The Passion

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jesus-carrying-cross

"Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."  (Matthew 16:24)

"[A]nd whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me."  (Matthew 10:38)

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When I went to bed the night before, I really hoped it wouldn't be there the next morning.  But sure enough, there it was.

The morning started like most: a way too early alarm clock signaling the dawn of a new day.  (If it's not the alarm clock, it's the pitter patter of little feet followed by "Daddy I want some juice" that wakes me up.)  I fumble for my phone, turn the alarm off, sit up, and look to my left.  It's lying on the floor leaning up against the wall.  I think to myself, "How am I possibly going to carry this thing again today?"

You see, my cross is a massive, unwieldy, burdensome beast--fifteen feet high and eight feet across.  Physically, the only way to carry it is by putting the long beam across my shoulder, just below where the two beams intersect, and dragging the monstrosity behind me.  And so I get out of bed and commence the chore.

My shoulder and back are still a little sore from the day before, but I manage to carry the cross into my study.  Fortunately, the room has double doors, so I'm able negotiate the cross through.  As I drag it across the room in the darkness, it slips off my shoulder and lands on the floor with a loud thud.  Surprised that it didn't wake up the rest of the house, I decide to leave it where it lays.  As I stare at the cross on the floor, I look up and notice that the top of the vertical beam is pointing directly towards a crucifix hanging on the wall nearby.  In an instant, I'm reminded that the Eternal Son of God had to carry his cross too prior to being nailed to it.  I light some candles near the crucifix, get down on my knees, and spend some time in prayer with the Creator of the universe who became man and died for me.

Before I know it, the sun is starting to rise outside.  As much as I would like to stay here talking to my Savior, fatherly and work duties call.  I end my prayer, blow out the candles, and turn around to pick up my cross.  Miraculously, it's almost weightless.  What had been heavy and almost immovable when I woke up now seems light as a feather.  I turn back to the crucifix with a smile and hear Him say to me "my yoke is easy, and my burden light."  (Matthew 11:30)  I mutter to myself, "Why do I always forget that?"

With the suddenly light cross in tow, the rest of the morning routine at home goes smoothly.  I meet my two oldest children (6 and 4) in the kitchen and get them cereal.  I'm able to stand the cross up against the kitchen counter almost effortlessly.  My children never notice the cross, despite its massive size.  I have noticed though that on mornings I skip my prayer time with Him, they sense that daddy is carrying something heavy.  From there, I'm able to get myself and the kids ready to leave for school and out the door.  As if it were a small piece of driftwood, I toss the cross into the bed of my truck, load up the kids, and take them to school.  I'm at peace.  More importantly, I'm thankful that the cross is so light today.

After dropping the kids off, I pull into the parking lot of my office building.  As I lower the tailgate to retrieve the cross, a sense of uneasiness comes over me.  I go to pull it towards me and onto the ground, but the cross is heavier than it was when I left home.  This often happens.  I really don't like taking the cross out in pubic for everyone to see.  In fact, some days it seems easier just to leave the cross at home altogether, but I know that's not an option He gave me.  Besides the obvious physical challenges in getting the cross into my office (through narrow doors, tight corners and all that), its the way others look at it (and me) that's really unnerving.  Some people laugh out loud, mockingly asking "where are you going with that ridiculous thing?"  "Following Him," I reply.  Some of them become interested and ask more questions, some don't.  Other people look at it with brief curious fascination, then go about there own business as usual.  Still others avoid--at all costs--even looking at the cross, immediately diverting their eyes downward when it comes into sight, or sometimes, fleeing the room or building all together.

But there is a fourth category of people I encounter, both in my office building and anywhere else I take my cross: those carrying their own crosses.  Admittedly, its a much smaller group than the other three, but numerous enough to see them almost anywhere I go.  I'm always fascinated by the different sizes of the crosses they carry--some much smaller, some even larger--than mine.  Many of them have radiant smiles on their faces, reflecting an almost other-wordly joy at the privilege of carrying their cross.  Some are much more somber, and you can see the weight of their cross has them stumbling, sometimes even falling.  Without fail, however, when this happens, one or more of the other cross bearers will come to the aid of the struggling person.  "Here, let Him help you," I often hear them say, as they help the struggling person to his or her feet and share the burden of the cross--all while carrying their own as well.  More times than I can count, one of these selfless individuals has come to my aid when my cross had me at the breaking point.  A few have told me that their name was Simon.

