my cross to bear

The gospels are not of one mind on the question of whether or not Jesus carried his own cross. John is pretty quick to tell us that Jesus hiked up to Golgotha carrying the cross by himself. The other three gospels tell us that Simon of Cyrene, who Mark calls a “passerby,” got conscripted into the cross-carrying task. Like folks in my bible study said last night, Jesus would have been pretty beaten up by that point, and carrying gigantic pieces of lumber up a mountain would probably have been beyond his bodily capacity.

But we still talk about it like John is telling the gospel truth, even though everybody else disagrees with him. Jesus lugged the thing up the mountain. That image is in a lot of Christian art, and threads throughout a lot of Christian imagination. He had a cross to bear, right? Just like we’ve got our own crosses that we need to lug around behind us.

In another version of the story – not found in any gospel – Jesus starts out carrying the cross alone, but can’t manage it. When the soldiers see what’s happening, they grab Simon off the street and finish the hike with a stranger bearing Jesus’ cross for him. It makes sense that this has become the narrative of that moment, mashing the gospel accounts together and providing an explanation for why they’re different.

I like the traditional version the best, if I get to choose. Of course the Roman soldiers would try to force a criminal to lug their own torture device up a mountain themselves – that’s what systems of oppression do. But whether from physical exhaustion or spiritual wisdom, Jesus refused to carry his own cross. They had to conscript someone else – an innocent bystander – into their murder plot. In fact, the Romans had already recruited an entire echelon of religious leadership into their death cult. If you read that passage in John’s gospel, you hear the priests tell Pilate not to worry, that they have no king but Caesar, that their ultimate loyalty already lay with the state oppressing their people.

Which makes me wonder: how often do we get conscripted into structures of violence because we refuse to see or believe someone else’s pain? And how often does our reluctance to name our own suffering enable the continuation of those systems and structures?

I was formed – by culture, theology, and personality – to encounter the public, vocal suffering of another with some skepticism, and to keep my own suffering far from the public eye. Sometimes, we humans do use our pain as a means of manipulation or a vehicle for accumulating attention. But for the most part, I think people share their pain because it HURTS. We hear about someone’s suffering when the suffering has become too much to bear alone.

Jesus didn’t choose stoicism. He cried out, he demanded explanations from God, he bled and stumbled right there in public. I’m not great at witnessing suffering, much less admitting it or contemplating it. But I do wonder whether we’d be in a better place if we sharpened our abilities to encounter and stand in solidarity together when suffering happens, if we learned how to share the weight, if we insisted on bearing those crosses *together.*

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