Then he called the people to him, as well as his disciples, and said to them, "Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must leave self behind; he must take up his cross, and come with me. Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake and for the Gospel, that man is safe. What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self? What can he give to buy that self back? If anyone is ashamed of me and mine in this wicked and godless age, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him, when he comes in the glory of his Father and of the holy angels. He also said, "I tell you this: there are some of those standing here who will not taste death before they have seen the kingdom of God already come in power." Mark 8:34-9:1
And the New Living Translation of Matthew's version 16:24 says, "If any of you wants to be my follower, you must take up your cross." Did you catch that? Jesus doesn't say, "take up my cross." He doesn't say, "take up some else's cross." He doesn't say, "take up the cross." But as Jesus is talking to a whole crowd of people in these verses, "take up your cross."
Jesus doesn't see us generically, one size fits all, but as individuated persons, as personal and unique. Pope John Paul II said to a group of young people:
"Who am I? What is the meaning of my life? What is my destiny? My answer is very simple but it has tremendous implications. Listen, you are one of God's thoughts! You are one of God's heartbeats! To say this, implies that, in a certain sense, your life has infinite value and your 'irreplaceable individuality' is what is most precious in God's sight."Jesus knows what's gong on with me in my secret place, where I don't face myself, where I don't hear myself, where I don't know myself. Your cross! Let's not make it about anyone else.
As with many of the things Jesus says, we can quote and summarize them in unexplored, off-handed ways - as if we really know exactly what the cross means. "Oh Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins." "Oh Jesus died on the cross to open the gates of heaven." If we ever expect young Americans to have any interest in Jesus we'd better find new language to present him, as their language and world view are constantly changing.
The cross was what Jesus had to do; it's what was put in front of him to accomplish. And it's that way with us too. Life puts "stuff" in front of us that very simply we need to "take up".
- Getting up every morning and slugging through the day
- Dealing with the complexities of relationships and personalities
- Raising a family
- Welcoming a new baby
- Taking care of the house, the garden
- Tending to an aging parent
- Managing limited money
The cross doesn't have to be unpleasant or an impossibly heavy burden. It's just what needs to be done, what I'm responsible for just today, going with life as it unfolds.
On the other hand, yes, sometimes the cross means suffering. Suffering does seem to be part of cross-carrying and we can eat it away, sex it away, moan and groan and complain it away, medicate it away, smoke it away, drink it away, become bitter and ugly. Or we can live in it, evolve and learn from it. We can experience a personal Easter through it all!
And take up your cross means that something has to die. This is interior work - the hard work of our transformation. This might mean my grudges, my resentments, my short fuse, my alienating moodiness, my hatred, my stubbornness, my settling into ignorance and swearing it's the God's-honest-truth because someone said it on my TV station.
Something has to die. How sour and mean we can be, what contempt we can have for people - even people we don't know. Though it's said we're much harder on our family members than we are on strangers. Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, the community that accompanies handicapped persons. When he stepped down from leadership he went to live in the house which cared for the most severely handicapped persons. He said of that time, "I realized my capacity for anger and hate." Thank you, Jean Vanier for your honesty and humility!
Take up your cross means something has to change from the inside out. And this can be crucifying, fearsome, dreadful. Have you ever experienced anything like that in your spiritual life?
A final thought. We must never say of another person: a spouse, a sibling, a child, a parent, "Oh he's my cross." People are not crosses. Making that claim, "She's my cross" makes me to be heroic, super-whatever, in carrying THEM.