2013 - Vol. 66
Up Your Cross and Follow Me”
By Jeanne Kun
Cross symbolizes the life of an apostle of Christ. It brings a strength
and a truth that delights both soul and body, though sometimes it is hard,
and one can feel the weight.
If any want to
become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and
follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Most likely Jesus’ followers had seen criminals
and insurgents against Roman rule hanging on crosses along the roads of
Palestine and knew the horrors and shame of this excruciatingly painful
form of execution used by the Romans. So Jesus’ challenging call to his
disciples to “take up their cross” must have both scandalized and stunned
them. Perhaps they wondered whether, at such a cost, they wanted to follow
him after all.
Josemaría Escrivá, The Forge
|To “take up the
cross” means to willingly give one’s life without reservation to Jesus
and “follow in his steps” – even to death for his sake, if necessary.
of the conditions of discipleship came after he had foretold his death
and resurrection. Peter reacted strongly; he took Jesus aside “and began
to rebuke him, saying ‘God forbid it, Lord!’” (Matthew 16:22). But Jesus
rebuked Peter, calling him “a stumbling block,” for Peter was “setting
his mind not on divine things but on human things” (16:23). The conditions
of discipleship also require us to set our minds on divine things. As the
nineteenth-century Spanish archbishop and missionary St. Anthony Mary Claret
Christian who desires to follow Jesus carrying his cross must bear in mind
that the name “Christian” means “bearer or imitator of Christ” and that
if he wishes to bear that noble title worthily, he must above all do as
Christ charges us in the Gospel; we must oppose or deny ourselves, take
up the cross, and follow him.
the Greek of the New Testament – is
a judicial term meaning to “disavow or abjure connection with someone or
something.” Thus, to deny oneself is to renounce self-interest;
to disregard the gratification of one’s own needs and desires; to relinquish
one’s own will to do the will of God, imitating Jesus who gave himself
over to his Father’s plans for our salvation in total trust. The evangelist
Luke adds a detail not found in Matthew’s or Mark’s account of Jesus’ words:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take
up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, emphasis added).
Following Jesus is a matter for everyday life – a
life of perseverance and steadfastness. Faithful discipleship involves
making decisions every day to live Jesus’ way, not our own. This involves
making numerous choices and resolutions, even small ones, to serve our
brothers or sisters in need, even if that involves foregoing our own needs
and preferences. To “take up the cross” we often have to die to self in
these seemingly mundane, everyday ways.
In Jesus’ time,
the Romans required those who were to be crucified to carry the wooden
crossbeam – usually behind the
nape of the neck like a yoke – to
the place of execution, where an upright beam (called in Latin crux
simplex or palus) was already implanted in the ground. Or they
shouldered a T-shaped cross formed of both a vertical and a horizontal
beam. Roman soldiers had the right to press people into temporary public
service, so they “compelled” Simon of Cyrene (modern Libya) to relieve
Jesus of his burden, probably because he was so weakened by exhaustion
and the loss of blood from the scourging (Matthew 27:31-32; Mark 15:20-21;
and Luke 23:26). It is noteworthy that we find the same term – in
Greek, angareuo – in Jesus’
Sermon on the Mount: “if anyone forces [compels, KJV] you to go one mile,
go also the second mile” (Matthew 5:41). It is when we “bear one another’s
burdens” that we “fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Simon of Cyrene literally took up the cross for Jesus’ sake – and
so through the past two millennia he has been looked to by Christians as
a model of discipleship. His unexpected encounter with Jesus must have
had a great impact on him, since the evangelist Mark’s mention of Simon’s
sons Alexander and Rufus (see 15:21) would imply that they were known to
the early Christian church. Through his service to Jesus, did Simon become
a believer and true and lasting disciple of his?
Called to be
disciples of Christ, we are to follow in our master’s path. Our threefold
course of action – denying self,
taking up the cross, and following Jesus – sets
us decisively on the road to eternal life. For Jesus promised that “those
who lose their life for [his] sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). If we
hold fast, an everlasting reward will be ours, for when he comes “with
his angels in the glory of his Father, . . . he will repay everyone for
what has been done” (16:27).
No Greater Love
the evening before his death, Jesus told his apostles, “No one has greater
love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
On the cross he gave them the example of ultimate love, dying for their
sake and that of all humankind. From the earliest days of the Church to
the present, countless followers of Jesus have taken his words and his
example to heart, denying themselves and selflessly giving their lives
Auschwitz, the notoriously inhuman Nazi extermination camp, Franciscan
priest Fr. Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take the place of Francis Gajowniczek,
a Polish soldier who had been chosen to be a victim of retaliatory execution
for the escape of a prisoner. Fr. Kolbe told the Nazi commandant: “I am
a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because
he has a wife and children.” The commandant returned Gajowniczek to the
camp ranks and confined Kolbe and nine other chosen prisoners in a starvation
bunker. After being deprived of food and water for fourteen days, Kolbe
and three others who were still alive were given lethal injections by the
camp executioner on August 14, 1941. Pope John Paul II called Maximilian
Kolbe a “martyr of love” and declared him a saint in 1982.
profound act of sacrificial love took place on April 30, 1997, when the
African nation of Burundi was torn by ethnic wars. Hutu rebels invaded
the small Catholic seminary in Buta. Armed with knives, machetes, clubs,
and machine guns, the rebels told the young seminarians to divide into
two ethnic groups, Hutus and Tutsis. Even though the Hutu students could
have saved their lives by separating themselves from the Tutsis, they refused
to abandon their classmates. Ultimately, the assailants massacred the forty-one
Hutu and Tutsi companions together, “martyrs of brotherhood.”
one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”
painting by Michael
The Royal Road
of the Holy Cross
Why do you fear to take up the cross when through it you can win a kingdom?
