Take Up Your Cross: The risen Christ and daily life
The Resurrection is the center of my faith. Other Christians may focus more on, say, the Incarnation—how God became human, how God understands us in the most intimate way possible. Others may center their discipleship on the Beatitudes as a template for the Christian life and a guideline for their actions. These are all important aspects of the life of Christ. But the Resurrection is my spiritual center. Every day I return to that theme—or, more broadly, to the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But what does the Resurrection have to do with us? After all, in all likelihood, we are not going to be crucified, though Christians are still persecuted around the world. And here is a question that is related because we cannot answer it without considering the Resurrection: What does Jesus mean when he says, in the synoptic Gospels, “Take up your cross daily”? After that seemingly masochistic invitation, he says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” What does it all mean? Here are a few thoughts on those questions:
First, you don’t need to look for your crosses. Life gives them to you. Some young people tell me, sincerely, that they feel that they do not have enough suffering in their lives. It is tempting to say darkly, “Just wait.” Whether it is a catastrophic illness, an accident, a death in your family, a fractured relationship, financial worries, long-term loneliness, trouble in school or struggles on the job, problems will come. And the real cross is the one that you don’t want—otherwise it is hardly a cross. Remember that Jesus did not court death, nor did he beg for the cross in the Garden of Gethsemane. The cross eventually came to him. And, of course, the cross is not the result of sin. It is true that some suffering is the result of bad or immoral decisions. But most suffering is not. Even the sinless one suffered.
Second, we are invited by God, as Jesus was, to accept our crosses. This does not mean that we accept things unthinkingly, like a dumb animal laboring under a burden. Nor do bromides like “Offer it up” solve the problem of suffering. The idea of offering one’s pain to God may be helpful in some situations but not in others. For many years, my mother visited my grandmother in her nursing home. Residing in that home was an elderly Catholic sister, confined to a wheelchair because of debilitating pain. One day her religious superior came to visit. When the sister spoke of the great pain she was enduring, her superior replied, “Think of Jesus on the cross.” The elderly sister said: “He was only on the cross for three hours.” Some advice does more harm than good.
Accepting our Burdens
What does it mean, then, to accept our crosses? To begin with, it means understanding that suffering is part of everyone’s life. Accepting our cross means that at some point—after the shock, frustration, sadness and even rage—we must accept that some things cannot be changed. That is why acceptance is not a masochistic stance but a realistic one. Here is where Christianity parts ways with Buddhism, which says that suffering is an illusion. No, says Jesus from the cross, suffering is part of the human reality. The disciples had a difficult time understanding this—they wanted a leader who would deliver them from pain, not one who would endure it himself. We often have a difficult time with this too. But acceptance is what Jesus invites us to on the cross.
Acceptance also means not passing along any bitterness that you feel about your suffering. That does not mean you shouldn’t talk about it, complain about it or even cry about it with friends or family. And of course we are invited to be honest in prayer about our suffering. Even Jesus poured out his heart to Abba in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But if you are angry about your boss or school or family, you needn’t pass along that anger to others and magnify their suffering. Having a lousy boss is not a reason to be mean to your family. Struggling through a rotten family situation is no excuse for being insensitive to your coworkers. Problems at school do not mean that you can be cruel to your parents. Christ did not lash out at people when he was suffering, even when he was lashed by the whip.
This does not mean that you do not share your suffering with others. Pain and suffering that result, to take one example, from abuse or trauma often need to be shared with others (whether with friends or professional counselors) as part of the healing process. Also, people living with long-term challenges like, say, raising a child with special needs or caring for an elderly parent, often find comfort and support from speaking with others who are in similar circumstances. Like Jesus, you can allow others to help you carry the cross. Jesus was not too proud to let Simon of Cyrene come to his aid. If your friends offer to help, let them.
Thus, there is a difference between having a fight with your teenage son and then being insensitive at work, and sharing the challenges (and joys) of a special-needs child in a support group. It is the difference between passing on suffering and sharing it. In short, your cross shouldn’t become someone else’s.
Third, when Jesus speaks about those who “lose their life,” he is not talking only about physical death. Christians believe that they are promised eternal life if they believe in Jesus and follow his way. But there are other deaths that come before the final one. We are called to let some parts of our lives die so that other parts may live. Is a desire for money preventing you from being more compassionate on the job? Perhaps your need for wealth needs to die. Are you so yoked to your own comfort that you do not allow other people’s needs to impinge on yours? Maybe your selfishness needs to die so that you can experience a rebirth of generosity. Is pride keeping you from listening to other people’s constructive criticism and therefore stunting your spiritual growth? Maybe all these things need to die.
