By Edward Sri
Senior Vice President for Apostolic Outreach at FOCUS
When Jesus cast the vision for what it means to be a disciple, he used the most startling image: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
That’s crazy! Of all the symbols for discipleship Jesus could have used, why the Cross?
The image would have been utterly abhorrent to his original listeners. Though we today might be accustomed to seeing crosses in our churches, in the ancient world, the Cross was a terrifying symbol of Roman domination, an instrument of torture and shame, and the most horrific way to die. Saying to Jews in the first century, “Take up your cross and follow me,” would be like saying to people in the modern world, “Take up your electric chair and follow me.” Why would anyone want to join a movement that has at its center such a symbol of death?
Jesus holds up this shocking image of death to wake us up. He wants to wake us up out of our complacency and many distractions in life and focus on what matters most: the total self-giving love of God.
But this divine love is very different than the modern world’s understanding of love. Much of the world around us embraces what can be called a “self-getting love” — a love that is always seeking to get something for oneself: more pleasure, more attention, more applause…more power, more money, more “likes.”
But Jesus on the Cross reveals what real love looks like. On Good Friday, Jesus doesn’t get a lot of praise, honor and gratitude. He doesn’t get a lot of warm feelings from the people he came to save. But his love is not about what he gets. It’s about what he gives. For our sake, Jesus gives himself away completely in love, even unto death, death on a Cross.
And this is the great mystery that the Cross reveals: We find our fulfillment in life only when we make ourselves a sincere gift to others. When we imitate Christ and give ourselves away completely in love to God and others, we don’t lose anything. We actually gain so much more. For it is only by dying to ourselves — dying to our selfishness and pride, dying to our desire for praise, dying to our desire to control everything — that we discover the real love we are made for: the total, self-giving love Christ revealed on the Cross.
The “Hidden Wisdom” of God
This subversive message of the Cross remains just as countercultural today as it was when St. Paul preached it 2,000 years ago. Throughout the ages, the world, the flesh, and the devil have mocked the idea of total self-giving love. But St. Paul emphasized that the Cross is actually the “hidden wisdom” of God (see 1 Corinthians 2:7). It’s hidden from the world, hidden today from much of Wall Street, Congress and whatever might be trending on social media, featured on Netflix or airing on ESPN. This beautiful wisdom of God is hidden deep within true followers of Jesus.
From the outside, Christian disciples might appear to be living ordinary lives. But deep within, they are driven by the fire of divine love, an ardent desire to give themselves completely in love to their Beloved Jesus, holding nothing back.
This is what following Jesus as a disciple is, ultimately, all about. By deepening our life of prayer, participating more in the sacraments, and cooperating more with God’s graces, we allow that fire of Christ’s love to transform our hearts. The more that happens, the more we find within us a love that is willing to suffer, make sacrifices, and deny itself for the sake of others, for the sake of love, for the sake of our Bridegroom, Jesus. This is the countercultural, self-giving love that Jesus modeled for us on Good Friday — a love that constantly prompts us, strengthens us, and pushes us to love as he did. This is vastly different from the “what do I get out of it?” love of our modern age.
The Power of Stations of the Cross
This is why we need to keep the story of Jesus’ passion constantly on our minds and the minds of our children. We want to lift high the Cross in our hearts, families and communities, lest we be distracted and seduced by this present age and forget the true standard for our lives. Remember, we live in a world that wants to run away from the Cross, a world that even despises and mocks it — and constantly entices us Christians to seek what is interesting, comfortable, pleasurable and profitable for ourselves.
Consider the following:
We fallen human beings often want to be in control, to be the masters of our own lives and cling to our own dreams and plans, whatever the cost. As Christians, however, we hold up Jesus, who abandoned everything, denied himself, and surrendered all to the Father’s will. We hold up the Cross.
The world tempts us to seek our identity, self-worth and security by grasping after worldly success, achievements, wealth, the latest fashions, the latest technological gadgets. As true Christian disciples, however, we hold up Jesus on Good Friday — poor, naked, stripped of everything he had. We hold up the Cross.
The world seduces us with comforts, sensual pleasure, constant distractions and incessant pointless amusements on our devices. As Christians, we instead hold up Jesus, beaten, scourged and crucified. We hold up the Cross.
The world wants us to seek the praise of men. It gets us to focus on appearances and to find our identity in a virtual world, anxiously projecting an image, wanting a platform, longing to be seen, and striving to get more “followers” and “comments” than everyone else. True Christian disciples, however, realize the vanity of all this and instead hold up Jesus — unnoticed by most people in his day, mocked by his enemies, rejected by those he came to save, forgotten by the crowds who had previously praised him, and even abandoned by his closest friends. In an age that seeks the empty praise of men, we hold up the Cross.
Praying Stations: The Way of Love
The Stations of the Cross devotion we do each Lent is particularly important for our times. In our secular age, we need to be reminded constantly of Christ’s authentic self-giving love. To counter the daily messages of the world, we must put before our minds the true wisdom of the Cross.
But we do not need to pray the Stations as a group or only during Lent. Throughout the year, we can pray the Stations on our own. And there are many ways to pray the Stations. We can recite certain formal prayers or use our own words to talk to the Lord. We can use a devotional book to guide our meditation. We can prayerfully reflect on each scene on our own. Our prayer does not need to be anything elaborate or specific: “Nothing more is required than a pious meditation on the Passion and Death of the Lord.” 1
While the Stations of the Cross devotion is best prayed inside a church, moving from station to station,2 we can pray this devotion anywhere — in our home, in the car, on a walk, or on a plane. Bringing the Way of the Cross into our daily lives throughout the year will bear much spiritual fruit. If Jesus’ passion reveals God’s love most fully — if the Cross is the true standard for our lives — why would we not want this saving reality always on our minds? The Stations of the Cross devotion is one of the best ways to help us meet Jesus in our own daily crosses and follow him as true disciples.
Pocket Guide to Stations of the Cross
This article is based on Dr. Sri’s newest book, Pocket Guide to Stations of the Cross, out Feb. 25 via Ascension Press.
- Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary, The Enchiridion of Indulgences (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vatican, 1968), 63.
- To receive the plenary indulgence associated with this devotion, the faithful must: pray it before the stations of the cross legitimately erected with fourteen crosses representing the fourteen stations of Jerusalem, have a pious meditation on Christ’s passion and death, and physically move from one station to the next. If the devotion is prayed publicly and it is not possible for all participants to move from station to station in an orderly way, the leader can move from station to station while the others remain in their place. See The Enchiridion of Indulgences, 63.