“Why Do You Fear to Take Up the Cross?”

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin
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Why, then, do you fear to take up the cross when through it you can win a kingdom? In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life . . . There is no salvation of soul nor hope of everlasting life but in the cross. (The Imitation of Christ)

As the Church approaches Passiontide, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to the Cross of Christ, and the spiritual classic, “The Imitation of Christ,” gives us an excellent starting point.

The precise origins of “The Imitation of Christ” are shrouded in mystery. Scholars believe, however, that two or three members of an association of priests who lived in the Netherlands in the 14th century, kept journals of their spiritual reflections which were later compiled, edited and translated into Latin by Thomas a Kempis, another member of the association. He is usually cited as the author.

The language of the “Imitation” might be considered archaic by today’s standards, and its piety rather severe, but precisely for that reason it offers a valuable antidote to the superficial, sentimental spirituality we encounter today. The reflections on the Cross of Christ lead us right to the heart of the Christian Faith.

Thomas a Kempis teaches two important lessons about the cross.

The first is that embracing the cross has enormous spiritual value. “Why do you fear to take up the cross when through it you can win a kingdom?” he asks. “In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life.”

Here we find an unmistakable echo of the words of Jesus: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 16: 24-25)

The other lesson is that as we journey through life it is impossible to avoid the reality of the cross. “Arrange and order everything to suit your will and judgment, and still you will find that some suffering must always be borne, willingly or unwillingly, and thus you will always find the cross,” Thomas a Kempis writes. “The cross, therefore, is always ready; it awaits you everywhere. No matter where you go, you cannot escape it,” he adds.

An important insight, of course, but you’ve already experienced that, haven’t you? I suspect that you’ve already met the cross in your life.

If you’ve mourned the death of a precious loved one; or have had to deal with a debilitating, painful illness; or cared for a parent slowly drifting away in the clutches of dementia; or helplessly watched a son or daughter lose the battle with addiction; or have been tormented by mental illness; or have wrestled with the paralyzing effects of scrupulosity; or have been terrified by the prospect of financial ruin; or have been betrayed by a longtime friend; or (here you fill in the blank) . . . you have already met the cross in your life.

The cross can come at any time in life, in many shapes and sizes, but come it will.

When that cross is laid upon our shoulders, however, it’s a blessing to have someone step forward to help us carry it.

The Gospel tells us that when Jesus was led away to be crucified, “they took hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, and after laying the cross on him, they made him carry it behind Jesus.” (Lk 23: 26)

Poor Simon. There’s no indication that he had done anything wrong at all, but now he found himself in the middle of this horrendous scene, strapped to the heavy cross of a convicted criminal, surrounded by a furious, vulgar, bloodthirsty crowd. As unjust as it was, though, when Simon carried that heavy cross, it provided a brief moment of welcome respite for our Lord.

When you’ve walked the Via Crucis, when you’ve had to carry the cross, has there been a “Simon” to help you along the way, someone to lessen your burden? Or perhaps you’ve been Simon for someone else, helping a family member, friend or co-worker during their time of suffering? Is there someone you could be a Simon for right now, someone you could assist during their time of sadness and sorrow?

Of course the one who is always there to share our suffering and pain is our Blessed Mother Mary, the Mother of Sorrows. Mary stood at the foot of the cross and there was given to us, in the person of St. John, as our Mother. Mary shared in the Passion of her Son as no one else could. Mary understands our burdens too, and is always ready to walk with us in our moments of relentless pain and sorrow.

The beautiful, haunting hymn, the Stabat Mater captures the reality of Mary’s share in her Son’s suffering: “At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last . . . Let me share with thee his pain, who for all my sins was slain, who for me in torments died.”

As we set out on our pilgrimage each day, we don’t have to search for crosses or create them; without a doubt, they’ll come our way. But when they do, we shouldn’t run away from them either, for they have meaning and value for us. “In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life.”