Let the Scriptures Speak
Carrying Your Cross
“Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self,
take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps.” (Luke 9:23)
The saying quoted above, about carrying one's Cross, is one of those that the Jesus Seminar dismisses as not plausible on the lips of the historical Jesus. Surely, they say, the reference to the cross is meaningful only after the crucifixion; thus, they surmise, it must be the creation of the post-Easter Church.
A little imagination, however, suggests that this is not necessarily the case. Death by crucifixion had long been an established fact of life in the Near East. It was the Roman mode of capital punishment for noncitizens guilty of serious crimes—runaway slaves, for instance. The vertical beam on the mound called Skull Place at the western gate of Jerusalem stood as a constant reminder of this harsh sanction. The condemned (“dead men walking”) could be seen, from time to time, carrying the crossbeam on the way to the place of execution.
The point of making the convict carry the crossbeam was not so much to induce physical discomfort as to mark him for public shaming. It was the empire's way of saying, “Here is a public enemy! Insult freely and spit at will!” Given that common experience, Jesus' saying to his disciples during his pre-Easter ministry makes perfectly good sense: “Following me will likely entail your getting shamed. The way of life to which I call you is not embraced by the world at large. Following me will inevitably mean rejection.” Does this not make perfectly good sense coming from the historical Jesus?
Obviously, the metaphor of carrying the cross took on a more profound meaning after Jesus quite literally did it and then was raised from the dead. But considering how it would have been heard before Easter helps us get in touch with its post-Easter meaning.
Over the centuries, Christians have extended the idea of carrying one's Cross to any and all suffering that comes along, and it is true that any suffering accepted in the right spirit (from a burdensome relative to a terminal illness) can be redemptive. But when the New Testament speaks of Christian suffering, it is almost always a reference to apostolic suffering—suffering incurred in the course of carrying out one's Christian mission. Recalling the probable setting of Jesus' image (the shaming of the convict) helps us retrieve what was likely the original focus— that is, not some spooky extra dose of physical suffering but a side-effect of living out one's discipleship with courage.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University