Today is the last Friday before Palm Sunday and Holy Week. If you’re like a lot of Catholics, you might pray the Stations of the Cross this evening. And if you’re like me, you might get stuck along the way. During Lent we don’t only attempt to pray the Stations, but ideally we attempt to live them in a way by incorporating an awareness of Christ’s Passion into our daily life. We might reflect on our current struggles or challenges as our crosses, offering them to Christ as a way of walking His Via Crucis with Him. But sometimes in such a spiritual practice, we can get stuck. We might close ourselves up and think that “take up your cross” means that you’ve gotta go it alone. Or we might focus on the cross in such a way that it remains an instrument of torture, instead of a sign of redemption. Both of these approaches to the Passion can ultimately become a spiritual hindrance rather than a help.
I’d like to offer two humble insights that helped me this Lent when I felt stuck on the Way of the Cross.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matt 16:24) Christ
invites us to engage in discipleship fully and doesn’t sugar coat what that will mean. The way to redemption must lead through the cross in Christ. That invitation to follow Christ is entirely personal and unique, and each one of us must respond with our own yes or no. But that loneliness of choice wherein no one can take up our cross for us does not mean that we are alone or that we have to feel lonely. Christ never said that. Are you trying to carry your cross by yourself? Do you think you have to? Even Christ himself did not carry his cross alone! God sent him many signs of love along the Via Dolorosa: Veronica, Simon, John the Beloved, Mary Magdalene, and his own Mother Mary. We must not fall into the temptation of despair or self-sufficiency when we struggle with our crosses. Rather let us open our eyes and our hearts to God and ask to see the signs of love He has put into our lives – for the signs are there. When Christ appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection He promised them, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mat 28:20).
Compaña/Acompañarse is the word I feel when hear Christ say “I am with you always.” The very poor, literal English translation is “to accompany,” but the real translation has much more warmth than that. Acompañarse means going together with someone. It is that quality of truly being with the other, and it is a fruit of deep relationship with others and with God. Through His Presence living in others, Christ always nos acompaña on our Way of the Cross. I often pray the phrase “we are always three” from the following prayer when I need to be reminded that God me acompaña:
“Father, you will never send me cross or suffering without generously giving me the strength I need to bear it. The Bridegroom in me helps me carry everything and the Mother keeps watch, so we are always three.” *
Perhaps you’ve fallen into the second temptation of getting sucked into an overly emotional experience of the horrors of the Passion. Or perhaps on the reverse side you’re feeling emotionally disconnected or dry, or numb from all the talk about crucifixion and death. In a recent reflection, Fr Nathan Stone, SJ, put it this way:
Everyone wants to go and have a good cry at the gravesite, but no one seems to understand the meaning of the empty tomb. Our Way of the Cross is dramatic, bloody and crowded. The Easter Vigil is practically ignored. This is why the younger generation continues trapped in the sad, guilty and authoritarian doctrine. Those who don’t end up abandoning their faith will live it in an anxious, self-centered way. It will drain the life out of them.
I think he’s right on about that. First off, not only is it not good for us to wallow in the negative emotions, and not only does it send the wrong message to others about what being Christian is about, it’s also just plain wrong theologically. The Passion of the Christ ends with his Resurrection. It ends with victory over death, liberation from sins, and the joy of redeeming love.
Truly, it is because we trust in Christ’s transforming power over the cross that we’re able to take it up in the first place – we trust that the Resurrection will follow the cross! When we offer our suffering to God in childlike trust, we imitate Christ, who entrusted Himself fully to his “Abba” on the cross. Then God transforms our suffering into grace and abundance, however small or great or meaningless the offering might seem to human eyes. The mystery of this transformation reminds of an old Christian kid’s cassette tape my brothers and sister and I used to listen to when we were young: “Give Him filthy rags, He’ll turn them white as snow. Give Him hearts of stone, He’ll turn them into gold. That’s the way He is, my amazing King. Little things mean a lot to Him, and I’m amazed what He does with them. He shows them off like a diamond ring, that’s why I love my amazing King.” Every little thing we offer to God – every tear, every heartache, every moment of emotional dryness or intellectual confusion, is absolutely precious to Him, and nothing is wasted but made fruitful in Christ.
To show that the real Stations of the Cross do not end at Station 14 when Christ is laid in the tomb, Blessed John Paul II once even led hundreds of pilgrims in praying a 15th Station: Jesus Rises from the Dead (prayed in 1991 on Good Friday at the Vatican, Read more here). As we walk with our own crosses, let us always hold the light of the Resurrection before us.
Fr Nathan, SJ, concluded his meditation drawing our attention to the words of our current pope, Pope Francis, towards this very same point in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel):
” Pope Francis has called for a change. He says we have chosen everlasting lent over resurrection. We have created a sad religion that is closed in on itself. Rather than set believers free, it enslaves them. The Pope has called us to return to the source, to rediscover the joy of the Gospel. He insists that we cannot continue in this way. The Church is essentially a missionary effort. We must recover the joy of spreading the word. The world will not understand the good news if it comes from sad, anxious, impatient apostles. The fervor of the Gospel is joyful, a light that brightens the lives of all.…Before we begin Holy Week, let us commit to the Pascal Mystery in its entirety, from beginning to end. If we only have the energy for the tragedy of the cross perhaps we will feel catharsis from our own sorrows, or sorry for our sins. But we will elude the challenge of freedom and mission. We are called to live the Kingdom here and now. The resurrection of Jesus is not proof of his divinity. It is the promise that all who are baptized will have new life in him.”