Interference with the divine plan means we may not only refuse to carry our personal crosses but we are also refusing Jesus’ help in carrying them.
A few years ago, my children thought it would be a good Lenten project to dramatise the Passion of our Lord. They gathered costumes, made props, and selected the cast. Our eldest wrote a script and named herself narrator/director, a natural part for the bossiest one with the most leadership skills. Four-year-old Katherine was chosen to play Jesus. (Since all our children are girls, this decision was based on practicality, not gender politics.)
They probably thought she looked the part with her brown, curly (and somewhat matted) shoulder-length hair. Katherine began stoically, and endured being put on trial and sentenced by Pilate. Halfway though the Via dolorosa, however, we hit a snag. It seemed the makeshift cardboard cross was cutting into her shoulder. “It hurts,” she complained; “I want a softer cross.” Various other props were substituted, but none of them satisfied the older children’s demand for realism. They deemed it ridiculous that Jesus would carry a body-length ‘Winnie the Pooh’ pillow to Calvary, and the project was eventually abandoned.
Most adults chuckle at this anecdote, little realising that our own attitudes are not so very different from Katherine’s. We, too, would like a softer cross. Although we realise suffering is part of the human condition, we make every attempt to avoid or mitigate it as much as possible. After all, no one looks forward to pain and sorrow. Even Jesus in his agony prayed for the cup to pass if it was the Father’s will.
The difference is that our Lord did not seek to interfere with the divine plan, whereas we often do. I remember a conversation I once had with some women from a former parish. They didn’t see how you could live without contraception and/or sterilisation because the alternative was, as one woman put it, “to have babies till you drop.” And of course that would entail too much suffering. “God wouldn’t want us to suffer,” she stated emphatically.
My response to this was (first of all, no, you are not asked to have babies till you drop, and) yes, sometimes God does ask us to suffer. A third woman interjected, “But there are other ways to suffer,” meaning, perhaps, that if suffering was an inescapable part of the plan, then at least we should be allowed to pick and choose our own crosses.
Given human nature, we are bound to choose the easiest path, the softest cross we can find – a nice pink fuzzy one, if possible, thank you, Lord. Yet this does not accord with Christ’s conditions for discipleship: “If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and follow in my steps” (Mark 8:34). These steps include total submission to the Father’s will, and a complete reliance upon his love and mercy.
Quite often, at the root of our natural desire to avoid suffering is a lack of trust in God’s providence. Somehow we fear that he will not sustain us if he asks us to shoulder a heavy cross. The irony is, when we reject God’s will for our lives and seek out a softer cross, it is often more difficult to bear. Jesus seems absent from the picture, and in a way he is – not because he chooses to be, but because in rejecting his will for our lives, we also reject his help in bearing the burden.
Ultimately, the softer cross is an illusion; we are not in control of our future. But we are in control of how we will react when the Lord asks us to accept a particular suffering. We can respond with feelings of rebellion, hopelessness or despair. We can, like my four-year-old aspiring actress, give up the production entirely. Or we can lovingly accept our crosses and allow the Lord to work with us and through us for our sanctification, and his greater glory.
We adore Thee, O Christ and we bless Thee; Because by Thy Holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.