“Take up thy cross,” the Saviour said, “If thou would’st my disciple be.”
Familiar words from the Lenten hymn that is based on today’s gospel. But what is wrong with that statement, “take up your cross”?
You are right, as you always are! It is the cross.
At the time that Jesus was speaking, the cross hadn’t happened. To his listeners, the cross was still nothing but a Roman instrument of torture over there in Jerusalem, for thieves and troublemakers, designed to promote a healthy sense of terror in the whole population. Indeed, the Jewish form of capital punishment was stoning, so the cross to Palestinian fishermen was a very foreign concept indeed.
If Jesus planned to use that phrase, he would have had to explain to his disciples that the cross was about to become the means of salvation and would soon be symbolic of enduring suffering, and a token of great love and steadfastness. There can be no doubt that this is the meaning of what Jesus was saying, but would he have used the word? He doesn’t anywhere else.
So it seems the phrase has been slipped in by the writer from common usage – because the content of what Jesus is saying seems to call for it.
But what’s most intriguing is that the gospel writers do use the phrase, seemingly without thought about this problem of chronology. The phrase, “take up you cross” must have become a common expression very early on amongst Christians; so much so, that Matthew, Mark and Luke all see it as one of clearest expressions of the teachings of Jesus about suffering. The cross – not used in the first decades as a symbol in Christian art – has now become so pre-eminent in the expression of the victory of the Suffering Servant, that no one thinks it a problem at all to assume the phrase originated with Jesus.
For Matthew, the fact that Jesus starts to speak about suffering and hardship immediately after Peter recognises him as the Son of God, is crucial. This is God at work; but just as soon as that is acknowledged, Jesus begins to speak of suffering and death – and Peter’s human fears and revulsion get the better of him. This is the most natural response to this seemingly new ingredient to the faith Jesus is teaching: “God forbid that this should happen to you!” This isn’t the way Jesus’ disciples pictured things unfolding at all.
And there, in the self-same passage, is the evidence that the People of the Way, the first Christians, had so soon taken very much to heart what Peter had found so hard to swallow.
“Take up your cross.”
The very thing that speaks of shame, rejection, failure and pain, has become the battle-cry of this faith, this New Testament, by the time the gospels are being written – as little as 30 years later.
Because that was their (and is our) true experience of life – that pain, struggle and grief are never far away. And a God who we can turn to and trust must be a God who is indeed a person of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We can take up our cross, because Jesus takes it up too.
So let us not sanitise our faith, or sentimentalise the cross. It is both a deeply unpalatable instrument of death, and the greatest symbol of hope the universe has ever seen. Jesus demands a huge commitment from us in embracing this denial of self and security – yet there is no path to the fullness of life that doesn’t steer us first to the foot of the cross.
Peter, and all Jesus’ followers, learned to cling to the very thing that they most dreaded – that in dying, we are born to eternal life.