Lent 2013 - Vol. 66

“Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me”
By Jeanne Kun
The 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.
– Josemaría Escrivá, The Forge
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. 
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.

Jesus’ declaration 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 explained:

The 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. 
“Deny” aparneomai in 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).

Thus conscripted, 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).

In the Spotlight

No Greater Love Than This

On 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 for others. 

In 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.

Another 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.” 

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

In the Spotlight

painting by Michael O'Brien

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, The Imitation of Christ

Excerpted from The 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.

Jeanne Kun is President of Bethany Association and a senior woman leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. 
> See other articles by Jeanne Kun

Illustrations: James Tissot (first), Harold Copping (second) 

Matthew 16:24-27
24 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 their life? 
27 “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.”

(See also Mark 8:34-38 and Luke 9:23-27)

Mark 15:20-21
20Then [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.

(See also Matthew 27:31-32 and Luke 23:26)

Galatians 6:2
2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

In the Spotlight

Simon of Cyrene Takes Up 
Jesus’ Cross

What irony – Christ’s own had fled,
no friend to share the pain and lend him aid when he faltered.

Simon, a stranger: Carefree and casual, you happened along the way that morning and unexpectedly your life was changed forever.
The 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)

What 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,
glad then to bend your strong back to help?

It came to you unsought – yet what a privilege
to have eased his burden for even a short stretch of his way!

Dare I take up the cross with you, Simon, and follow? What answer would you give me now?

“If any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:41, RSV).

“Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, RSV).

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 own fate?

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? 

3. Explain 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.

1. Recall an instance when you acted to “save” your lifewhen you did something that did not take God or his plan for your life into accountbut then “lost” something important in the process. What did you learn from this experience? 

2. Consider 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? 

5. Imagine 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?

1. 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:

Let us bear our cross and leave it to God to determine the length and the weight.
           –  Rose Philippine Duchesne

You must accept your cross; if you carry it courageously it will carry you to heaven.
           –  John Mary Vianney

2. Reflect on the following passages that challenge us to greater discipleship and selfless giving of ourselves to others in love and service:

Now 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)

[Jesus 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)

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (James 2:8)

Christ 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 6:2).

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.” 

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