We all have one. Mine is different than yours. Most of us have more than one. Some are bigger than others. Some are tiny, but very very painful. Some are so huge they seem impossible to bear. Some are obvious, but many are hidden from view. What are they? They’re our hurts and pains, our sufferings, and our burdens. They’re the wounds we all carry each day. Some are physical like an illness or injurty. Others are addictions or compulsions. Still others are the emotional pains of mental illness or the damage done by an abusive relationship. Many times we’ve caused the pain ourselves. Fear, anger, bitterness, jealousy—a broken heart. These are our crosses. Jesus carried a heavy wooden cross to Golgotha. He told us if we want to be His disciples, we have to deny ourselves, pick up our own crosses, and follow Him (Luke 9:23).
Catholics aren’t afraid of the Cross of Christ. Every Catholic church in the world has a crucifix displayed prominently near the altar. My own church has a lifesize crucifix behind the altar. The large wooden cross with the dying Christ nailed to it dominates our sanctuary space. It’s not merely an ornament or decoration. Neither does it reflect a morbid fascination with death or physical pain. The Cross of Christ is Love. Our crucifix is a constant and holy reminder to us of Jesus’ great love for us. Carried in His arms and across His flayed and bleeding back, the Cross became salvation for the world. His invitation to us is to embrace our sufferings and to unite our pain with His. This is love embracing Love. “When the Cross is embraced it becomes a sign of love and total self-giving. To carry it behind Christ means to be united with Him in offering the greatest proof of love,” wrote Pope John Paul II. There’s no greater proof of God’s love for us than Jesus’ own suffering and death for our sake.
Everyday life for each of us is full of crosses we can carry behind our Lord. You know what yours are just as I know my own. We carry them in union with Jesus, as He leads the way for us. He is our model. He invites us to follow His example, to share in His life and in His choices—to stake our life for the love of God and neighbor. This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote to the Colossians “who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting in the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His Body, which is the Church” (1:24). Any of our sufferings can be prayerfully united with Christ’s own Passion and Death. This is redemptive suffering, or what Catholics mean when they say, “I’m offering it up.” What we are offering up is to share in Jesus’ suffering out of thanksgiving and love for Him. This unity is part of our personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Eucharist which lies at the heart of our Catholic faith. He is our first Love. We claim a share of His Life in all His fullness of divinity and humanity. As much as our Love calls us to meet Him in the manger at Bethlehem, we’re also drawn to meet Him at Calvary and later, at the empty tomb, or the road to Emmaus. Being Catholic means walking with Christ every day, faithfully assured that He opens up for us His way of life and abundant love. Suffering is necessarily a part of that faith journey for us, just as it was for Him. Yet no one knows more about my crosses, my pains, my sins than Jesus Christ. When I see a crucifix, I see Love’s arms open wide, embracing all my pain, forgiving all my sin. My crosses seem so small in comparison.
“Suffering is a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the Cross that He can kiss us and He can show that He is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in His Passion.” —Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997)