In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection
from enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross
is strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is highest
virtue, in the cross is perfect holiness. There is no salvation of soul
nor hope of everlasting life but in the cross.
Take up your cross, therefore, and follow Jesus, and you shall
enter eternal life. He Himself opened the way before you in carrying His
cross, and upon it. He died for you, that you, too, might take up your
cross and long to die upon it. If you die with Him, you shall also live
with Him, and if you share His suffering, you shall also share His glory.
– Thomas à Kempis,
Imitation of Christ
Life-Giving Power of the Cross: Sharing in Christ's Victory, by
Jeanne Kun (The
Word Among Us Press, © 2011). Used with permission. This book
can be ordered online.
Kun is President of Bethany
Association and a senior woman leader in the Word
of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
other articles by Jeanne Kun
James Tissot (first), Harold Copping (second)
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let
them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those
who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life
for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the
whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father,
and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”
also Mark 8:34-38 and Luke 9:23-27)
[the soldiers] led [Jesus] out to crucify him. 21 They compelled a passer-by,
who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of
Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.
also Matthew 27:31-32 and Luke 23:26)
one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Simon of Cyrene
irony – Christ’s own had fled,
friend to share the pain and lend him aid when he faltered.
a stranger: Carefree and casual, you happened along the way that morning
and unexpectedly your life was changed forever.
choice was not your own, yet not one to turn away from: “It is not you
who have chosen me, but I who have chosen you” (John 15:16)
welled up within your heart as the soldiers compelled you to shoulder this
man’s load? Burning anger, resentment, bitterness to be so put upon and
shamed? Fear to be involved and identified with one rejected and despised
by others/Or were you moved to pity,
then to bend your strong back to help?
came to you unsought – yet what a privilege
have eased his burden for even a short stretch of his way!
I take up the cross with you, Simon, and follow? What answer would you
give me now?
any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:41,
one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2,
1. Why, in
your opinion, does Jesus require such radical steps of those who would
follow him? Why does he state these requirements after his prediction of
his passion? Why does Jesus connect the fate of the disciples with his
2. What images
and thoughts would the expression “take up the cross” have brought to Jesus’
followers’ minds? Why do you think Jesus used this graphic expression?
in your own words the paradox Jesus speaks of in Matthew 16:25
– “those who want to save
their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will
find it.” How does this truth affect your daily choices and your present
life? Your perspective on the life to come?
4. ”What will
it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or
what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:26). Do you
think Jesus makes his point effectively with this principle of profit and
loss? Why or why not? What answers would you give Jesus if he asked you
these same questions?
5. “The Son
of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then
he will repay everyone for what has been done” (Matthew 16:27). What does
this verse indicate about the final judgment? On what basis will we be
rewarded or held accountable? See Matthew 7:21-27 for additional insight
into the conduct Jesus holds to be important.
an instance when you acted to “save” your life
– when you did something
that did not take God or his plan for your life into account
– but then “lost” something
important in the process. What did you learn from this experience?
some examples of how you do, in fact, deny yourself, “losing” your life
to “find” it. How do you see the truth of this paradox at work in your
life? In your experience, what “gain” outweighs the costs of discipleship?
What do you hope to gain in the future?
3. What is
most challenging to you right now about the conditions of Jesus’ call to
be his disciple? What might you do to relieve your fears or reservations
about denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following him?
4. In what
ways do you identify with Simon of Cyrene? What does Simon’s example teach
you about discipleship? Have you ever been “compelled” to bear another
person’s “cross”? If so, what impact did this have on you?
how Jesus felt toward Simon. Has anyone ever helped you carry a burden
you were struggling with? If so, how did you feel toward that person? What
did you learn from this person’s generosity and service to you?
Simon of Cyrene did not volunteer to carry Christ’s cross, so this incident
reminds us that sometimes “crosses” seem to be arbitrarily laid on us by
life, burdens we might not of our own volition have chosen to carry. In
Christian spirituality there is a sense in which “bearing our crosses”
means accepting that through these crosses, God fosters our Christian growth
and transforms us into his likeness. He is not the author of our difficulties
and misfortunes or the cause of our pains, but he turns such things to
his purposes for us and works through them. Meditate on the following words
of saints who have recognized this, and let their perspective shape your
outlook on your own personal crosses:
us bear our cross and leave it to God to determine the length and the weight.
– Rose Philippine Duchesne
must accept your cross; if you carry it courageously it will carry you
– John Mary Vianney
Reflect on the following passages that challenge us to greater discipleship
and selfless giving of ourselves to others in love and service:
large crowds were traveling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them,
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children,
brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For
which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate
the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when
he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will
begin to ridicule him, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to
finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will
not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to
oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot,
then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks
for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple
if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:25-33)
said:] “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the
earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears
much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their
life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must
follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves
me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:24-26)
do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (James 2:8)
also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow
in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21)
“Bear one another’s
burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians
Reach out this
week to someone in your parish, neighborhood, or workplace who is in need
or weighed down in some way (for example, by illness, unemployment, loneliness,
or difficult family relationships). Like Simon of Cyrene who relieved Jesus
of his burden, help this person carry his or her cross. You might offer
a word of encouragement, perform an act of kindness, do some practical
service such as preparing a meal, or simply be present to share his or
her sorrow. Be generous, not grudging, as you support and assist this person
on his or her personal “way of the cross.”