St. Paul hinted at the difference between “the world’s cross” and “the Cross of Christ” when he observed that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Both Jews and pagans considered the “victory of the cross” to be an absurd notion – because it is a contradiction to heavenly and earthly hopes alike, when viewed without faith.
Paul proclaimed that faith in the resurrected Christ is the only way to understand the True Cross that connects us with an eternity in heaven: “If Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; empty, too, your faith….If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain….If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17, 19).
Is there a false cross?
If we believe the faith we proclaim in the Creed, then do why we need to worry about carrying a false cross and its consequences? Because we are sinners in a fallen world and we are all too liable to fall for the lie that we are self-reliant and can carry our burden without Jesus’ help — as in, “Never mind, God, I got this!”
And too often we bring needless suffering on ourselves by our bad choices that maybe could have been better if we had prayed first. Like the time I tried to help someone get off drugs, who turned out to be a perpetual help-seeker and who had no intention of turning his life around. Healthier boundaries would have kept me from “going down the drain” with him into a pit of misery – all brought about by not doing things God’s way and asking his guidance.
The egotism of thinking we can “fix” other people who don’t really want to be fixed.
The real fix – the true Cross
Jesus warned us that “without me you can do nothing [of eternal value] (John 15:5).” And what does he mean by that? He goes on to explain that uniting with him means to “remain in my love” (John 15:9).
Why remain in his love?
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
Okay, Jesus, I like the “joy” part of your message, but what’s that got to do with carrying the burdens and sorrows of life? What’s that got to do with the Cross?
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12,13).
So, does that mean in some crazy way that sacrificing for someone out of love for you is the way to stay in union with you?
“You are my friends if you do what I command you….This I command you: love one another” (John 15:14, 17).
Let me try to get this straight: loving, which keeps me in union with you, is the only thing that can give me true joy. And loving you means giving up what I want and taking the painful path of the Cross – not when I think I can fix something or someone by myself, when you ask me to do it with the strength and guidance you give me in prayer.
Which means that in my suffering, if that’s what you’re asking at the moment, I’ll find true joy even though it’s mixed with pain?
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you” (John 15:1-4).
The shocking news
Peter was shocked. He protested when Jesus told him he should let Jesus wash his feet. When Jesus explained that “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well” (John 13:7-9).
Another time when Peter was beyond shocked by Jesus’ commandment to eat his body and drink his blood, lest he (Peter) have no life in him, Jesus asked whether he would leave, too. Peter responded, “Master, where else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Be like Peter
Peter was honest about not understanding what Jesus was asking, or why he was asking it. But he always came back to trust in the one in whom “we have come to believe.”
After Jesus’ Ascension, the apostles were mentored by Mary. “She who believed that the Lord’s promises to her would be fulfilled” had been living in radical trust her whole life, and never more than at Jesus’ crucifixion, when he himself demonstrated what sacrificial love looks like and she stood by his side, her heart pierced with the sword that Simeon foresaw. In his Cross and resurrection, Jesus showed the whole world how and why to pick up the True Cross and follow him.
The secret to the True Cross is that it is the Father’s will. Even if, like Peter, we don’t understand yet.
So what’s the false cross?
If we carry the true cross in union with Christ as a way of collaborating with him to glorify the Father and save souls from hell, we will avoid the false cross of needless suffering as a consequence of our selfishness or egotism. Like the needless suffering we have when the grocery store is out of our favorite ice cream. Really?
Pope Saint Leo the Great had encouraging words for us about the false and true cross:
“After preaching the blessings of poverty, the Lord went on to say: Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. But the mourning for which he promises eternal consolation, dearly beloved, has nothing to do with the ordinary worldly distress; for the tears which have their origin in the sorrow common to all mankind do not make anyone blessed.
“There is another cause for the saints, another reason for their blessed tears. Religious grief mourns for sin, one’s own or another’s; it does not lament because of what happens as a result of God’s justice, but because of what is done by human malice. Indeed, he who does wrong is more to be lamented than he who suffers it, for his wickedness plunges the sinner into punishment, whereas endurance can raise the just man to glory” (Sermo 95, 4-6: PL 54, 462-464).
You have my prayers to always take up the True Cross that is saving the world. Because eye has not seen nor ear heard the glories that God has prepared for his faithful ones.