“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23
While I am convinced this passage applies to me and every Christian daily, it is one that seems especially meaningful during Holy Week when I am mindful of Jesus’ passion in such a poignant way. I’ve always thought this instruction was quite high on Jesus’ requirements for his disciples because this saying is direct, succinct and it appears in all three synoptic gospels. (Also in Mark 8 and Matthew 16.) It is a scripture passage that I’ve heard many sermons on and it has given me much to ponder over the years. It can be applied to so many human attitudes, struggles and situations.
I recently reread a passage from Walk with Jesus by Henri Nouwen that gave me pause. “There is even a harder task: to carry my own cross, the cross of loneliness and isolation, the cross of the rejections I experience, the cross of my depression and inner anguish. As long as I … cannot carry the pain that is uniquely mine, I may become an activist, even a defender of humanity, but not yet a follower of Jesus.”
As I reflected on Nouwen’s meditation, I recalled this scripture passage and the myriad of ways we humans have devised to avoid carrying our crosses – the crosses of loneliness, emptiness, incompleteness, envy, frustration, fatigue, disappointment, low self-confidence, failure. The list seems endless. And we seem to attempt to try to fill these inner voids, these dark empty spaces, by pulling others in with us. We are tired and feel justified in being impatient and unpleasant. We cast our angry or melancholy moods onto others with our rudeness and short tempers. Attempting to boost our own self-image, we take bites out of others’ self-esteem with criticism or resentful remarks. We project our envy by whining, trying to make others feel guilty for their good fortune. Finding ourselves over-committed, we attempt to elicit sympathy – perhaps even try to get others to rescue us.
When we experience inner pain – internal angst – we often try to avoid holding it, avoid carrying our cross by laying it on others. Jesus, however, picked up his cross with great courage and persevered to Calvary. Perhaps one of the invitations of Holy Week is the challenge to pick up and carry the personal crosses of our inner pain and to carry them without burdening or hurting others. Jesus accepted his pain and suffering without passing it on. He endured physical pain, but also the inner pain of humiliation, rejection, false accusation, loneliness and abandonment and returned only love and forgiveness.
Frequently during Lent, we are asked to reflect on whether we are as faithful to Jesus in the painful times as we are when things are going well. When Jesus instructs us to “take up your cross and follow me,” perhaps he is asking us simply to be like Him, to be kind, loving and forgiving daily in both our dark and our sunny days.