Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Carrying Our Crosses

"Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me," Jesus said," cannot be my disciple." There is a great deal of meaning behind these words, and many Christians do try to pay attention to them. Our lives will contain many burdens we must bear, sufferings we must go through, and personal difficulties we must struggle through. We are called to bear these things as Jesus bore His cross: with humility, patience, love, and even thanksgiving to God our Father. I think we understand this. We don't always like it or do it, but we at least understand it.

However, the problem is that we typically acknowledge this and move on, or we make some half-hearted resolution to do better and then go back to our old ways. What we really need to do is actually carry our crosses, and suffer with Jesus. But this is what we've been trying to do - how can we do it?

There are many answers. The one I want to focus on here is to realize just what it means to carry our cross - and what it tells us. After all, we know we have to carry our crosses, but what does that actually mean? Why do we have to carry our crosses; what difference does it make? We all have some vague idea of it, to be sure. We know that we are sharing in Jesus' suffering when we carry our cross. We know that we are offering a sacrifice of praise to God... but does this mean anything personally to us?

I'm going to say something rather shocking here: Jesus couldn't save us alone, and He didn't. He needed human help. This is an incredibly shocking, if not scandalous, thing to say - but it's the reality, and in fact we are all familiar with this fact even if we don't realize it.

We all know Simon of Cyrene, even if not by name. He's the person that the Roman soldiers forced to help Jesus carry His cross. Matthew, Mark, and here Luke, recorded it: "And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus." (23:26) This shows us that Jesus allowed another person to help Him, and this itself is rather significant. Jesus wants us to be able to play a part... He did what we couldn't do, but He also didn't hoard it all to Himself so as that we can't do anything to help.

I have heard it explained rather beautifully by Rosalind Moss, a writer for This Rock magazine and a Jewish convert. Imagine, she says, a mother baking cookies in the kitchen when her little daughter walks into the kitchen behind her and asks to help. Now the mother doesn't need the child's help; she has the ingrediants, the tools, the bowls and cookie sheets, the oven, and the ability to put it all together to make cookies. In fact, the child could never make the cookies on her own. She couldn't even reach the counter! Is the mother going to not allow the poor child to help? Of course not... she loves her child, and she wants the child to feel a part of it and to help if she likes. Jesus is infinitely more loving than this mother, and so He would do no less for us. After all, if, Rosalind says, you could go back to Calvary and hold up Jesus' arms a little bit as He hung on the cross to take some of that burden off of Him, wouldn't you?

We can see that Jesus allows us to suffer with Him, then. This in itself is absolutely fantastic - to share in God's very own work and suffering. Words cannot convey how wonderful this is! If we only consider this, how can we not carry our crosses, realizing what an oppurtunity we are passing up!

But I said more than this. I said that Jesus couldn't save us on His own - without Simon. Why does it matter that someone else helped Him? Why does it matter that Jesus allowed Him to help, even if it is an astounding participation? Let's ask, then, why did they make Simon carry the cross? The answer must be because Jesus was incapable of doing so. This is the way it was depicted in The Passion of the Christ, and it makes a lot of sense. The Romans weren't nice guys, especially when it came to executions. They were ruthless. They didn't just want to be nice to Jesus here. The only reason they ever would have done this is if Jesus was actually incapable of carrying the cross on His own any further.

There's an incredibly important distinction here. Jesus, in His Divinity, certainly needed no help. God doesn't need help with anything. But in His humanity, Jesus did need help. His human body was spent. It couldn't go any further. He needed the addition of Simon's humanity, as it were, to finish the job.

But to say that Jesus - the God-man - needed Simon is different. He was, after all, God and man, so why could He not simply have miraculously lifted His body up and kept it going? The answer is, no, He couldn't, not if He wanted to save us. Jesus became man primarily to be a human representative - a sinless human representative - to God the Father on our behalf. Some human being needed to offer God a perfect sacrifice, but because all human beings were sinful, none could. Christ couldn't offer this simply as God, because then it would be God offering God a sacrifice; there would be no benefit to humanity, because no human would have made the sacrifice. If Christ had performed some miraculous act to offer the sacrifice, then it would have essentially subsumed His humanity, and the sacrifice wouldn't have been an authentically human act. his role as human Mediator would have been destroyed, and the sacrifice would have been no good for us.

So without Simon's help, Christ couldn't have made it up to Calvary to be put on the cross. What's more, up until the point of actually being put on that cross, the sacrifice couldn't necessarily be said to have been offered, even had Jesus died on the way. His sacrifice was a spotless sacrifice, a sinless one of Christ being obedient unto death (cf. Phill. 2:8). Up until being nailed to that cross, Christ hadn't done that yet. He had gone far, but not all the way. He hadn't actually been obedient to death, because He hadn't put Himself in the position definitely to be killed yet. For example, He could have escaped, or tried to. He certainly could have sinned on the cross, too, by rejecting His death even as He underwent it, but there is something a bit different about this. This would be a different way He could have sinned, but there was still the fact that He had not yet actually gone all the way to death, not volunatarilly. Allowing Himself to be nailed to that cross was truly a consummation of sorts to His acceptance of death.

Simon made up what was lacking in Christ's sufferings, then. In fact, this is exactly the choice of words Paul used in Colossians when he explained his sufferings: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." (1:24) This is a wonderfully deep statement, in light of what we have been discussing, and it leads directly to the point of all of this. Note that Paul said that it was in his "flesh" that he made up what was lacking, just as Simon had made up in his flesh. Simon provided what was lacking in Christ's bruised and battered humanity. St. Paul said that he was doing the same.

Let's consider one more thing. Simon was one of the most common names amongst Jews at the time of Christ. Cyrene was an important gentile port city, from which the entire world could be reached. Simon of Cyrene, represents, essentially, the everyman. He is the common Jew, and the gentile from anywhere in the world. The place he took is the place that any person could take. When St. Paul bore his own sufferings well, he took the place of Simon. Paul carried his cross, and in carrying his cross, he was not carrying his alone, but that of Christ. He was adding to Christ's afflictions what was lacking, just as Simon did. And when we bear our crosses, we do the same.

And this is the reality of our crosses. Our crosses are not simply difficulties to suffer through out of praise, but to take part in the true sacrifice of Christ. They are sufferings by which we take part in the ultimate praise, the only praise ever complete enough for God, the praise of Christ's offering on the cross. When we bear our crosses, we bear His, and when we bear His, we become a true part of His sacrifice, His sacrifice of praise, His eucharistion (Greek: thanksgiving). We hold up His arms that little bit - out of love. To be His disciple, we must take up our crosses, for apart from that, His cross would lay on the ground with Him just inside the walls of Jerusalem.

This also means something very important, so much more important than anything else. It means that Jesus didn't just die for us but He died for you - personally. Every step He took on the way of the cross was for you and you personally. In the grand mystery of the Incarnation, His steps were at once for all mankind and exclusively for you. He died because He loves you - not because He loved mankind, not because He loved everyone or because He loved me or us, but because He loved YOU.

Thinking of this, our crosses must seem like toothpicks.

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