‘Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” ‘(Matthew 16: 24-25). Let’s be honest: these words of Jesus about taking up our cross are not easy for us to hear. What we like much more are his words of comfort, words such as ‘ “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” ‘(Matthew 11: 28). How do we as followers of Jesus make sense of these two quotations from Matthew? The key, I think, lies in the continuation of Matthew 11: 28, which is as follows: ‘ “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ “ (Matthew 29-30).
To see what I think Jesus means, let us first consider his words about taking up our cross and following him. When we look at Jesus’ life we see that he did not in any way seek to avoid the pain and the sheer messiness of life on this earth. His life was devoted to loving us, even when his exercise of that love brought him the condemnation of those in power. His was a life lived wholly for others, indeed for us. I do not think Jesus is telling us to seek suffering: his healing of the sick shows how he hated to see people suffer. What I believe he is saying is that suffering does come to us in one way or another and that we need to deal with it by seeking to put an end to it, if that is possible, or by enduring it with courage if that is the only choice open to us. Either alternative will probably not be easy. By curing the sick and raising the dead Jesus angered the religious establishment. When he was faced with his execution on a cross he did so with courage. In so doing he not only showed us God’s pattern for us, but showed his humanity, his solidarity with us in sharing both the suffering and the death that come to each of us.
How did Jesus do it? He did it by his complete and humble trust in the love of God, a trust that told him that his life was not meant to be an exercise in keeping quiet when he knew he should speak out or in refusing to take action when he knew such action could be costly. In short, Jesus was more concerned with doing the right thing than he was with making sure he had a safe life. And I reckon he lived this way, not because he was looking forward to being rewarded with his seat in heaven, but simply because he knew that by living this way he was united with the source of all peace and joy. In his letter to the Philippians Paul speaks of Jesus’ choosing to give up his divinity to become one of us, to share all that we experience, both good and bad; yet at the same time Jesus completely trusted in God (Philippians 2: 5-8).
With this in mind it seems to me that if we are to take up our cross and find its yoke to be easy, we must humbly seek to trust in God as Jesus did. Just as he emptied himself of his divinity, so we must try to empty ourselves of our self-centredness in order to become more God-centred. The more God-centred we become, the less we think of our own problems and ills and burdens, and even of our eventual death, and the more we can think of a loving act, an act done in imitation of Christ, as its own reward. As we become more centred in God, the less we have to fear. And the less we fear, the lighter our burdens lighten and our pilgrimage towards God becomes more joyful. This is what enables us to take up our cross and follow him.
Yours in Christ,