The Crosses We Carry
To experience the Resurrection, put down your cross
The time of the year has returned when we walk the passion of Christ more intentionally. The last of the 14 Stations of the Cross nicely illustrates John 12:24: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Jesus having died is now that grain of wheat, as he surrendered one life for the next life.
Most artist renditions of the 14 stations have a cross at each station except the first and last. In the first, Jesus has not yet taken the cross (or been given it), and in the last, the cross has been removed (or Jesus removed from it). The other 12 stations typically have the cross in the scene, whether on Jesus’ shoulder, crushing him when he falls three times, lying flat on the ground as he is being nailed to it or standing there empty once he is taken down from it. The cross is as central to these 12 pictures as Jesus himself.
This beginning and ending the Stations without a cross might be a cause to contemplate those places in our lives where a particular cross has not yet been given to us or taken on by us (Station 1) and a cross that is no longer a part of our lives (Station 14). The Scriptures are dotted with reminders of how the cross is taken up daily as we follow Jesus. Some of those crosses are imposed on us and others we take by choice and/or by duty. Some are personal as in health; others are vocational as we carry out our pastoral ministry. The Stations reveal there is a beginning and end to each cross. There are many crosses — even daily crosses — but eventually we put down each, and it is then no longer in the picture.
An illness that is a true cross both for the patient and for the many people surrounding the patient is Alzheimer’s disease. As the person journeys through his or her Way of the Cross, sometimes for years, there only seems to be fall after fall, with multiple Simons helping out as the disease progresses. A person who was once very private is now stripped of his or her dignity as children change their parent’s diaper. So many lost hopes and dreams when a married couple who once dreamed of traveling the world in retirement are now confined to the four walls of a locked-down nursing home ward. This cross that chooses us does so without prejudice. Though no one wishes death on another, death is inevitable for each of us. St. Francis of Assisi bids us to look forward to that Fourteenth Station when there is no more cross in this person’s life, even inviting Sister Death to walk with this person as one transitions into that next life, that last station where there is no more cross.
As confessors, we hear the crosses of people’s lives. As penitents come to share their sins, more often than not they are sharing a cross that is burdening them. People share the brokenness of their lives — for example, the estranged relationship among family members who have not spoken to each other for years. They may be confessing their contribution to the estranged relationship. Or they may share how they are innocent bystanders watching the estrangement of two siblings who do not speak directly to one another but only through the penitent. The penitent, like the women of Jerusalem, weeps as this cross casts a shadow on the family that endures this estrangement. This type of cross is difficult as we try to offer counsel to the penitent to seek the Fourteenth Station, where the cross is no longer part of their life. How do we convey the need to bury that cross and let it produce a new and life-giving relationship? Sometimes this style of cross is self-inflicted and, over time, people forget why they’re still carrying it. The challenging question, “What enjoyment do you receive by carrying this self-imposed cross?” is met with bewilderment. If you don’t like the cross you have chosen to carry, reconcile with your sibling and take the cross out of the picture of your life. Typically the cross has been there so long that life cannot be imagined without it. It is like the person who is always angry; when you take their anger away, their life seems empty.
The cross of addiction is commonplace in people’s lives. Priests have heard it all, whether drugs or alcohol, gambling or sexual addiction. The bearer of the cross remembers the days before the First Station, when the cross was not part of the picture of life. The addicted one yearns to return to that day. Possibly our role as confessor is to encourage not to look back when the cross was not there, but to look forward to the day when the cross can be forsaken. Look forward to Station Fourteen. One cannot turn back the clock; unfortunately there are no do-overs. One could, though, take control of the cross. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, chose to be in control of his cross, choosing to walk the difficult walk to embrace it fully so that he can surrender himself fully to God, who then releases him from the cross. Walking through those 12 other stations with the cross of addiction is not easy. Jesus had a goal in mind, which kept him walking and focused. Maybe one could keep their eye on that Fourteenth Station, where there is no more cross in the picture. This is not a journey without its setbacks — not a journey one does without help, not without encouragement along the way, not without baring it all. Burying the cross to see what God has in store in the new life without this cross is a journey worth trying.
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Then there are the daily crosses of life, those that are here today and gone tomorrow. Every priest can name the many crosses in life that simply come with the territory of ministry. We are no different than any married couple, any parent, any person committed to a mission or a cause. These multiple crosses are not life-threatening (as a terminal illness), they are not debilitating (as an addiction), but when the ministerial crosses are frequent or just constant, it takes its toll, and it can be exhausting. The cross may be the constant financial worries of the parish and wondering if payroll can be met this week. The cross can be the constant wear and tear of life making sure all the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted for all the regulations imposed by the diocese and local municipalities. Just when you think you have a breather, the letter may arrive from the city for the biannual inspection of all boilers, or all the elevators and lifts installed in the many buildings, or the health department may want to inspect the school kitchen. The cross that sends chills down many spines is the notice that it is your turn for a financial audit or, even scarier, the compliance audit of the Charter for Protection of Children. It appears that Station 1 (life without a cross) does not exist. We live somewhere in the other 12 stations, where a cross is imposed or taken up daily. The Fourteenth Station is there, though, beckoning us to continue the journey, keep moving, keep carrying, keep following and praying to Jesus. Surrender a cross daily to experience the Resurrection daily.
FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management.