“Take up your cross and follow me.”
This invitation shapes the hard road in Lent toward Holy Week and therefore, one might say, the challenge of the whole Christian life. But what does it mean?
The image of the cross and the urging to “take it up” (as many Christians heard from Mark’s Jesus just yesterday), has certainly meant more than just one thing over the last 2,000 years. Some of those meanings have been hurtful and damaging, and we might spend some time this Lent seeking forgiveness for how we Christians have used our central image in harmful ways.
We might recall, for example, those moments when someone might say, “Well, that’s just the cross you have to bear.” They say this as if violence is just obviously a means to a greater end, or perhaps (more insidiously) that some of us must bear burdens so that others may thrive.
Not long after coming out as a gay man (way) back in the 1980s, I remember some of my Evangelical friends assuming I would be leading a life free of sexual intimacy because, you know, that’s just the “cross I would have to bear.”
More severely, battered women in situations of domestic violence are sometimes told to stay with their violent husbands because, well, that’s just the “cross they have to bear.”
People say things like this, often with the very best of intentions, usually because they don’t know what else to say, and also without any awareness of what this implies about our relationships with each other and our conceptions of God.
To say to someone who is suffering, maybe even terrorized, likely afraid or even alone, that their situation should be embraced as a spiritual discipline is simply not the Gospel; it would certainly not come from the God of Jesus Christ.
Among the handful of things I am absolutely sure about concerning God, this is one of them: God does not demand sacrifice from us in order to love us. I don’t mean that sacrifice itself is inherently bad—many of us make sacrifices both small and large for our children, our spouses, our friends, and good causes of all kinds. But God does not demand that we make sacrifices to earn divine favor.
Realizing this about God eventually convinced me of this: God would never, ever intend harm. Honestly, if each of us chanted that as a mantra every day during Lent, the world would change for the better.
But what about the cross?
That’s a big question that deserves a range of responses. Here’s just one proposal for the Lenten season and it begins by going back to Christmas.
Back then, on that most holy night, we celebrated the Word of God in the flesh—but not just any flesh. It was the vulnerable flesh of a newborn baby, newly born not in a house but a barn, a baby born into a province occupied by an imperial power, a power that regularly terrorized and oppressed his people.
That baby grew up and told his friends about his impending death—but not just any kind of death. It would be a death after bodily humiliations and with public shaming for political purposes and through the means of state-sponsored execution.
From cradle to tomb, Jesus experiences the fullest possible range of human life: care, tenderness, joy, and friendship, and also the precarious qualities of mortal existence on the margins of society and among the least powerful of his world. Jesus experiences all of this not only by the “accidents” of his birthplace but through his own choice to live and act in solidarity with those even more marginalized than himself—fishermen, women, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the demon-possessed, the outcast, the forgotten.
The cross stands as the supreme example of the solidarity he lived his whole life, not only with his own conquered people but also with the betrayed, the abandoned, and the tortured.
Why would anyone stand in that kind of solidarity with anyone else? Why would anyone freely choose to follow that way of the cross?
I can think of only one answer: love.
That’s what makes the cross a thing of beauty and not only an ugly reminder of state-sponsored torture. That’s why the fourth-century deacon Ephrem of Edessa could imagine the cross as a tree that blossoms in the spring. That’s why an ancient Latin hymn brings me to tears every Holy Week:
Faithful cross! above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
sweetest weight is hung on thee.
This life I live, Jesus says, and this death I die, this is what God’s love looks like.
So, how then should we live?
Mark’s Jesus suggests this:
Give yourself away.
Lose your life.
Take up your cross.
Mark phrases this exhortation to individual disciples, but I think it applies equally as well to communities of discipleship, to the work of creating communities of radical love.
I’m not sure the world needs anything more than just that right now, I mean something like this:
communities who are safe standing with those under threat;
communities of the powerful standing with the weakest;
communities born in the center of privilege standing at the margins;
white communities standing with people of color;
human communities standing with other-than-human animals.
Communities like that, standing in solidarity and vulnerability—standing in love—might be the most beautiful thing in the world.
That’s a Lenten road worth traveling.