This weekend at Catholic Masses throughout the world, believers will once again hear the invitation from the Lord Jesus, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
It’s been heard so often, in one form or another or in one way or another, that the rawness of the cross has been tamed. Have Christian believers domesticated the message of the cross? Do we still understand the starkness of its summons?
At the time of the Lord Jesus, the cross was feared by the peoples who were occupied by the Roman Empire. It was a brutal form of torture and death that was used for extreme offenses against political stability or the collection of taxes. Rome’s usual sense of civility was suspended in its periodic barbaric use of the cross.
People who were under Rome’s authority trembled at the possibility of the cross and imperial Rome relied on that fright for the facilitation of control and commerce.
The cross was so savage that by Roman law no formal citizen of the empire could be crucified. The Roman philosopher Cicero argued that no civilized person should even utter the word “crucifixion” since it was such an affront to civilization and decency.
It might help us to understand the cruelty of the cross by realizing that the English word “excruciating” comes from the Latin word for cross.
And yet, in the forum of this heinous and infernal reality, the Lord Jesus – gentle and humble of heart – calls his followers to “take up their cross.” We can only imagine the initial shock and disbelief of the original listeners to his message.
This teacher wants us to take up the cross? Is he serious? Is this rabbi sane?
While the cross is incomparable in its depravity, it might help us to apply the same message in a more contemporary context. What if Jesus Christ were to say to us today: If you want to follow me, you must come and sit on my lap in the electric chair and fry with me. What would be our immediate reaction?
And while disturbing, even this modern day verbiage is nothing compared to the invitation to take up a cross with all its torture, pain, humiliation, and indignity.
The crowds around the Lord Jesus during his public ministry understood exactly what he was saying. And while they didn’t hesitate to ask, or even demand, signs, miracles, and healings from him, it’s no surprise that less than one hundred people accepted the call to become his disciple.
It light of this realization, it might also help us to appreciate why the imagery of the cross was not predominant in Christian worship or art until Christianity was given legal tolerance in the fourth century. Up until that time, the popular images of the Lord Jesus were of him as the Good Shepherd or the Good Teacher. Even Christians, who accepted the hypothetical of the cross, feared its reality and avoided its depiction.
And yet, the cross is what the Lord gives as a condition to following him. How is such an invitation to be understood?
The cross stands as the world spins. It strips away any romanticism, idealism, or any such fluff. It cuts to the core of our fallen world. It lifts up the thin veneer of civilization and implodes artificiality. It shows us – in all its severity – the darkness and nothingness of sin and the real capacity for evil in our own hearts and in our world.
The Lord is not a divine handy man. He does not offer false comfort or empty promises. He does not commit himself to remove suffering from us. The Lord offers the cross and he asks his disciples to accept it.
For those who have the faith and love to embrace the cross, however, the Lord gives power to convert darkness into light, brokenness into beauty, and sorrow into joy. These are not cheap blessings that fall from the sky, but hard blessings – because they’re real – that are fought for and received by grace in the midst of the cross, with all its sufferings and hardships.
Rather than one more self-help guide, the message of Jesus Christ is a radical call to embrace what is most feared and evil, so that they can be fought and conquered from the inside out. The Christian way of life is an empowerment by God’s grace to boldly announce good news to despair and generous redemption to sin.
The life of the Christian believer is one marked by the acceptance of the cross, in imitation of the Lord Jesus, so that goodness can be championed and glory can be revealed.