For 51 weekends out of the year, the world pays no attention to the one item that is never far from the heart of the Christian: the Cross, the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, the elevation of which we commemorate in the fall. For one weekend, however—Good Friday every spring—the Cross makes headlines. Stories emerge from the Philippines, for example, where pilgrims demonstrate their piety by allowing themselves to be literally nailed to a cross. Or from Canada, where one believer tied himself to a cross on the top of a local church and refused to come down. Or from Texas, where lives the current Guiness Book of World Record-holder for the longest walk: 41,552 miles across 324 countries, islands, and territories, over a span of 48 years. As if that walk wasn’t enough, every step of the way he carried on his shoulders a heavy cross, with the bottom of it trailing behind him on two homemade wheels.
These are newsworthy because they are dramatic. Presumably, however, they are not the kind of demonstrations that Christ requires from all his children, even as he speaks to us from the Gospel of Mark: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
To fishermen, Christ spoke of fishing for men. To farmers, he spoke of sowing seeds and gathering wheat and harvesting souls. To shepherds, he spoke of the beauty of sheep, who know their master’s voice. To men preoccupied of money, he spoke of a master forgiving debts. And to a woman by a well, he spoke of living water. The whole tone of our Lord’s teaching leans toward the relatable, the accessible, the understandable, the everyday. Why would his teaching about the Cross be any different? What else are we to make of that small adverb, daily, in Christ’s call to each of us to take up our cross?
The Apostle Matthew records our Lord saying, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” The excessive and the dramatic are, by definition, exceptional. They are not daily, unless you’re on reality TV. Instead, they are out of the ordinary. Therefore, perhaps, it is not excessive or dramatic demonstrations of taking up our cross that our Lord has in mind. Look at the daily things, he says.
To grow in Christ is not to grow free from pain, but to grow into a different kind of relationship with pain. The Christian is not immune to the many papercuts that daily life hands out in this world. This is precisely the lament of the psalmist, isn’t it? “The days of our lives are seventy years, and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow, for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Instead, the physical or emotional or relational wounds absorbed from simply being alive can be understood in a new way. Because they are accepted as a daily cross, they are transformed.
What do we mean, practically? A friend of relative forgets a special occasion that means something to you. You have an emotional reaction of feeling hurt—but, taking some of the sting out of that emotional reaction is a spiritual reaction, which feels a quiet awareness that you have now entered the stream of Christ’s own life, who experienced the worst hurts at the hands of those he loved. A project or event happens that does not bring you the credit and attention you deserve. You have an emotional reaction of feeling neglected—but, taking some of the sting out of that emotional reaction is a spiritual reaction, which feels a quiet awareness that you have now entered the stream of Christ’s own life, who experienced the worst neglect when he alone deserved the greatest credit. A group of friendships develops that leaves you on the outside. You have an emotional reaction of feeling rejected—but, taking some of the sting out of that emotional reaction is a spiritual reaction, which feels a quiet awareness that you have now entered the stream of Christ’s own life, who, in his hour of need, was rejected by all those he had been serving, healing, saving, loving.
Life is full of small opportunities to baptize these inevitable daily pains in the mystery of the Cross. What happens, then, to every daily hurt, every daily injustice, every daily offense or slight? They become instances of God’s love, of God’s severe mercy. Why? Because they show that he has deemed us worthy to enter the stream of Christ’s own life, who experienced the deepest hurts when he alone deserved the greatest comforts, who experienced the deepest injustice when he alone deserved the greatest praise.
When wrapped in the wood of the Cross, the daily wounds we absorb from simply being alive transform us. And notice what happens to the people whose hands, whose words, whose neglect or indifference caused our wounds—they fade a bit into the background of importance, because we realize a much deeper and greater work is taking place. What greater work? We are being invited into the mystery of the Cross. We are becoming what the Apostle Paul calls “fellow heirs with Christ.” If we suffer with him, he says, we will also be glorified with him.
We find this reoccurring theme in the New Testament: If we suffer with Christ, we will know the comfort of Christ. If accept the small crosses of our lives, we will receive the great consolation of the life to come. If we ask him into our pains, he will invite us into his kingdom. We cannot purge life of its daily difficulties, so why not purge our daily difficulties of their power to hurt us so deeply? We begin doing that by seeing them on a level deeper than just the human, just the emotional, just the psychological. Our Lord’s call to us, it seems, with the Cross elevated in our midst, is to take up the daily cross that we know so well. We just know it by another name: my life.
To be faithful to him, we don’t need to book passage to the Philippines or to Canada or even to Texas. We don’t need to go looking for suffering. Instead, we may use the suffering we already have. And the people who bring us that suffering, even those we love, can be saved from much of our wrath because we are growing aware of a deeper phenomenon taking place. We are being grafted, however painfully, into Christ, the true Vine.
It has been said that coming to Christ does not mean a change of scenery, but to be begin seeing our scenery in a new way. The daily difficulties we try to save ourselves from that caused such heartache become the very Cross that ushers in a joy we never knew possible. It takes faith and quiet patience, though, doesn’t it? “Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it.”