I finally arrive at my office and set the cross against the wall facing my desk.  The rest of my workday proceeds in routine, uneventful fashion.  Some days, I get so distracted with work, stress and the anxieties of life that I never remember to look up at the cross,  despite its size and the fact that it is right in front of me.  Other days, even those when I'm really busy, I'm constantly reminded of its presence by taking brief pauses to lift my heart to heaven and thank Him for carrying His cross so that mine doesn't have to be so heavy.  On the former days when I don't do this and ignore the cross, it always seems even heavier when I go to leave the office for home.  This day, however, I stayed close to Him, so the cross isn't nearly as hard to carry as I depart.

I arrive home to beautiful children happy to see daddy.  Some play time, dinner, baths and bedtime follow in that order--all with my cross in tow that the little ones aren't aware of.  We kneel down at the edge of one of their beds for prayer time before they get tucked in.  We recite the prayers they have memorized, then each says what we are thankful for that day.  We end the prayers by telling Him that we love Him and make the sign of the cross.  As my son crawls into bed, I rub my shoulder.  "Did you hurt your shoulder today, daddy?" he asks.  "No son," I reply, "I just had to carry something today."  "What?" he asks curiously.  "A cross like the one Jesus had to carry," I answer him.  "Why?" he asks.  "Because Jesus asked me to," I tell him.  As I turn out the lights and kiss him, he asks, "Is it heavy?

"No buddy, it's not.  Not anymore."

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"Jesus carries the Cross for you: you . . . carry it for Jesus."  (St. Josemaria Escriva)

How big is your cross?  How heavy is it?

Although it sounds paradoxical, in many respects, being a disciple of Jesus Christ might be easier if each of us did have to carry an actual, physical cross around with us everyday.  First, it would allow us always to be aware of the immense weight we carry from our own sin and the trials, tribulations, anguish, and anxiety of life.  More importantly, it would constantly remind us that our Blessed Lord carried his cross so that our's is not so burdensome.  Instead, all too often, we internalize our pain and suffering, bearing our crosses in misery while never asking for His help, or the help of those Simons he puts in our life to pick up our cross when we drop it.  This is not to say that carrying our cross should be or will be easy, for Jesus never promised us that.  Carrying our crosses means not only denying ourselves, but dying to ourselves.  The good news, however, is that He provides us the tools (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, frequent reception of the Sacraments, etc.) necessary to carry it with joy, despite the self-sacrifice it requires.  Jesus expects us to carry our crosses willingly.

Second, hauling an actual cross around would be a constant reminder of how much Jesus suffered carrying his cross.  I've already written about the immense suffering caused by the crowning with thorns.  Consider that by the time He was given His cross to carry on the way to Golgotha, He had been: (1)  beaten severely; (2) scourged to within an inch of His life, His mangled flesh hanging off His body; and (3) had a crown of thorns driven into His scalp, resulting in major trigeminal neuralgia, which caused indescribable pain from any minor movement.  As he dragged the cross behind him, every time it hit a rock or hole in the ground, the wounds on his back would have been reopened, and the crown of thorns would have caused sharp knives of pain throughout his body.  I've always thought that this clip from the Passion of the Christ is a great depiction of Jesus carrying his cross.

Finally, although in reality our crosses our invisible, people should still be able to see them.  Moreover, they should see us carrying them with joy and not despondent sorrow.  Otherwise, our faith looks unattractive, even miserable.  Jesus says to us "Why are you terrified?  Do you not have faith?"  Being His disciple and carrying our cross can be terrifying.  But like he did on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calms the winds and storms of our lives.  (Mark 4:40)  He then gives us supernatural grace to do things we never thought possible.

