As I wrestle with life, I find that reading from many sources of inspiration from Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland, to the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Tao Te Ching, to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, helps me to begin to make sense of my experiences. I had rejected some of the more traditional sources of inspiration earlier in my life, having been indoctrinated by priests and nuns with a literal reading of these age-old books of wisdom. More recently I’ve come to value some of the stories in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. The excerpt below is from one of my favorite Catholic writers, Ronald Rolheiser, and refers to a quote we are not meant to take literally.
Father Rolheiser and other progressive Christian authors seem to understand that just as Yeshua of Nazareth taught with parables, so did his followers in the writing of the Christian gospels. The stories which I was told I must understand literally (and therefore rejected), are loaded with metaphors which can be useful in helping us reflect upon and learn from our own life experiences. The following excerpt from Rolheiser is a reflection on the seemingly rather harsh gospel quote…
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 9:23–24).
I doubt the gospel writers are really telling us that we need to carry a cross about to be saved. But as a metaphor, it might have a deep meaning for those of us who have suffered (I guess that means all of us). Rolheiser writes….
I suspect that each of us has a gut-sense of what this means… but I suspect too that many of us misunderstand what Jesus is asking here and struggle unhealthily with this invitation. What, concretely, does Jesus mean by this?
To answer that, I would like to lean on some insights offered by James Martin in his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage. He suggests that taking up our cross daily and giving up life in order to find deeper life means six interpenetrating things:
First, it means accepting that suffering is a part of our lives. Accepting our cross and giving up our lives means that, at some point, we have to make peace with the unalterable fact that frustration, disappointment, pain, misfortune, illness, unfairness, sadness, and death are a part of our lives and they must ultimately be accepted without bitterness. As long as we nurse the notion that pain in our lives is something we need not accept, we will habitually find ourselves bitter—bitter for not having accepted the cross.
Second, taking up our cross and giving up our lives means that we may not, in our suffering, pass on any bitterness to those around us. We have a strong inclination, almost as part of our natural instincts, to make others suffer when we are suffering: “If I’m unhappy, I will make sure that others around me are unhappy too!” This does not mean, as Martin points out, that we cannot share our pain with others. But there’s a healthy way of doing this, where our sharing leaves others free, as opposed to an unhealthy kind of sharing that subtly tries to make others unhappy because we are unhappy. There’s a difference between healthily groaning under the weight of our pain and unhealthily whining in self-pity and bitterness under that weight. The cross gives us permission to do the former, but not the latter. Jesus groaned under the weight of his cross, but no self-pity, whining, or bitterness issued forth from his lips or his beaten body.
Third, walking in the footsteps of Jesus as he carries his cross means that we must accept some other deaths before our physical death, that we are invited to let some parts of ourselves die. When Jesus invites us to die in order to find life, he is not, first of all, talking about physical death. If we live in adulthood, there are a myriad of other deaths that we must undergo before we die physically. Maturity and discipleship are about perennially naming our deaths, claiming our births, mourning our losses, letting go of what’s died, and receiving new spirit for the new life that we are now living. These are the stages of growing up. There are small deaths in our lives…. daily.
Fourth, it means that we must wait for the resurrection, that here in this life all symphonies must remain unfinished. So much of life and discipleship is about waiting—waiting in frustration, inside injustice, inside pain, in longing, battling bitterness—as we wait for something or someone to come and change our situation. We spend about 98 percent of our lives waiting for fulfillment, in small and big ways. Jesus’s invitation to us to follow him implies waiting and accepting the truth that we live inside an unfinished symphony.
Fifth, carrying our cross daily means accepting that God’s gift to us is often not what we expect. God always answers our prayers but, oftentimes, by giving us what we really need rather than what we think we need. Resurrection, says James Martin, does not come when we expect it and rarely fits our notion of how a resurrection should happen. To carry your cross is to be open to surprise.
Finally, taking up your cross and being willing to give up your life means living in a faith that believes that nothing is impossible for God. As James Martin puts it, this means accepting that God is greater than the human imagination. Indeed, whenever we succumb to the notion that God cannot offer us a way out of our pain into some kind of newness, it’s precisely because we have reduced God down to the size of our own limited imagination. It’s possible to accept our cross, to live in trust, and to not grow bitter inside pain only if we believe in possibilities beyond what we can imagine; namely, if we believe in the resurrection.
FROM: Rolheiser, Ronald. The Passion and the Cross (pp. 64-67). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.
I find a lot of value in Rolheiser’s interpretation of the gospel quote. Perhaps you’d share your own thoughts in the comments box below?