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Our Lady of the Rosary - Marian Retreat
The Carrying of the Cross
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Our present meditation is on the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery, Christ's carrying His Cross to Calvary. This mystery of the Rosary identifies the most important single journey in the history of the human race. It is nothing less we believe than the journey of the Son of God become Man made from the palace of Pontius Pilate to the top of Mount Calvary where He was crucified. All four Evangelists narrate the Carrying of the Cross. They practically repeat one another, but also and especially St. Luke adds what the others do not narrate. If we limit ourselves only to the Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross) the total number of verses describing Christ carrying His Cross amounts to fourteen of which, surprisingly, Luke has seven and St. John only one, one verse. In order to do justice to an immense subject, I thought we should separate the narrative of Christ carrying His Cross into two parts. Part one - drawing exclusively on what we find in the Gospels. In part two, what the Church over the centuries of Her Tradition has also added. Then we will conclude, at some length, with the implications of Christ's carrying His Cross for our lives.
Christ Carried His Own Cross
First the biblical narrative. Here is the sequence as far as we can tell. First, as soon as the soldiers were done with their mockery of Jesus (that we've got to keep always in mind); there was the trial, the condemnation, then the mockery which preceded Christ's Carrying of the Cross. When they had finished mocking Jesus, they put on His own garments and then led Him away to be crucified. St. John says that Christ carried His own Cross. This, as we know, was the oriental custom and intended for two purposes; first to add to the criminal's pain and then to his humiliation. Research indicates that the length of the Cross would be up to ten feet in our measurement and the weight up to forty pounds in our calculation. The three Synoptic Evangelists record the fact that a certain man, Simon of Cyrene and Evangelists say he was forced to help Jesus carry His Cross at least part of the way. Even the Roman custom, the cortege from Pilate's palace to Calvary would have been as follows: A Roman centurion led led the whole procession; he alone on horseback. Second, followed the condemned man. Thirdly, the condemned criminal was accompanied by four soldiers. Then following the condemned criminal and his military escort, there were the executioners and their resistance carrying both the instruments of death and what is not insignificant- the titles of the charges against the man being led to his death and those held high on a pole for everyone to read. In the rear and on both sides depending on how popular or infamous the criminal was would draw crowds of people. In this case the Jewish priests, Pharisees and the mob of those who had demanded and finally succeeded in getting Christ's crucifixion.
Weep for Yourselves and Your Children
We are told by St. Luke, and this is a major addition to what the other Evangelists tell us. We are told by St. Luke; I quote, "Jesus was followed by a great multitude of people, also women who beat their breasts and mourned over him, but Jesus turned to them and He said, ' It is not for me you should weep, daughters of Jerusalem. You should weep for yourselves and your children'." Christ continues as related by Luke, "Behold a time is coming when men will say, it is well for those women who are barren and for the wombs that never had children. It is then that they will begin to say to the mountains, 'fall on us' and to the hills 'cover us' if it goes so hard with the tree that is still green what will become of the tree that is all dried up." All of this is recorded only by St. Luke.
Prediction of the Destruction of Jerusalem
We might remind ourselves that among the four Evangelists, St. Luke is commonly called by four names: the Evangelist of Mary, the Evangelist of women, the Evangelist of Divine Mercy and the Evangelist of the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is in Luke's Gospel we've just briefly read that we have the longest narrative of the conversation that Jesus carried on even as He carried His Cross. No other Evangelist records either the events or the words except Luke. And he is the same Evangelist that Tradition tells us is not only the Evangelist of Mary, but that Our Lady told Him much, if not most of what only he could have known; as for example what Christ told the women, because Our Lady was there. In many ways, this is one of the most revealing discourses in Divine Revelation. What really transpired? Understandably Jesus having been beaten, scourged, bleeding, being led to His death; women in their affection and sympathy consoled Him. It is well to hear what Christ tells the women. It isn't for me you should be feeling sorry. I tell you it is for yourselves and your children. What was Christ saying? He was predicting two things. One which took place and the other which will take place. The one that took place was the destruction of Jerusalem foretold remember in the 25th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. In less than forty years after the Jews had shouted during Christ's Passion, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" Pilate- "but He's an innocent man." And they shouted, "His blood be on us and on our children." It was, it was! Every time I deal with Christ's Passion, (even in teaching formal theology which this is not) I tell the people, we have a big thick volume by the Jewish historian Josephus and within that volume (Josepus died before the end of the first century of the Christian era); he describes at length and in detail the Destruction of Jerusalem.
