One of Jesus’ famous sayings is, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). What does it mean to carry a cross, and how do we do so with grace?
“The cross” symbolizes the difficulties of the mission or calling we have received in life. Some of those difficulties may come from our own poor choices. We may have made decisions that caused damage to our life or to other relationships, and now require work to repair. Some aspects of the cross may be beyond our control. Other people may create obstacles, or circumstances may present difficulties beyond anyone’s control. However, whether they are voluntary or involuntary, we have the interior choice to embrace them to the extent that we must, or to allow them to overcome us. When we embrace them we remember that we are not embracing suffering for its own sake, but for the sake of the mission we have received. Will it be accomplished, or will we allow it to remain unfinished?
Making the decision to “take up our cross” is only a first step. How do we plan to carry that cross? As funny as it is, we so often choose to do so in the most difficult way. I’ve certainly chosen to tackle things the “hard way” plenty of times myself! So, we also want to look at how we can carry the cross with grace.
- We shouldn’t be afraid of our failures or weaknesses. Instead, they are opportunities to grow in the essential virtue of humility. Humility doesn’t mean thinking of ourselves as terrible people but is about acknowledging the truth about ourselves. The cross will at times reveal our weaknesses, and so can allow us to grow in better self-awareness. Christ came to save our real self, not an image that we have created to show to others.
- Related to that, the cross can open us up to an experience of mercy. Mercy is a gift freely offered by God, and it is a powerful thing to receive it when we are aware of our true need for it. Likewise, we shouldn’t be afraid to receive mercy and help from others. God didn’t intend us to carry our cross alone, and trying to do so is an example of choosing to do things the hard way! When we experience our weaknesses we should reach out for support. It is not true that no one cares, or that no one can help us. We need a serious prayer life. We need friends or some form of community. For Catholics we have the profound gift of the Sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation. Many stay away from this out of embarrassment, when it is a tremendous opportunity to talk directly about our greatest difficulties. God desires to give forgiveness, grace, and counsel. Why stay away?
- Being aware of our weaknesses can also help us to grow in compassion for others. Understanding our own cross gives us grounds to understand others who struggle (whether in similar or different ways). We can pray for an increase in patience and understanding with others when we encounter our own weakness.
- Last (at least for this list!), Christ invites us to see our cross as united with his in the work of the fulfillment of the redemption. There is a tradition among Catholics of “offering up” our struggles as a form of prayer for others. For example, when we engage in our least favorite part of our vocation or job, we can offer it for the needs of others. This can be done in general or for some particular need (e.g. those who struggle with similar things, the needs of our family, a world disaster, etc). It is a way of imitating the profound words of St Paul: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). We don’t understand this as saying that there is something insufficient in the work of Christ, but rather that we can share in the continued extension of this work. In the Mass we have a concrete moment to unite our cross with Christ’s. The truth is that if we avoid our mission there is some work in the world that will not be done. Instead of being so afraid of taking up our cross, maybe we should be afraid of not allowing the mission given to us to be fulfilled!
Carrying the cross is not easy, and these words only tackle a few of the issues. However, I hope they give some help to understanding the work we are called to undertake, and how to do it with grace. God bless!