The gospel this Sunday is a very familiar one . . .and a very hard one to hear. Among the many important things in this gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Now as if this gospel wasn’t enough by itself it reminds me of a story you may also have heard before:
A man, tired of the weight of the cross he was carrying, prayed out loud, “Lord, I love you with all my heart but this cross I have is too big for me to carry any further. Please take it from me.” To the man’s astonishment the Lord appeared to him and invited him to lay his cross down. As he did so the man looked around and found himself completely surrounded by hundreds and thousands of other crosses. The Lord told him that he was free to choose any other one to carry. So the man began to look. Hours passed. Many crosses were ‘tried on’ by the man. Finally, wary of looking, he picked up the smallest cross he had seen all day. “This one, the man exclaimed! I will take this one.” The Lord replied saying, “Very well. But I think you should know that is the very cross you wanted to get rid of those many hours ago.”
In our world today, struggle, hardship and suffering – the crosses we must carry – are to be avoided at all costs. The “value of suffering” has been lost and is viewed as just another paradoxical, if not oxy-moronic, teaching of faith and religion. But then what do we do with this teaching of Jesus? Unfortunately this question leads most often to only more questions: Does God want us to suffer?
How can God be all-good and bring suffering into my life? Why is there even suffering at all?
I offer in my reflection, three things I hope worthy of your prayer and consideration: 1) Never confuse what God allows, with what God does. Scripture tells us over and over that God is love and desires only good things for us. Jesus, as the very Incarnation of that love, witnessed to us through his own life what that means. He was God – it doesn’t get better than that. Even in his humanity life was good: he had parents who loved him, a home, loyal friends by his side, by the standards of his time, he enjoyed the fruits of his life as a carpenters son known and respected by the community in which he lived. Yet God, his heavenly Father, allowed Jesus, his only Son, to suffer; carry his own cross, even unto death. Jesus recognized his Father was not the cause of his suffering for it is Jesus himself who calls the Father “the source of all goodness and love” – why would he do so if he believed the Father was the cause. Jesus accepted his suffering – his cross – as God’s will – allowed but not caused. In this acceptance to carry his cross willingly, Jesus offers us a model for our own redemption. Maybe this story illustrates this in a better albeit opposite way.
I have a friend – who by most of today’s standards – just like Jesus did then – lives a good life: an alum of our college – he has a good education, subsequently he has a good job that he loves, his parents are still in good health and both living; he has his own beautiful family and a happy home. He also has a cross to carry – in the form of a debilitating disease that left without a cure will eventually – just like Jesus – cause his physical death. Unlike Jesus however, he carries his cross begrudgingly not willingly – blaming God as the cause instead of seeking God for the cure. Despite the joys of his life, his cross, and his distain at carrying it, has left him beyond unhappy, growing moreso the longer I know him; robbed of the joy all the other blessings in his life should allow him. Let me interject here so as to remind ourselves of the countless examples scripture also offers: all of the healings of Jesus were a direct result of faithful people willingly carrying their crosses seeking God out for healing not blaming God as the cause for their suffering. It was how they carried their cross that ultimately allowed their faith to lead them to this healing. Confusing what God allows for what God does only leads to a cross that is even more a burden to carry and robs us of the hope of redemption through our suffering leaving us bitter and angry at both God and world.
2) It is never a sign of weakness to allow for help in carrying our cross and it is always a source a great blessing for the privilege of helping others carry theirs. I often think every year when we hear the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, “Would Jesus have made it to the Resurrection if not for Simon who helped him carry his cross?” I mean, “What is the point of this arguably least known of all new testament people – Simon of Cyrene?” I believe this story, found in all three synoptic gospels, give us a model of both the grace Jesus received by accepting help and the graces received by Simon who helped. By accepting Simon’s help Jesus was able to complete his mission and reach the Resurrection. Even though scripture records nothing of Simon after helping Jesus it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize to help Jesus would be one of life’s greatest privileges and blessings. I believe there is a direct correlation with the story of Simon helping Jesus and the instruction Jesus gives on the Mount saying that to help the least of those around us – to help them carry their cross – is like helping Jesus. If helping the least of those around us is like helping Jesus himself, what is it to actually help Jesus himself as did Simon. Ponder that for a moment. Getting help in carrying our cross may be the only way to complete our mission so we to can reach the Resurrection. Helping others carry their cross has to be one of life’s great privileges and as Jesus taught, is ultimately how we inherit the kingdom of heaven . [We have with us today at Mass our Friends-In-Faith Peer Ministers who in a very real way are like Simon – helping others carry their crosses and bear their suffering in big and small ways each and every day.]
3) Lastly but maybe most importantly, to willingly carry our cross, whatever that may be, is to align ourselves, not only with the suffering of Christ, but with his glory. There is a saying, “There can be no resurrection without Calvary; no empty tomb without a bloody cross.” To turn from our cross is to turn from Christ. To deny our cross is to minimize the importance of His. It is precisely why in every Catholic Church we display the Cross with Jesus still suffering on it – not because we believe him to be still there but so as to never forget the price of his suffering pays for the cost of ours.
Our crosses come in various shapes and sizes and they change over the course of time and age. From the suffering of debilitating disease to the pain of tragic loss; from the weight of mental anguish to the chains of additive bondage; from the heartbreak of bruised relationship to dim days of shattered hopes – all crosses – when carried begrudgingly leads us only to the pit of despair; yet when carried willingly, when carried at times allowing help from others leads us to the hope of new life – the glory of Easter Sunday – the glory of the Resurrection which is ultimately what we celebrate each and every time we gather around this altar under this Cross of a suffering Christ.
So, let us carry ours well.