Carrying the Cross

· Suffering,Theology,Cross

Since entering the Season of Lent, I’ve been investigating what it means to give something up, and why this is a Lenten practice. In the past, like many others, I’ve given up chocolate. Eating – no, savouring – chocolate brings me pleasure and even, at times, comfort. But giving it up has always seemed like a strange practice. Why do I need to give something up over Lent? Is there a deeper meaning behind it?

What I have found are the words of Jesus:

If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24, NRSVUE)

Giving up one thing is a mere reminder that what I should be giving up is my life. This is what it takes to follow Jesus.

That message is not absent from our pulpits or Bible studies. But it doesnt always hold the strength it once did. Rarely do I consider whether I am really giving up my whole life.

And this has become discomfiting to me. What does it mean to give up my life?

To find an answer to that question, I have returned to a perspective on Lent that has Japanese origins – that of Kosuke Koyama. Koyama was a 20th century theologian of the cross who did much of his later work in North America. He observed Western Christianity from a viewpoint entirely different to our own. And here is what he saw:

broken image

It’s an image of a Christian carrying a cross – someone obeying Jesus’s command:

If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24, NRSVUE)

But wait. Is this Christian truly denying himself, taking up his cross, and following Jesus? Look a little closer. The cross doesn’t seem that heavy. No. It’s compact. Its weight is no more than a briefcase or a lunchbox. And like a briefcase and a lunchbox, it has a handle.

And why should it not? Why should Christians not take up a briefcase-sized cross? Doesn’t this allow us to deliver the good news of Jesus in a more efficient way? Doesn’t it make for faster movement to a greater number of people who need to follow Jesus? And doesn’t a lunchbox-like cross resource us, nourishing us for our journey?

But there was nothing efficient about Jesus’s journey to his place of death. His cross was heavy and cumbersome. It did not give him energy. It tolled out a death knell.

[Jesus] did not know how to carry it, yet he carried it without a handle. (Koyama, No Handle on the Cross, 7)

When Jesus denied himself and took up his cross, he could not ease his suffering even with the modest help of a handle. The only hope he had was in a God who promises to transform a creation burdened by heavy, cumbersome suffering.

This is how I need to interpret that symbol of giving something up. I cannot take up my cross without first giving up my life. And any efficiency or resourcefulness I bring to the task of following Jesus must first be shaped by a transforming God. Only then can I truly follow Jesus.

Anybody want some chocolate?