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Take up your cross

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... until we fully accept what we've suffered -- until we genuinely take it up and carry it -- we cannot give it to Jesus.

Jaymie Stuart

''If you would be my disciple," Jesus said, "Take up your cross and follow me." It's one of those Gospel passages that's hard to follow with a "Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ." But beyond the poetic metaphor or theological abstraction, what does it really mean to take up your cross? Good Friday shows us.

Though he is declared innocent by the Roman procurator, Jesus is sentenced to death while a man guilty of rebellion and murder is set free. Condemned to crucifixion, he is forced to carry the instrument of his execution uphill and outside the city gates. He has already been beaten, mocked, and scourged, so it is no surprise that the King of the Jews falls under its weight. To make it, he must cling to it with all the strength he can muster. And it isn't enough. There will be no substitute offered in his place, no last-minute reprieve as there was for Isaac. Christ is the Lamb of God; he is the substitute, the one whose sacrifice fulfills all prior offerings and empowers all those to come. He will destroy death by submitting himself to it, by aligning himself completely with the Father's will to save us.

"If you would be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me." Taking up your cross means accepting the burdens God allows rather than rejecting, fighting, ignoring, or avoiding them. It means surrendering all the weight, all the baggage we accumulate and carry, to grace. It means giving God permission to make use of bad things -- the worst of what we suffer -- for his good purposes. And it isn't easy.

Instead, most of us do whatever we can to avoid pain. That's true not just in the present or with an eye toward the future, but even when it comes to pain we have experienced in the past. We do what we can to minimize the hurt and manage it. And it works, at least somewhat and for some time. But ultimately, our deepest wounds don't just go away. The pain we keep telling ourselves we left in the past betrays us. It signals its presence and shows its face in ways we don't recognize.

It's possible to unite our pain to the cross of Christ only because Jesus first united his suffering to ours. But there's a sticking point. It isn't possible to surrender something we do not possess. That is, until we fully accept what we've suffered -- until we genuinely take it up and carry it -- we cannot give it to Jesus.

And that matters, because without being united to his cross, our "crosses" are empty. They are not redemptive but can bring us only death.

Yet we know that suffering -- and only suffering -- brings redemption. God does not choose other means to save us. Instead, he takes our sins, our failures, and the most fatal wounds we have sustained, and uses them to bring us eternal life. God takes all the things we want to run away from and not only redeems them but glorifies us through them. He asks us to accept and carry them so that we can truly surrender them to him. He makes our suffering a pathway through the sea. Our own way of the cross is how he joins us to his Passion and death. The suffering God allows in our lives is our redemption. Nothing else is.

The cross is our only hope. But we don't need to place ourselves in Jerusalem in A.D. 33 to find it. As we walk with Jesus on the Via Dolorosa this year, let's stop trying to imagine what it would be like to carry his cross and focus on picking up our own instead. Let's allow ourselves to feel the crushing weight of our life's pain long enough to fully surrender it to him. And let's trust him to redeem all of it and us.

- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and provides freelance editorial services to numerous publishers and authors as the principal of One More Basket. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.

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