“As they were marching out, they came upon a man of Cyre′ne, Simon by name; this man they compelled to carry his cross.” ~Matthew 27:32
It could have been anyone. Of the faces in the crowd, there was one man among the many buried, with no visible burden he carried. He had two sons at his side as one suffering passed by . Perhaps before this alarm he should have had his younger son in his arm. If only he had held up his boy, he would not have been roped into this ploy. Maybe he handed the younger to the older while commanded to carry this cross on his shoulder.
A great burden. The One who had fallen under while bearing could go no further while carrying. Now they turned to him, compelling and so he lifted, begrudging. The man who had fallen under its weight was still face down in a horrible state. Going on burdened from that place, he failed to catch a glimpse of the other’s face. The face he would finally see when the cursed Man was lifted up on the tree. Days later he would see him risen from the dead and knew that it was on his burden that this man died in his stead.
~ “both carried, one lifted.” an amateur poem by m.g. ~
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Matthew 11:29-30
Light and Easy?
In the three short years we have Jesus on record teaching, He said and did many things that were hard to either accept or understand. Of these words, those expressed above usually do not fall into this category. We easily can take the above words of Jesus as ones that offer solace and comfort. Essentially, we receive it as Jesus assuring us that if we trust Him, follow Him, and take on His burden that this will be manageable and bearable. So, of all the things that Jesus has said, this should be one thing that we should have little trouble with. After all, it seems pretty clear. We choose to participate in the mission of Jesus and our experience is ‘easy and light’. We even are promised times of restfulness in our life. Who wouldn’t find this offer attractive? This must be part of the ‘Good News’ that Jesus has frequently preached about to the crowds. It sounds very pleasant and nice. There’s just one problem…
Consider the burden or yoke that Jesus had to carry in His life and the one He asks us to carry and the problem quickly becomes evident. What was the burden He carried? Need a hint?
A CROSS!?!?! Now wait just one minute! Whatever happened to all that easy, light and rest stuff that He was mentioning before? This cross business doesn’t seem to match well with those consoling words. Was Jesus being sarcastic or ironic? Or worse, was Jesus deluded or uncertain about what His mission would become when he faced opposition? Or even worse, did Jesus know that this is the burden he would be asking us to share and he misled us in thinking it would be different? But, we know from everything else Jesus said and did that He was not seen as delusional or deceptive by those who were closest to Him.
Some today want to consider the Cross as an aberration and not what is normative for the Christian life. They believe this will solve the supposed dissonance between the promise of an easy and light burden with the burden of the cross. They would want us to believe that Jesus dying on a cross was something suffered for us and because of Jesus’ suffering we now no longer have to carry this burden. One popular American preacher comes to mind…
But, there is also a problem with this:
“Then he said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?'” ~ Luke 9:23-24
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God…” Colossians 1:24-25
See the problem? We are told that if we follow Christ and take His burden upon ourselves it will be ‘easy, light and restful’. But, we also clearly see that this burden is a cross just like Christ’s and that this cross is one that includes suffering. Where does this leave us?
Simon of Cyre’ne
Let’s return now to Simon, the Cyrenian. His brief encounter with Jesus may be the key to understanding how the burden Christ calls us to carry can both be a cross and also light. Simon is called upon to carry Jesus’ cross at the moment when Jesus is most weak in his humanity. After the flogging and beatings he endured the previous evening and the early morning, Jesus was exhausted. But, now there is something important we need to consider. Jesus was also God. He is both Son of Man and Son of God. At any moment he could have chosen to draw from the power of His Divinity to provide Him with the strength to carry the cross to the place where He would be crucified. Therefore, we have here Jesus choosing to remain in His humanity and frailty. But why? Perhaps Jesus’ reason was to give us a glimpse of what following Him will be like for each of us. Jesus, by choosing to remain weak, shows us how to carry the burden of the cross.
What does he show us?
That we are not called to carry burdens alone and by our own strength. This cuts against our individualistic sensibilities that have been prominent here in the West. Independence and self sufficiency is the air we breath in the USA. But this cultural value is not a gospel value. The gospel value is to share the burdens of one another (see Galatians 6:2).
