So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out … John 19:17
It is variously written that Jesus “takes up” his cross or Jesus “accepts” his cross. Some reflections talk about Jesus’s meekness in the face of death, his calm willingness to accept his cross or his assurance that the Father was with him. To me, some of those reflections feel like an attempt to take the pathos out of the story. As a person who was condemned to crucifixion, Jesus did not have the option of taking up his cross. Carrying one’s own cross to the place of execution was part of the sentence. Perhaps “Jesus is compelled to carry his cross” gets us closer to the story.
As I write this, my thoughts turn to accounts from the students and teachers of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida where 17 students and teachers were gunned down a week ago. Two of the teachers died while trying to save their students from the gunman. One student, 15-year-old Anthony Borges, is hospitalized and faces a long recovery from his injuries. He was shot five times as he attempted to close and lock the door to save himself and his fellow students from gunfire. What would be the correct words for their stations of the cross? The choice to put oneself in the line of fire is not a meek action. If there is an acceptance of the cross, it is acceptance because given the nature of the particular person or circumstances, there is not another option.
We look for Christ figures in our stories, both real and fictional. We want to project our theology onto the stories and amplify the meaning of the narrative. Do we run the risk of diminishing and taming the narrative at the same? I recall a scene from Elie Wiesel’s book Night. He tells about three young Jewish boys being hanged on the gallows while the rest of the prisoners are forced to witness the event. In his story, Wiesel records one of his fellow prisoners asking where God is. Another prisoner answers that God is in fact hanging on the gallows in front of them. As a Christian reading this, my first reaction was to seek a deeper theological meaning in the story – to make the claim that in fact Jesus is always on the cross in the middle of our suffering. I believe that, but to move to that place too quickly is to deny the total loss of faith and meaning that occurred at that moment in Wiesel’s’ story when God died and there was nothing left but pain and the void.
A Jewish author whose name I cannot remember warned against trying to find meaning in the Holocaust. His argument is that to find meaning is to deny the sheer horror of what happened – to deny its essential meaninglessness. For the purposes of these meditations on the Stations, it is a useful reminder before we move too quickly to tell this story without reckoning with the dereliction – the utter abandonment and darkness experienced by Jesus that culminates in his cry from the cross.