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.  The tempest of life had me down a bit, and my human weakness was at the forefront of my thoughts.  I opened Sacred Scripture and turned to St. Paul's second letter to the Corinthians.  As if Jesus had touched me on the shoulder to get my attention, I read this:

"Therefore,  I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:10)

Our weakness is our strength in Christ.  Carrying our crosses often results in hardships, persecutions, and restraints, but Jesus is there with us every step of the way, carrying His cross too.  His was much bigger and heavier than ours.  So, as Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen often said, "Go into the world and tell every person you meet that there is a man on the cross!"

God love you.

 

 

 

 

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th

From time to time during prayer, I try to meditate and reflect on Christ's Passion.  Sometimes this is as simple as staring at a crucifix for several minutes.  Other times I try to focus and reflect on specific events during His Passion, like the scourging at the pillar or the nailing to the cross (Praying the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary lets you meditate on them all!).  No matter how I do it though, the point is to remind me what immense suffering Jesus willingly endured for my salvation.  In the hustle and bustle of everyday life with its constant demands and distractions, it's so easy to forget what Christ has done for us.  Engaging in this reflection, even if just for a few seconds, also acts as a great remedy for self-pity.  It's hard to feel sorry for oneself while looking at a crucifix.

THE CROWNING WITH THORNS - MORE THAN MERE MOCKERY

Recently, I found myself reflecting on the crowning with thorns--the Roman soldiers mockery of Jesus by placing a crown of thorns on his head prior to leading him off to be crucified.  Three of the four Gospels record this event (all but Luke), and all three are almost identical in the details.  Here is St. Matthew's account:

"Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around him.  They stripped off his clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about him.  Weaving a crown of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand.  And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying 'Hail King of the Jews!'  They spat upon him and took the reed and kept striking him on the head.  And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him."  (Matthew 27:27-30)

It is interesting to note that although the soldiers removed the military cloak and dressed him back in his own clothes, St. Matthew never tells us that the soldiers removed the crown of thorns from Jesus's head.  St. Mark and St. Matthew are equally silent as to the crown of thorns being removed.  In fact, St. John tells us specifically that Jesus still was "wearing the crown of thorns" when he was brought back out before Pilate and the crowd.  (John 19:5)  Given these accounts, its reasonable to believe that the crown of thorns remained on Jesus's head from that point forward until his death on the cross.  Indeed, most Christian art (paintings, sculptures, etc.) over the centuries depicts Christ wearing the crown of thorns as he hung on the cross.

I highlight this because--for me at least--it often is easy to overlook Jesus's physical suffering associated with the crown of thorns, especially when compared with the brutality of the scourging and the crucifixion itself.  Further, in my experience, it seems that many writers and bible commentators tend to focus on the Roman soldiers' intent to mock Jesus and his purported kingship with the crown of thorns as opposed to inflicting additional torture upon him.  To be sure, mockery and humiliation was the ultimate goal.  But the mocking nature of the crowning with thorns doesn't mean we can or should forget the precious blood that flowed from the wounds the crown of thorns opened up on Christ's head, nor the pain and suffering caused as a result.  Indeed, as discussed below, this recognition can help us grow in love and devotion to our Lord.

My epiphany (for lack of a better term) regarding Jesus's suffering from the crown of thorns came after a reading a book titled The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry by Frederick T. Zugibe, M.D. ("The Crucifixion") (http://www.amazon.com/Crucifixion-Jesus-Completely-Revised-Expanded/dp/1590770706).  Dr. Zugibe was the chief medical examiner for Rockland County, New York for over 30 years (1969 - 2002), and one of the country's leading forensics pathologists (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Zugibe).  In The Crucifixion, Dr. Zugibe set out to conduct a virtual autopsy on Christ from "across the centuries."  Relying on the Gospel accounts, the Shroud of Turin, and fifty-three (53) years worth of exhaustive research (including numerous experiments he conducted regarding the medical and scientific aspects of crucifixion on the body), Dr. Zugibe examines Christ's Passion step by step, explaining, in great detail, the physical and mental suffering our Lord experienced.  I highly recommend the book (especially for Lenten reading) if you are interested in gaining a deeper knowledge of what Jesus endured for us.

