This Lent, we will progress through a six-week series of reflections on the cross and its various roles and purposes in our lives. We will begin with a reflection on the cross as something we ourselves carry and ultimately, die upon.
Jesus, the Son of God made man, came into this world in flesh to restore humanity from the damage caused by sin. The humanity of Jesus plays a significant role for our salvation. He became like us, lived like us, and suffered like us, so that we might imitate Him in all things. Through His Passion and crucifixion, we learn much about how to carry our own crosses and die upon them as well.
In Matthew 16:24, after foreshadowing His fate to His disciples, he says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” At the time these words were spoken, they were probably met with confusion. Even Peter had said after Jesus’ prediction that he doubted that any such suffering and death would befall his friend. (Mat 16:22) They could not have imagined the horrific suffering that awaited their Lord, but Jesus knew and in His wisdom He cautioned them, and us, to observe how He completed His mission through His Passion so that we might do the same by His example.
The first thing Jesus does after receiving His death sentence is to accept His cross. He doesn’t cry out, “Why me?” or any of the other things we humans tend to say when we are faced with our crosses. He just takes it upon His shoulders and allows the soldiers to lead Him to His fate. He does this because He knows without a shred of doubt that this is God’s will for Him and that, in the end, it will be to the benefit of all humanity. The same is true for our own crosses. We all have to suffer. It is part of the human condition as a result of sin, either directly, or universally, as the effects ripple throughout human history. But by Jesus’ own cross our suffering can become redemptive if we join ours to His. In other words, His redemptive suffering elevates our own suffering as we cooperate with Him in the work. So, how do we accept our crosses? Do we accept the suffering that comes our way as part of the plan for our salvation and move forward with it in complete trust that God will use whatever it is for our own good?
St. Peter takes it step further than merely accepting your cross and says, “rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings.” (1 Pet 4:13) Rejoice? Why should we rejoice when a big, heavy cross is planted squarely on our shoulders? We should rejoice because, in reality, it’s another opportunity to share in the life and death of our suffering Savior and yet another opportunity to yoke (or tie) our cross to His and participate with Him in our own salvation and the salvation of the entire Body of Christ in the Church. When God allows suffering to befall you He is actually giving you grace through that cross which can only be beautiful and good. Our great Saints understood the depth of the beauty of suffering and accepted their own crosses with joy while urging us to do the same:
If we only knew the precious treasure hidden in infirmities, we would receive them with the same joy with which we receive the greatest benefits, and we would bear them without ever complaining or showing signs of weariness.
–St. Vincent de Paul
If God sends you many sufferings, it is a sign that He has great plans for you and certainly wants to make you a saint.
–St. Ignatius Loyola
Suffering is a great favor. Remember that everything soon comes to an end . . . and take courage. Think of how our gain is eternal.
–St. Teresa of Avila
Also notice that as Jesus carries His cross, He falls three times, but each time, He gets back up, even when it doesn’t seem as if He could possibly have the strength to do so. We too fall under the heavy weight of our own crosses. No doubt we sometimes feel like we don’t have the strength to go on while we’re carrying some of our biggest crosses. But remember, when we yoke our cross to His, it lightens our load and we have His divine assistance in carrying it and we CAN stand up and continue putting one foot in front of the other. Yes, we will fall, but it’s the standing back up and carrying on that gets us to our final destination.
After Jesus carries His cross to Calvary, He is crucified on that same cross. He gives up His own life to save ours. That act is a pretty big deal. How are we supposed to imitate that? Simply put, we are called to die to self. Dying to self essentially means detaching from the things WE want – material goods, love and acceptance of others, instant gratification of our senses and desires, our will to be done, particular sins, etc. – and attaching ourselves to God and His will for our lives. The more we practice detachment and dying to self, the more we conform ourselves to Christ. St. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)
Dying to self is an extremely difficult thing to do in our culture today. We live in a world where people easily convince themselves that they “deserve” to have what they want, when they want it, or are able to immediately satisfy their wants and desires with just the click of a button. We are bombarded by messaging in all forms to love the things of the world and to cling to pleasures of the flesh. Self-indulgence is all around us, so we appear to be strange when we deny ourselves anything, but we must. When we look at a crucifix and realize exactly what Jesus did for our salvation, we should be compelled to do whatever we can to imitate Him in gratitude and to cooperate with Him in that dying act. God’s will isn’t for us to indulge in this fleeting world, but to look forward to complete indulgence in Him in Heaven for eternity.
This week meditate on how Jesus carries and is crucified on His cross. Meditate on your own crosses. How can you carry your cross better? Pray to Jesus help you as you join yours to His. You’ve likely already given something up for Lent, but how might you take one step closer to dying to self? Think of one attachment or vice that you need to finally let go of. Again, ask Jesus to help you conform yourself to Him so that as you detach from whatever it is, the void is filled by attachment to Him.