s Chagall’s “White Crucifixion.” If Easter only means Easter, then it’s Caravaggio’s “Incredulity of Saint Thomas.”
Favorite Easter memory
Concelebrating the Easter Vigil as a new priest at St. Leonard’s in Boston’s North End, and then afterward heading to a restaurant owned by a parish family and feasting until well past midnight. It was fun to celebrate with people I knew so well, and it reinforced the bonds that run so deep in that neighborhood and parish.