Station II: Christ Takes Up the Cross
And he said to them all: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Christ could not have come up with a more shocking image to let his followers know just what it would cost to be his disciples. Crucifixion was a common form of execution in Roman-occupied Palestine and his startling words must surely have brought to mind gruesome scenes of condemned prisoners, dragging their own means of death to a place of execution. Not much of a come-on line for would be believers!
The amazing thing is how little this message registered with Jesus’ hand-picked inner circle of twelve. Full of dreams of personal glory, they kept insisting they would go with him anywhere and drink any cup he must drink to the dregs. In the Evangelist Luke’s account of the Passion, they were even arguing amongst themselves at the Last Supper about who would be greatest in the new kingdom of their Master. Of course, within hours this bubble of brave talk burst, and they all turned-tail and fled like sheep, leaving Jesus to carry his cross alone.
A few of them crept back to watch in the shadows as Jesus was dragged from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing council, to Pontius Pilate, then, on to Herod’s Palace and back to the Hall of Pilate for the final sentencing, when the cross was laid upon Christ's shoulders. We know, at least, Peter and John were looking on, at some point, when Jesus set them this living example of what cross-carrying was all about.
After the Resurrection and Pentecost, the disciples did take up their crosses. According to Christian tradition, all but the Apostle John were martyrs for the faith with Andrew, Peter, and, perhaps, Bartholomew and Simon, actually, dying by crucifixion.
The rest of us can breath easy. Jesus is not calling us to literal death by crucifixion. When he says we must take up the cross daily, he is using an extreme metaphor to underscore how following him means giving up a way of life, centered on ourselves--what the New Testament writers describe as “dying to self.” Those are hard words, however you try to soften them, especially when you live in a culture, which has made self-realization (to be honest, self-indulgence) its ultimate goal.
There is good news for those who are struggling to take up the cross on their own. Jesus does not expect us to go it alone. He has marked out the way we should follow. In shouldering our cross, we may come to discover, as he tells us in Matthew 11:30, that his “yoke is easy” and his “burden is light.”
Give me the courage and strength to take up my cross, daily. If, at first, my head should bow under its weight, let my eyes be guided by the footprints you have left behind on the path before me. Amen.