In contrast to the shared burdens Christ calls us to carry, we have Jesus sharply rebuking the Pharisees for not only placing unnecessary burdens on the lives of people but also doing nothing to help people carry the burdens that they bear. (See: Luke 11:45 & ff)
What a baffling image we have of Jesus on the way to the cross! He, the second person of the Trinity, falls to the ground that He created and allows a man named Simon to lift a cross that he will soon be nailed to. The below image from the film, ‘The Passion of the Christ’, is one we would do well to reflect on. It not only shows Simon lifting the Cross but also Simon extends his hand to Jesus and helps Him stand back up:
Jesus as Simon and Samwise…
Let us bring this reflection back to our own lives. When we are burdened by struggles in life, we are called not to carry them alone but to humbly share them. Naturally, the question ‘With who?’ arises when we consider sharing our burdens. First, here is where we find the hopeful beauty in the Gospel account we began with. For, in our lives, when we fall and stumble under the weight of our burdens it is Jesus who takes on the role of Simon! He comes at the moment of our greatest need and lifts our cross with us. He endured the humility and weakness of letting Simon carry his cross so when He sees us falter, he fully understands what this experience is like. He yearns to take up our cross and lighten the load. This is why his promise of an easy and light burden rings true. Jesus never intended to let us carry it alone. Jesus comes to us as friend, brother, and Savior. In Hebrews 4:15, we are reminded that: “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”
This idea of Jesus’ willingness to take on our burdens is beautifully portrayed in Tolkein’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Toward the very end, when Frodo cannot progress further up Mount Doom to destroy the ring of power, Samwise does something that Jesus is always willing to do for us:
Sometimes, the most difficult part of sharing our burdens is being willing to let them be shared. Again, we so desire to manage things ourselves. With this being a reality, how can we come to allow our burdens to be shared? Also, as Christians we are not only called to share our burdens but to be like Christ in helping carry the burdens of others. Here are a few practices that can help us be willing to share our burdens and make it possible for us to help others with their burdens as well:
1. Pray in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Being present before the Lord in quiet allows Jesus to do his work on us. During these times, be direct with Jesus when asking for help with a burden. Does Jesus know our burdens before we even ask him for help with them? Of course! But, it is in praying and asking that we are the ones that change. We slowly show less resistance to His help. We becomes what Jesus calls us to become; like little children. Children learn a lot about the love of their parents when they seek help from them. The same is true with us and God.
2. Attend Mass as often as possible and be attentive to the needs of the parish community. One of the unhealthy trends in our day is the tendency for people to parish hop. One of the consequences of our ease of mobility has created an environment where we don’t settle into community with others. We float. We never become neighbor, brother or friend with people at our parish. Think of how unlike Jesus this is! Jesus, in his incarnation, we confess he “came down from heaven”. His feet remained on the earth until his ascension. And even then He remains with us in the Eucharist and through the communion brought about by the Holy Spirit. When we begin to connect with people at the parish and participate in the mission of Christ that flows from the celebration of the Mass, we encounter the burdens of others and others encounter our burdens.
3. Regularly participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Jesus, through his priests, offers to draw near to us in our failings and the burdens of our sin. By regularly bringing these faults to Jesus in confession, we receive relief from our burdens and this frees us to help others with their burdens. Many of us stubbornly hold on to our sins and do not seek relief from them. When we do this, how can we help someone else with their burdens if we won’t bring our burdens to Jesus?
4. Ask your priest for a Spiritual Director and meet with one regularly. Right up there with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Spiritual Direction is one of the most unused ministries available to everyone. Many people have the wrong idea about Spiritual Direction and think it is just for priests and people in religious orders. A Spiritual Director is a person mature in faith that you can go to in confidentiality and reflect on your life with God and with others. Throughout the course of our life we develop bad patterns and habits.(often unknowingly or unintentionally). A Spiritual Director provides you with an outside perspective and helps you see the big picture. They help you mature in your faith and overcome things you are hung up with. It also is a place where you can share your burdens and work through them together. If Spiritual Direction is something you have not considered before, go to a Catholic priest and talk with him about it. If you are anxious to take that first step, then you can also go to this website that provides a lot of information about Spiritual Direction. Click the picture below to go to the website:
I realize that these suggested practices are not revolutionary. They are very basic. But, in life we get most off track when we fail to practice the most basic things. We tend to find it most difficult to do what is most necessary. We can think of the rich young man who met Jesus. Jesus said that there was only one thing he lacked. The thing he lacked was both very basic and also very difficult because of what the young man saw as most valuable. There is reason to hope though, Jesus reminds us that left to ourselves that doing these basic things would be impossible for us. But Jesus quickly adds this: “with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26) Will we allow Christ’s grace to have His way in us? Will we let Jesus be Simon or Samwise in our life? Will we be willing to share a person’s burden like Jesus shares ours?
Jesus calls us all to pick up our cross and follow him if we want to be His disciple. The good news is that He never intended for us to carry it alone. “Simon” is ready and waiting to share our burdens now.
I conclude by sharing a song that might be helpful to hear as we consider the burdens that we carry. Before we can pick up our cross, there is something we need to first lay down:
May God give us hearts willing to share our burdens with Jesus and willing to share the burdens of others!