Lord Jesus Christ,
May it be our privilege to bear your cross.
May we glory in nothing else.
By it may the world be crucified unto us
and we unto the world.
May be never shrink from suffering,
but rather rejoice to be counted worthy
to be suffering members of your mystical body.
O Christ, live and suffer in each of us.
These are the words we use to pray each time to pick up the cross. As with all frequently used prayers we must challenge ourselves not to drain them of meaning.
So here are a few of my reflections.
The cross is not a nice fluffy symbol. It is a horrifically painful means of execution. The Roman army used crucifixion as a deterrent. “Comply with our rule or this is where you will end up”. Jesus would have seen many fellow Jews put on crosses for their actions against Rome. Some were violent rebels, others the victims of collective punishment.
So as we carry crosses on pilgrimage it is important for us to remember that for the first readers of the New Testament the cross is something harsh, something violently powerful; perhaps those of us who have only ever lived comfortable lives cannot fully understand what the cross meant in the first century.
When Jesus tells his disciples “If you do not pick up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple” (Matthew 16:24/Luke 9:23) he is making a statement which is mind-blowingly challenging. Jesus seems to be saying that unless you are willing to be crucified then you are no use as a disciple! Wow! Who then can be a disciple?
So it would be a gross devaluing of the cross to pretend that on Student Cross our inconvenient blisters and sore shoulders are in any way analogous to the suffering of crucifixion. Taking up our crosses in a literal sense is merely a mild inconvenience on an otherwise enjoyable walk. We must look deeper to understand what we are doing and why.
We know from the New Testament and from Josephus that the history of first century Palestine was a story of extreme violence, the violence of the Roman rule, the violence of Jewish rebellions and the subsequent violence of the Roman response.
This path of violence was not Jesus’ way. Jesus continually challenged those around him to love each other more deeply. Loving more deeply was not a soft and cuddly reality, loving included standing up against injustice, challenging those who were oppressing others, challenging oppressive religious rules. At times loving others involved non-violently resisting unjust authority.
Jesus was a political realist, he knew that his actions would only be tolerated so far. In the end his non-violent opposition led to the same treatment as was meted out to those who used violent opposition, he was nailed to a cross.
When Jesus asks his disciples to pick up their cross, Jesus is calling on his disciples to have the same courage that he had.
But in the end his disciples were not able to follow him. Instead of being crucified alongside his disciples Jesus is instead crucified between two men of violence. These two bandits followed a misguided path of violence, but nevertheless it is they rather than the disciples who had the courage to die alongside Jesus.
As we read on in to the stories of the resurrection the disciples receive the forgiveness which will allow them to re-begin their discipleship. But this new life doesn’t exempt them from suffering, In Acts the disciple rejoice to be counted worthy to suffer (5:41). Colossians tell us that we are called to rejoice in suffering for other! and that we are able to make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ! (1:24)
So what does all this mean for us.
For me carrying the cross is a sacramental activity, in some mysterious way we make present a deeper reality. As we walk through the countryside of England we are enabled to walk with Jesus.
We walk with him into the Jordan river with John and receive a call to metanoia.
We walk with him in his ministry of healing and exorcism.
We walk with him as he challenges unjust use of power.
We walk with him as he teaches his disciples how to love.
We stand with him and share in the last supper with all its anticipatory danger of what is to come.
We stand at the cross while he writhes in pain.
We feel bewildered on the morning of the resurrection.
And on meeting the risen Jesus we are led into new life, inspired to change our world.
On Student Cross, as we carry our cross towards Walsingham, we are invited into this journey. Our physical pilgrimage allows us to walk through these mysteries, to reflect more deeply, to immerse ourselves into the story and the immensity of God’s love.
But walking with Jesus is also a challenge. As we Accept love we implicitly take on a vocation to love others, this means that when we end our pilgrimage we are called to go home and to seek out the places where people are most downtrodden and most forgotten, to go there and to live out the ministry of love.
We do not seek suffering but the Gospel stories are clear, living a life of love will inevitably lead us to sacrifice and suffering. Each of us is called to work out where Jesus is calling us to take up our cross and follow him. It is this part of Jesus’ call which terrifies us, so we are tempted to run away, to hide, to reinterpret, to water-down. Maybe that’s why Jesus tells us time and again, “Do not be afraid”, death is followed by resurrection. In the end it is joy which persists.
So come and walk Student Cross, it won’t be easy but it might change your life.
written by Matthew Neville