In Christian spiritual circles, this is called “dying to self.” What keeps you from being more loving, more free, more mature, more open to following God’s will? Can you let those things die? If you do, you will surely “find” your life, because dying to self means living for God. This is in part what Jesus means when he speaks about people who desperately try to save their lives. That kind of “saving” holds onto the parts of ourselves that keep us enslaved to the old ways of doing things. Trying to keep those things alive can lead to death. Letting them die allows us to truly live.
Fourth, wait for the resurrection. In every cross, there is an invitation to new life in some way, often in a mysterious way. To me it seems unclear whether Jesus understood precisely what would happen after he entrusted himself to Abba in the garden. Clearly he gave himself over entirely to the Father. But did he know where that would lead? There are indications of some foreknowledge. Jesus’ challenge to the Jewish leaders, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” John explicitly labels a foretelling of the resurrection. But Jesus’ agony in the Garden and his cry of abandonment on the cross seems to indicate that he did not know what kind of new life the Father had in store. Perhaps even Jesus was surprised on Easter. For me this makes his self-gift even more astonishing.
This is why Christians speak of meeting God at the cross. By ignoring or failing to embrace the cross we miss opportunities to know God in a deeper way. The cross is often where we meet God because our vulnerability can make us more open to God’s grace. Many recovering alcoholics point to the acceptance of their disease as the moment when they began to find new life. This is why Thomas Merton could write in his journals: “In tribulation, God teaches us. The most unfortunate people in the world are those who know no tribulations.”
Fifth, God’s gift is often not what we expect. Mary Magdalene discovered that on Easter Sunday. And—as with Mary—sometimes it takes time to grasp that what we are experiencing is a resurrection. Later on, the other disciples will have a hard time recognizing Jesus. As the Apostles discovered on Easter, the resurrection also does not come when you expect it. It may take years for it to come at all. And it is usually difficult to describe, because it is your resurrection. It may not make sense to other people.
When I was a Jesuit novice, I worked in a hospital for the seriously ill in Cambridge, Mass. Every Friday the hospital chaplaincy team ran a discussion group. One woman, named Doris, who was confined to a wheelchair, told us something that completely surprised me. She used to think of her chair as a cross, which would have been my reaction. But lately, she had started to see it as her resurrection. “My wheelchair helps me get around,” she said. “Without it, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. Life would be so dull without it.”
Her comment has stayed with me for 25 years. It was so unexpected, so personal and so hard for me to understand. Doris’s cross led to her highly personal resurrection. It was a reminder that where the world sees only a cross, the Christian sees the possibility of something else.
From Fear to Faith
Finally, nothing is impossible with God. That is the message I return to most often. The Gospel of John tells us that on the first day of the week, most of the disciples were cowering behind closed doors, out of fear. After the events of Good Friday, the disciples were terrified. We are told by Matthew and Mark that earlier, on Holy Thursday, all of them fled from the garden in fear. That evening Peter denied knowing Jesus. If they were afraid before Jesus was sentenced to death, imagine their reactions after seeing him marched through the streets of Jerusalem, nailed to a cross and left hanging there until dead. Their leader was executed as an enemy of the state. Locked behind closed doors after the death of the person in whom they had placed all their hopes: Is there any more vivid image of fear?
The disciples fail to realize—once again—that they are dealing with the living God, the same one whose message to Mary at the annunciation was “Nothing will be impossible with God.” They could not see beyond the walls of that closed room. They were unwilling to accept that God was greater than their imaginations.
Perhaps they can be forgiven—Jesus was dead, after all. And who could have predicted the resurrection? Then again, maybe we should not let the disciples off so easily. Jesus had always confounded their expectations—healing the sick, stilling a storm, raising the dead—so perhaps they should have expected the unexpected. But they did not.
Often we find ourselves incapable of believing that God might have new life in store for us. Nothing can change, we say. There is no hope. This is when we end up mired in despair, which can sometimes be a reflection of pride. That is, we think that we know better than God. It is a way of saying, “God does not have the power to change this situation.” What a dark and dangerous path is despair, far darker than death.
How many of us believe parts of our lives are dead? How many believe that parts of our country, our world, our church cannot come to life? How many of us feel bereft of the hope of change?
This is when I turn to the Resurrection. Often I return to the image of the terrified disciples cowering behind closed doors. We are not called to live in that room. We are called to emerge from our hiding places and to accompany Mary Magdalene, weeping sometimes, searching always, and ultimately blinded by the dawn of Jesus’ new life—surprised, delighted and moved to joy.
We are called to believe what she has seen: He is risen.