Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” – Mt. 16:24
“Why were you carrying that?” Chris wonders aloud as he watches me transfer my rosary from my bag to the pocket of my jeans.
“There’s always one in my pocket, or my purse,” I tell him.
“Oh, I thought you were worried!” Turns out he’s just discovered, courtesy of old M*A*S*H episodes, that rosaries are sometimes called worry beads!
How many crosses do you carry? There is a crucifix in my pocket as I write this – on my “worry beads” – another on the wall behind me, and a plain wooden cross on my desk as I write. How many times a day do you make the Sign of the Cross? Christopher’s question is a good one. Why do we carry this sign?
We are truly and properly a people of the cross. As we hear in this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, we are called by Christ to follow Him by carrying our own crosses. From the earliest days of the Church, the cross has physically marked us as followers of Christ. The beautiful, though apocryphal, Odes to Solomon from the first century remind us that even our bodies themselves are signs of the cross. “I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord, for the expansion of my hands is His sign. And my extension is the upright cross.”
Early in the third century, Church father Tertullian noted “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out…when we light the lamps, when we sit down, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross].”
In keeping with this most ancient of traditions, I have traced the cross on my children’s’ foreheads every night before they go to sleep.
How closely do I look at all these crosses that I carry in my hands, tuck in my pockets, furrow onto my sons’ brows? What do I see? Virtuous habit or Christ crucified? “Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” says poet T.S. Eliot in the first of the Four Quartets, Burnt Norton, and I fear I am all too human in this.
In a Good Friday homily, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner invites us to consider the variety of encounters we may have with the cross. Some pass by and though saddened, move on with their lives; others look away, afraid of the challenge the cross presents to their comfortable and orderly lives. But those who remain, “who have come to know the mercy of God kneel before the cross … They prostrate themselves. They are silent. They weep.”
To face the reality of the cross, we must first bear the reality of our need for God’s mercy, that we are sinners. Each time I see a crucifix, each time I make the sign of the cross, each time I stretch out my arms in praise of God, I am called to confront my own failings.
Each of these daily encounters should sharpen my awareness of the depths to which I am loved, the lengths to which God has gone to redeem me. Perhaps then in the recesses of my soul, I will cease to pass by, but instead choose to remain for that brief moment face to face with Christ crucified. And so I practice, bearing what reality I can.
Now I am facing the cross through the veil of the remaining weeks of Lent. What is it I want to see when I come face to face with the cross unveiled on Good Friday? The wood of the cross, on which hangs the salvation I so need, before which I can only bow and bend low.
Lifted up among us, O God, is Jesus the crucified: sign of Your steadfast love and pledge of Your will to save. To those who look upon the cross with faith grant healing of soul and life eternal. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen. – Opening Prayer for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.