The Via Crucis is Going on Right Now
Then Christ told the women on the Way to Calvary, Don't weep for me, weep for yourselves and for your children. Josepus describes how women in Jerusalem under the siege by the Romans famished with hunger; killed and ate their own children. If there is one conclusion we should draw at this stage of our reflections, it is that God is not mocked (pardon me) God was mocked but you know what we mean: God is not mocked without those who mock Him paying their retribution for the mockery. It cannot be coincidental, of all the books you have in your library; I happened just casually, I know the author-what does he say about Jesus Christ? "Oh, Jesus Christ is what all of us will become, we're all evolving into the deity." If that is not mockery then I don't know the meaning of words. The Via Crucis, my friends, is going on right now.
Veronica is Verifiable Historically
Now we turn to the Tradition of the Church. Among the elements that the Church's Tradition adds to what we find in the Gospels, adds first of all, the presence of Veronica, another name, by the way, Bernice. All the events we have from Tradition indicates she had been a disciple of Jesus. Given the phalanx of guards all around, she somehow managed to push her way up to this bleeding figure dragging His Cross, took off her veil and gave it to Him so He might wipe the blood from His Face. If there is one thing that I've learned, in almost forty years of teaching theology, check your records, verify the facts. Veronica is perfectly verifiable historically. And we're told that Our Lord then left an imprint of His Sacred Features on Veronica's Veil.
Sorrowing Mother Meets Her Sorrowing Son
But a much more significant tradition which the Church adds (we counted by the way by the Fathers of the Church and repeated by the spiritual masters over the years) the Mother of Jesus also managed to get, get to her Son on the way to Calvary. We have no record of words being exchanged. We so however have historical evidence of their having met. We are told the guards forbade Mary to embrace her Son. St. Bonaventure adds a very intimate touch that Mary knowing Jerusalem took a short-cut and stationed herself at a corner of a certain street in order to be sure to be there when Jesus passed by. Two statements, one from St. Bernard, "The Sorrowing Mother went to meet her Sorrowing Son." And St. Bridget whose revelations have been approved by the Church says "Jesus wiped away the clotted blood which prevented Him from seeing His Mother."
Our Faith: Christ was Prefigured Centuries Before Calvary Took Place
Now the main reason for having this meditation its implications. There are two basic and fundamental implications for all of us in Christ's carrying His Cross to Calvary. The first has to do with our Faith. There's only one problem that the human mind has with all that we're describing. Is this, is this, is it really the Incarnate God become Man who was forced to carry His Cross and then carried it up the hill to Calvary? Our Faith is strengthened of course by now two thousand years of believing history. Of course Christ's followers over the years have included the unlettered, the uneducated, the simple, but Christ's followers have also included geniuses like Augustine and Aquinas. All of this strengthens our Faith. But even the worst enemies of the Church had put in writing; empires have fallen, kingdoms have been wiped out but one Institution inexplicably has remained alive and strong for two thousand years the incredible Roman Catholic Church. We need that; that our Faith is not credulity, that our Faith is perfectly rational. You don't wave a hand or shrug your shoulders at any institution, I don't say that manages somehow, somehow to survive but that actually thrives on opposition and the persecution by her enemies. We need that! And the more critical our minds and the more demanding our intellect, the more we must make sure that our Faith is not pious belief.
However, it is also what had preceded Christ's Way of the Cross. For the centuries and in just about the same time from Abraham to Christ as from Christ to our day, about the same. Time and again the Redeemer was foretold, the Messiah was promised and as the New Testament writers are at pains to point out there were figures, personages long before Jesus came on the scene who were as we say, the prefigures that pre-symbolized what when God became Man, He would have to suffer and undergo. Back in Genesis, Cain remember leading his brother to murder him; Isaac carrying the wood up the mountain so he might be offered as a sacrifice by his own father? Remember Isaac asking, "but where is the sacrifice?" And he told the Lord will provide, remember all of this at the beginning of Jewish history. Ah! A dramatic and historical prefigurement of the Messiah. Throughout the centuries the Jewish people were told to sacrifice animals carried to the sanctuary to be offered to God. How many times I've reflected on the fact and told my students in teaching them has it struck you as strange, I would ask, that since the destruction of Jerusalem which Christ couldn't have been plainer in foretelling on the Way to Calvary there has been no sacrifice in Judaism, there has been no temple? That for the best of reasons all the sacrifices of the Old Law reached their consummation no longer in animals being slain and offered to Yahweh but the Lamb of God who was the Son of God taking on our human flesh and offering Himself. And remember His carrying His Cross was His offering Himself because Christ's sacrifice which was completed on Calvary (memorize this) began on Holy Thursday night. "This is My Body that will (future tense) be offered up for you. This is My Blood that will be shed and drained for you. The Way the Cross is part of the first Mass in Christianity which lasted from Holy Thursday night until (we've got the exact time) three o'clock Good Friday afternoon. Just one of a multitude of prophecies in Isaiah; "the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all." That Cross we believe stands for our sins. That's the first implication. The strengthening of Our Faith that all of this had been foretold and prefigured for centuries before it actually took place.
