Jesus was crucified so that we do not have to be. Yet we all carry a cross. We are weighed down by our own failings and weakness and by those of others. Whether it is made by our own or others’ hands, its heavy wood can crush us and pin us to the ground. It can be hard to stand, let alone keep walking.
But even Jesus could not carry his Cross alone. Simon had to share the weight to keep him staggering on under the burden of the world’s sin. Even God Incarnate, one with us in our humanity, needed help.
When I look at his limp and pierced body being cradled by his mourning mother, whose soul was pierced also, I see how fragile I am, too: but also, how loved.
As a Christian, I am convinced that it is only by God’s grace that we live and move and have our being, let alone have strength to stand. Certainly, this grace is imparted by the sacraments and by prayer. They are my first recourse when available. But neither prayer nor sacraments will always give an instant fix, because they are not the only channels of God’s grace; and we are no less loved by God if prayer does not ‘work’ the way we want it to, if we do not feel God’s strengthening power, or if we are still left feeling weak and weighted.
If Christ himself could feel weak and dejected, and need help to shoulder his Cross, why should we expect to be different? To struggle is not a sign of being a bad Christian or being weak in prayer. To be a Christian is not about keeping your chin up and “manning up.” The televangelist’s permanent, glazed Joker-off-Batman smile is no sign of spiritual maturity. Above all, we must avoid at all costs that awful and borderline abusive expression, “God only gives you as much as you can take.” Try telling that to someone whose mother has just died alone in an isolation ward.
Humans are not made for isolation. If we were, Christ (who wrote nothing) would have given us a bible each instead of founding the social body of the Church. The limits of lionising “independence” and “resilience,” which are all too often just new euphemisms for the old stiff upper lip, are showing very clearly.
The Way of the Cross is not a path of independence. It is a path of dependence and recognition of our need for one another. This week, already, one or two of my colleagues have helped me bear my cross because they could see how hunched I was underneath it, and because I asked. They have been channels of that strength to me which I would call the grace of God.
Sartre said that hell is other people. He was wrong. Hell is an eternity alone, with nothing for contemplation but your own failings. Recognition and acceptance of one’s own weakness, being able to ask for help and depend on other people without guilt or shame and to offer help without price, seeing yourself as one vital member of a greater body and the madness of assuming that any part of it can be cut off or left to rot without damage to the whole: these are the signs not of hell, but of heaven, and signs that Christ himself gave us as he got help to carry his cross.