When analyzing the crowning with thorns in The Crucifixion, Dr. Zugibe discusses a neurological condition known as trigeminal neuralgia caused by stimulation or irritation of the two major nerve branches located on the top and sides of the head.  If these nerves are irritated--by, for example, punctures from sharp objects--individuals experience facial pain described by patients as "knifelike stabs," "electric shocks," or "jabs with a red-hot poker."  Once this irritation has occurred, even "[l]ight touches, facial movements, chewing, talking, or drafts of air across the face can precipitate an attack."  Quoting the leading researcher regarding trigeminal neuralgia and its treatment, Dr. Zugibe explains that the condition "is said to be the worst pain that man is heir to.  It is devastating pain that is just unbearable in its several forms."

Turning back to the Gospel account of the crowning, Dr. Zugibe explains the physical effect it would have had on Jesus.  No summary I could give would be adequate, so here is the entire explanation:

"It is important to note that the crown was made by interweaving (plaiting) the thorn twigs into the shape of a cap.  This placed a large number of thorns in contact with the entire top of the head, including the front, back, and sides.  The blows from the reed across Jesus's face or against the thorns would have directly irritated the nerves or activated trigger zones along the lip, side of the nose, or face, bringing on severe pains resembling a hot poker or electric shock.  The pain would have lancinated across the sides of His face or deep into His ears.  Bleeding would have resulted from penetrating small blood vessels.  The pain may have stopped almost abruptly, only to recur [at] the slightest movement of the jaws or even from a wisp of wind.  The traumatic shock from the brutal scourging would have been further enhanced by the paroxysmal pains across the face.  Exacerbations and remissions of throbbing bolts of pain would have occurred all the way to Calvary and during the crucifixion, activated by the movement of walking, falling, and twisting; from the pressure of the thorns against the cross; and from the many shoves and blows by the soldiers."

Simply horrific.

CHOOSING CHRIST'S CROWN INSTEAD OF MY OWN

As he did with the whole of his Passion, Jesus willingly accepted his crown of thorns (and the excruciating pain that came as a result) on our behalf.  But why?  Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen explains that "[a]s the scourging was the reparation for the sins of the flesh, so the crowning with thorns was the atonement for the sins of the mind – for the atheists who wish there were no God, for the doubters whose evil lives becloud their thinking, for the egotists, centered on themselves." (The Fifteen Mysteries)   Jesus wore the crown of thorns because of our pride, plain and simple.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, pride is "the greatest sin in man," "the beginning of all sin," and "Man's first sin."  (Summa Theologiae II-II 161, 6-7; 163, 1)  He further tells us that "[t]he root of pride is found to consist in man not being in some way subject to God and His Rule."  (II-II, 162, 5)   Simplifying St. Thomas's words, Peter Kreeft boils it down to this: "'Thy' will be done is the essential prayer of the saint; 'my will be done' is the essential prayer of the sinner." (Practical Theology)

Looking at my life, far too often has my pride caused me to put on my own crown and ignore Christ's crown of thorns.  This pride has taken many forms over the years, both big and small.  So many times when I've been in the valley of darkness, God's will was the farthest thing from my mind.  Even when I could muster up the strength to say the Lord's prayer (the "Our Father"), "thy will be done" was nothing more than words.  Deep down, I thought my will was better than God's.  Yet the reality is that the crown of my pride is heavy, weighing me down into an abyss of misery.  It prevents me from loving Jesus Christ and doing his will through keeping his commandments.  (John 14:21)

But thanks to God's grace and mercy, I can remove my crown of selfish pride, put on Christ's crown of glory, and become a royal heir thanks to His precious blood that flowed from the crown of thorns.     Sacred Scripture assures us of this:

  •  "Blessed is the man who perseveres in temptation, for when he has been proved he will receive the crown of life that he promised to those who love him."  (James 1:12)
  • I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance."  (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
  • "Run so as to win.  Every athlete exercises discipline in every way.  They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.
  • "[The Lord] redeems your life from the pit, and crowns you with mercy and compassion."  (Psalms 103:4)

So now, whenever I feel my pride creeping in, I remember Jesus's crown of thorns and what he endured to overcome that pride.  Simply recognizing when our will crosses with God's will is a great victory.  It is in fighting these small battles, day by day, that allows us to take baby steps toward holiness.  For true "[f]reedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought."  (St. Pope John Paul II).

God bless