5 min. to read.
Good morning and welcome to the 31st day of Lent. As a part of my practice this year, I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) in response.
John 19:16-17 is the scripture today. Jesus carries his cross.
After the scourging and mocking coronation, Jesus was handed over to the executioners. They threw the cross beam on his shoulders and led him out of the city to the hill of executions, Golgotha.
Jesus had been telling his followers this was coming. Now it was happening. Jesus carried his cross through the city and out to the place of death. Jesus’ followers should not have been surprised. He gave them ample notice, but the idea of Jesus’ death was so far outside their preconception that when Jesus said it, they couldn’t hear him. They imagined he was wrong or perhaps just speaking in metaphors.
We still do this now, all these years later. We have the gospels. We know the passion story. Crucifixes and paintings of the crucifixion are common enough that most of us know something about what crucifixion means. And still, we think at least where we are concerned Jesus was speaking in metaphors.
In one of the scenes where Jesus warned his disciples about what was to come found in Luke’s gospel, Jesus said, “‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.'” (Luke 9:22-23)
Jesus tells those who follow him that they, too, will be asked to carry a cross. This saying of Jesus has given birth to countless sermons and songs. The phrase “take up your cross” is a ubiquitous part of the Christian lexicon. But when we talk about “bearing our cross,” what do we really think Jesus meant? Much of the time, we’re talking about putting up with some inconvenience, some minor discomfort, a personality tick, an annoying relative, a delay in our plans. Sometimes, much less frequently, we’re talking about some kind of unavoidable suffering.
But Jesus wasn’t talking about irritations or delays in our happiness. He was talking about death. For Jesus, for every person in his original audience, and for the early Christians until the 4th century when crucifixion was abolished in the Roman Empire, the cross was an instrument of torture and death. When Jesus told his followers they would be called on to “take up their cross daily,” he was inviting them to come and die.
It’s important, I think, to delay our rush to make this into a metaphor. Undoubtedly the call to “die daily” can’t refer to literal death every day for every person. Yet, our rush to avoid the literal reading turns the daily death into something meaningless.
For some followers of Jesus, this call was indeed a call to literal death. They would die for their faith or for their association with the faithful. They would die because of prejudice and hatred. For others, the call to daily take up the cross isn’t literal. We must begin to see the metaphor, but in transitioning to metaphor, don’t let the cross lose its edge. To understand this invitation to a daily cross, let Jesus’ own cross guide us.
What was the cross for Jesus? It was death for others, the final act of other-centered co-suffering love in Jesus’ earthly life. The cross wasn’t a mild inconvenience delaying his plans or something to bear for a time until life improved. The cross was Jesus laying down his life for his enemies.
If Jesus’ cross is a model for ours, then the invitation to take up a daily cross must refer to the process of dying to self when we serve others. We die a little ego-death when we are willing to be wrong or weak, or when we let go of defending our reputation. We die a little ego-death when we share what we have with others or stand with the marginalized at a cost.
Most of us have grown up in a culture that taught us to “Look out for #1.” We’ve been raised to think our value is found in achievement and accumulation. If we are going to love our neighbor as ourselves, if we are going to serve “the least of these” as Jesus taught us, we must transgress the cultural expectation of self-justification and self-protection. That requires dying daily.
Lent invites us to embrace the death of ego. This way is life.