He Died on a Cross, So I Take Up Mine

[If I could preach on Sunday, I would say this…]


Take up your cross, and follow Me, says the Lord Jesus. [Spanish]

We all live according to fundamental facts. Like: Where was I born? Where did I grow up? What’s my native language? Who are my parents?

Fundamental facts like these give meaning to our lives. They shape us. Reflecting on these basic facts helps us know who we are.

What about the fundamental facts that we all have in common? Is there a fundamental fact that gives meaning to the existence of the entire human race, considered as a whole? Yes.

Almighty God became one of us. And He suffered unjust condemnation, and died by unjust execution, during the time of the Roman empire, then rose from the dead.

divine-mercyThe Romans had special contempt for certain criminals. They executed those particular criminals by hanging them on wooden crosses, in full view of everyone. Almighty God died this way. He died a human death, as the most honest, most gentle, most kind human being ever to walk the earth. Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross as the divine sacrificial Lamb.

The eternal Word, through Whom all things were made, submitted to this for His own sublime reason. Namely, mercy. God’s death on the cross unfolds for us the full reality of who we are, we human beings. Sinners, upon whom God has showered His mercy. Divine Mercy. He died, because none of us has any “right” to go to heaven, but He wills to give us heaven anyway, as a gift.

The fundamental fact of the life of the human race: God died on a Roman cross to atone for all the wrong we have done, and to open the door for us to a good, holy life. God loves me this much, just as I am, right here and now. He did this—died on a cross—for love of me, to give me holiness and heaven.

Ancient Roman fountain in Corinth

All I have to do is: believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him back.

To grasp this fundamental fact of human life = to receive the Christian faith. I behold God crucified for us, and my heart moves with God’s divine love.

All my failures to love—all the ways I have wronged the God of truth and mercy, Who loves me, plus all the ways I have wronged my fellow redeemed sinners—all those sins on my part: they pain me and weigh on me, when I see them from the point-of-view of Christ crucified. I long to kneel at His feet, and confess them all, so I can make a fresh start. Then all I want to do is: imitate this crucified rabbi.

So I “take up my cross.” I embrace life as a pure gift given to me by Jesus. I must use it well—use my life just as Jesus used His—in order to follow Him to heaven. I greet every day as an opportunity to do penance for my sins and to serve.

“Take up your cross” has become a cliché among Christians. A nice, little gold cross can serve as a lovely adornment on a necklace.

But a resident of the Roman empire would see such a necklace and gasp. We have to let the Lord bring our minds back to the hard first-century facts, related by the New Testament. A resident of the Roman empire would gasp at the sight of a gold cross on a necklace because: That’s how the Roman army tortured and killed the criminals they hated the most.

And: It’s also the way to heaven.

On His cross, