It is one of those so clear and powerful words of Jesus that even if we can’t give the citation we do have it etched deep in our hearts – sometimes as an almost enticing call of love from Him, perhaps sometimes as a rather scary word, but never forgotten, always struggled with: IF YOU WOULD BE MY DISCIPLE, TAKE UP YOUR CROSS, AND FOLLOW ME.
To take something up, i.e. to pick it up, means to carry it.
When I was a teenager working all winter long as a lumberjack in the northern bush we were cutting timbers for coal mines – each log no less than six inches at the narrow end and no less than eight feet long.
We worked one hundred yards either side of the bush road, felling trees laden with snow, which once felled would land in the three feet or more deep snow on the forest floor.
The trees had to be de-branched, cut into sections and then carried out to the bush road and stacked in cords.
If, as happened most nights, it had snowed during the night then the walk into the site, the walk carrying the first few logs until a path was trodden, was a challenge and you quickly got used to ignoring being drenched in falling snow while felling the trees, scrapped and bruised carrying them.
We walked into the bush in the dark so we could begin work as the sun was rising and, because that far north, days are extremely short in the winter, we worked until dusk and then walked back out – five miles in, five miles out.
I am not telling you this so you get out the world’s tiniest violin and play ‘Poor Boy’ or some other lament!
But I would urge, in the first instance, an awareness of the millions of men, women, and children, who toil across the globe in even harsher circumstances.
The key memory for me of those days working in the bush is the sheer weight of the logs as I carried them, the rawness of my shoulder which bled profusely by the end of the day, torn even though we wore heavy work jackets, the adolescent fury of hot humiliation each time I tripped in the snow, falling face down, the heavy burden smashing into my back.
Decades later, concelebrating the Divine Liturgy of this day’s feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, carrying not a heavy log but a sweet smelling handful of purples leaves in the procession with the Bishop, suddenly I remembered those days in the bush and realized, what a grace, because, lightweight in comparison to the one, in all its physical and salvation added weight Christ carried, to be sure, yet because of those long months in the bush, in a physical sense at least, I know what to “take up” means.
Sometimes, I will admit, the logs were so heavy I could not carry them but had to pound a pick into one end and drag the thing to the edge of the road.
Daily I face that choice: to drag or carry – peaceful in the understanding that the emphasis in Jesus’ love-invitation is to follow Him and I don’t think He worries too much about when we actually carry, or drag, just so long as we are striving to be with Him.
At least that is what I draw from some thoughts of Paul Evdokimov in one of my favourite books for spiritual reading, his: THE STRUGGLE WITH GOD.
Evdokimov, speaking about the various stages of the spiritual life, the call, ultimately, to be one with Love Himself, fundamentally constitutes: “…..what the Gospel calls the personal cross of each man.”
This IS the first ‘weight’, if you will, we experience each morning when we take up our Cross, really His cross, anew each day and begin anew to follow Him – in a word to choose once more to be His disciple.
In point of fact, given the rapidity with which we traverse the pilgrimage of life from birth to death Evdokimov notes that: “This time is of short duration. The face of the Father takes on the face of the Son, and His cross casts its shadow within us.”
It is important here to understand this is not a dark, malevolent shadow, but actually is movement of the Holy Spirit who offers us the grace to take up, to follow, to be!
Indeed His Light is so brilliant the shadow cast is a dimension of light!
Certainly, just as happened to me in the bush overcome by exhaustion, the weight of the logs, when it comes to embracing the cross, our personal cross which is a sharing in His: “The brutal experience of our falls and weakness can fling us to the edge of despair. We are strongly tempted to cry out that it is an injustice that God expects too much from us, that our cross is heavier than that of others.”
Personally I believe such emotional reaction, frankly take it from an Italian, screaming out to God, is no big deal, rather it is a HUGE deal, in the best sense, because above all, at least with my deep-seated ego that since those days in the bush still wants to ‘go it alone’, being crushed to the point of knowing that “Cut off from Me you can do nothing!”, is a real grace, even if I have to be flat on the ground screaming, to get the point!
Thus Evdokimov also notes: “In moments of crushing solitude, humility alone can help us in recognizing the radical powerlessness of human nature. It inclines us to cast our whole being at the foot of the Cross, and then our heavy burden is lifted by Christ in our place: “Learn from Me….For My yoke is easy, and My burden light.””
WE ADORE YOU O CHRIST AND WE PRAISE YOU BECAUSE BY YOUR HOLY CROSS YOU HAVE REDEEMED THE WORLD.
The above link is to this work which is apparently out of print, but the whole thing is there online!