Gospel Story of the Week
Jesus’ Passion and Death (Matthew 26:14-27:66)
“Then they led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry the cross.” (Matthew 27:31-32)
As our Lenten journey continues, we are confronted with three responses to carrying the cross. Like the disciples, we can refuse the cross and run away. Like Simon of Cyrene, we can carry the cross because it’s forced on us. Or, like Jesus, we can willingly embrace it.
The disciples are called to embrace the cross, but it is too much for them. They refuse it and flee into the night. Peter goes even further, trying to lie his way out of a tight spot. When we are confronted with the cross, sometimes it is too much for us. Like the disciples, we refuse to have any part of it. My friend Nadine provided a dramatic example of refusing the cross. She gave Christianity a good hard look and decided not to commit. I once asked her what led to her decision, and she gave me an insightful response: “I’ve read the Gospels, and I know that Christians are called to take up Jesus’ cross. But the cross is suffering and death.” Then, making the Sign of the Cross, she concluded, “I’m not about to lay the cross on myself.” In refusing the cross, Nadine joins the disciples in running away. I know how she feels, and I bet you do, too. When I confront the cross, sometimes I run away.
Refusing the cross doesn’t have to be as dramatic as the disciples’ flight or as unequivocal as Nadine’s refusal to commit. If we are honest with ourselves, we are forced to acknowledge the ways we refuse the cross every day. We refuse it when we look for the easy way out, fail to respond to someone in need or close our eyes to injustice. We refuse it when we nurse resentments about the burdens others place on us or whine about life’s unfairness. We refuse the cross when we force our way to the head of the line, finesse situations to get our own way or make subtle compromises to keep our lives comfortable. We refuse it when we avoid the awkwardness of surfacing a tough issue that no one wants to face or pack our lives so full of “other priorities” that we don’t have time for surrendering in prayer.
Simon of Cyrene represents a second response to the cross: shouldering it because he has no choice. He finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. What alternative did he have? There’s no arguing with the centurion and his men. Being fair has nothing to do with it. Simon had little choice and sometimes we don’t either. Life doesn’t hand out hardship and pain in equal shares. Some of us get more than our share while others appear to get off easy. No matter what cards we get dealt, we have to play the hand. Simon gets dealt a tough hand, but he still has an option. Granted, he doesn’t have much choice about whether to shoulder the cross. Resisting the soldiers’ attempt to conscript him would have cost him dearly. What Simon can choose, however, is the attitude he takes toward carrying it.
Even when a cross is forced upon us, we have a choice about how we respond to it. When my Uncle Leo was suffering with cancer, he reached that awful point where all the treatment options had been exhausted. He was dying, and he knew it. The only thing that the doctors could do was help make him comfortable. The only thing Leo could do was to make the most of the time he had left.
Just as Simon was dragged from the crowd and forced to carry Jesus’ cross, Leo was forced to bear the cross of a painful death to cancer. During his last days, Leo chose – with his mind, his will and his heart – to live with dignity. He rarely mentioned the pain or complained about his circumstances. If he felt bitter “why me” kinds of resentments, I never heard him express them. He took the time to be with and appreciate those he loved – spending special moments with each of us. When he talked about his life, it was with a sense of gratitude. In those days, Leo taught me that even when a cross is forced on us, we can choose the attitude we have toward it. He didn’t choose to die, but he made powerful choices about the way he lived his final days.
Jesus demonstrates the third response to the cross – willingly embracing it. It’s not that he doesn’t hesitate. We’ve already seen how he hesitates in Gethsemane. We’re not the only ones with doubts and second thoughts. Perhaps they are inevitable, embedded somehow in our DNA. We experience buyer’s nerves the night before we close on our first house. We find ourselves staring out the window two days before our wedding asking: “Until death, am I sure?” Just before he puts his life on the line, Jesus hesitates, too. What’s important, though, is what happens next. When he hesitates, Jesus gathers himself in prayer, surrenders to God, and puts it all on the line. What counts is that once he commits, he never looks back.
Arland Williams, Jr., never looked back. On the morning of January 13, 1982, National Airport in Washington D.C. was closed by a blizzard. Shortly after it reopened, Williams boarded Air Florida flight 90 to Tampa. The plane was delayed at the gate after de-icing and then waited in line before takeoff. By the time it attempted to take off, ice had formed on the wings and also prevented the engines from achieving sufficient power for takeoff. The plane crashed into the 14th Street bridge and ended up in the icy waters of the Potomac River.
Williams found himself in freezing water with five other survivors. Bystanders and news crews watched from the shore, completely helpless. A park police helicopter trailing a lifeline finally reached those in the water. When the rope came to Williams, he passed it to one of the other survivors. The helicopter returned after that rescue, and Williams again passed the rope to another survivor. By the time the helicopter returned for the last rescue, he had drowned. Arland Williams, Jr. willingly sacrificed his own life. He embraced death so that others could live. In unexpected and tragic circumstances, he opted to save others when his own life was on the line. On the edge of death, he made the choice to pass the rope.
Embracing the cross requires paying the ultimate price: surrendering our own lives so that others may live. Jesus made that choice in Gethsemane, and Arland Williams, Jr. made it in the icy waters of the Potomac River. Every day, we choose whether or not to put others ahead of ourselves in small ways. For some of us the day will come when we will face the ultimate challenge. On that day we can cling to the rope, or we can embrace the cross by passing the rope so that someone else may live.
Questions to Ponder
- When I face the choice about whether to take up my cross, what is my response? Do I respond like the disciples, Simon of Cyrene, or Jesus?
- What are the small, everyday ways that I am faced with the choice about whether to take up the cross?
- How can I learn to recognize these daily choices and use them as opportunities to embrace the cross?
Invitation to Prayer
Jesus, as I reflect on the way that you embraced the cross, I am deeply aware of my own tendency to avoid the cross. Give me both insight to recognize the small opportunities I have to embrace the cross and the courage to embrace it. Help me learn from those moments so that I am ready to embrace the cross when I face the ultimate challenge – giving my life so that others may live.