Christ's Carrying His Cross: Should Animate Us to Offer Him Gratitude
The second implication is more personal for each one of us. Christ's carrying of the Cross should animate us especially in four ways. First with gratitude, gratitude to God who became Man in order that He might be able to redeem us by voluntarily with a human will by carrying His Cross. The essence of gratitude when you come to think of it is to thank someone for something which they really have to do, which they didn't owe us. And the more free and voluntary what people do for us, the more grateful we should be. And the most fundamental reason for being grateful to anyone is that person's selfless love for us. Christ carrying His Cross to Calvary could not have been a more eloquent proof of His love for us by suffering. The language of love is pain. We love someone only as much, only as much as we are willing to suffer for the one we claim to love. And nobody, but nobody cheats here. God became Man in order that He might be able, which He could not do as God, that He might be able to experience pain. First then, gratitude.
Christ's Carrying His Cross: We Offer Our Pain Willingly with Patience
Secondly, patience. Whatever else we learn from this retreat, let's be sure we learn this basic lesson; living in this world and sincerely trying to follow Christ is costly. It's not easy on human nature. In other words, it is contrary to our natural desires and aspirations. So what do we need? We need patience. So what's patience? First of all there has to be pain otherwise you could talk about patience but you don't practice it. There must be pain. Tell me something new. There must first be pain. Is everyone who experiences pain patient? Oh no! So what do you have to add to pain to make it patience? Your free will! We're dealing with mystery, that's why God became Man to make sense of a mystery. The mystery is why the All Good and Infinitely Perfect God, what on earth or better what in heaven could possibly have motivated God to, well, send us pain that we might practice patience, which means that we might be willing. Its the will pain plus will equals patience. Everybody has to suffer, not everybody suffers willingly. What then is the second implication for our spiritual life as pertaining to us personally? Patience. Whatever else Christ wanted to teach us by assuming our human nature, it was to know what we've got a free will for; and the free will's nowhere, nowhere more tested than in our voluntary endurance of pain. And as I've said over the years, give me bodily pain any day compared to the pain that human malice, human envy, human jealousy can cause the human heart.
Christ's Carrying His Cross: Gives Us Confidence to Carry Our Cross
Thirdly, confidence. Seeing Christ in His own Way of the Cross, we should have confidence that because Christ carried His Cross to Calvary, He has gained for us the grace we need to remain faithful in carrying our cross into eternity. I like that carrying our cross into eternity. That God will not be outdone in generosity; He will provide the strength we need to remain faithful to Him in carrying our (shall we make them plural) crosses through life into eternity.
Christ's Carrying His Cross: Inspires Us to Imitate Christ
And finally, inspiration. The Via Crucis should inspire us by Christ's example showing us what it really means to imitate our Redeemer. It does mean of course willingly carrying our cross as Christ willingly carried His but, and we have to say this, we are to be inspired by Christ's example not only to be willing to endure the Cross but to have a positive desire to become more and more like Our Savior in His Way to Calvary. In other words, the imitation of Christ is not only a grudging endurance of the inevitable; it is the loving choice and the option is set before me. Ah! How this needs to be said; when I have the option to choose to walk the way of the cross with Jesus rather than even reach heaven by an easier or more pleasant route than the one that He walked to Calvary.
I looked around and I thought I would quote the prayer of St. Alphonsus Liguori. It is a prayer addressed to Our Lady and specifically to Our Lady on the Way to Calvary. "My Sorrowful Mother, by the merit of the sorrow you felt at seeing your beloved Jesus led to His death, acquire for me the grace to be able to bear with patience the crosses that God sends me. I should really be very happy if I could only desire to accompany you with my cross until death. You and Jesus, both innocent, as you were, have carried a far heavier burden. Shall I a sinner who have deserved Hell refuse to carry my cross? O Immaculate Virgin, help me to bear patiently all the crosses of my life. Amen." Unquote, Alphonsus Liguori. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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