Taking Up the Cross

Below is a reflection I gave this morning on the Seventh Station of the Cross.

Seventh Station: Jesus Bears the Cross
When the chief priests and the guards saw [Jesus] they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him. I find no guilt in him.”… They cried out, “Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your king?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha. (John 19: 6, 15-17)

In reflecting on the Seventh Station of the Cross, as recounted in the Gospel of St. John, I grappled with the question of “what does it mean to take up your cross?” Since entering religious life, I’ve heard the joke that every morning, we should put ourselves on the cross, before our brothers do it for us. And as religious, I often hear the phrase “take up your cross” or “bear your cross” as admonishment or encouragement when one is faced with any sort of difficulty.

In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, taking up the cross is a condition of discipleship. Jesus tells us, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but who ever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9: 23-24)

Despite my familiarity with this story of Christ’s sacrifice, which is so central to our faith, the more I thought about it, the more difficult I found it to define “taking up the cross”. Yet “taking up the cross” is precisely what Jesus instructs us to do.

A few weeks ago, Fr. James Martin wrote an essay entitled “Take Up Your Cross” in America Magazine. This was an excerpt from his newly released book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. In the essay, he links the idea of “taking up your cross” to a pragmatic acceptance of suffering as a part of life. Fr. Martin writes: “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.”

Of course, the point of his essay was deeper and much more sophisticated than what can be captured in two sentences. He talks about “dying to self” and the ultimately transformative and restorative effects of “taking up your cross”. For Fr. James Martin, taking up your cross leads to resurrection, or as he says “from Fear to Faith… because nothing is impossible with God”.

Another common understanding of Jesus’s commission to “deny himself and take up his cross daily” as this: That we should relish suffering because it is in our suffering that we experience Christ.  In times of crisis, or personal difficulty, or illness, I have often heard people say, “offer it up to God” or “God will never give you more than you can handle”.

Try telling that to a mother who just lost her young child in a school shooting or to a man just diagnosed with HIV.

There is a passage from The Imitation of Christ, which captures this mentality:

“The whole life of Christ was a cross and a martyrdom, and do you seek rest and enjoyment for yourself? You deceive yourself; you are mistaken if you seek anything but to suffer, for this mortal life is full of miseries and marked with crosses on all sides. Indeed, the more spiritual progress a person makes, so much heavier will he frequently find the cross, because as his love increases, the pain of his exile also increases.”

As Catholics, as Franciscans, and for me, as a Filipino – I’m sure we have all experienced this at some points in our lives. However, upon further reflection, I am finding it more and more difficult to reconcile this negative and romanticized understanding of suffering with my own understanding of the cross.

For many, the cross stands in for sufferings, for annoyances, for illnesses, for trials, for difficulties – basically the ordinary human experience. However, to view our suffering, no matter how painful or how profound, as “our cross” is to trivialize the ultimate sacrifice Jesus made for us. And to view other people’s suffering as a “their cross” is to show a warped sense of aspirational piety and a lack of genuine empathy.

Christ’s cross was borne out of God’s infinite, immeasurable, unconditional love for us. It had nothing to do with grinning and bearing it, of taking the abuse, of enduring the pain, all the while with a patient, beatific smile.

So what then, does it mean to “take up the cross”?

For me, to take up the cross is to claim and live up to the call of the Gospel. In St. John’s account of the Seventh Station, we are told that Jesus carried the cross Himself. Through Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, the cross has already been won for us. It is no longer a symbol of pain, or humiliation, or suffering – but of glorious resurrection, of triumph, and of love.

As a Postulant with the Order of Friars Minor, I long to follow St. Francis and St. Clare, whose loving gaze upon the Crucified Christ emblazoned their hearts with the zeal of love and mercy for all of Creation.

Thus, it is our commission to take up our cross – not to seek and relish in the inevitable and unavoidable sufferings of life – but rather, to claim our birthright as children of God, as heralds of the Gospel, and as witnesses of Christ to the world.

St. Francis and the Crucified Christ
St. Francis and the Crucified Christ

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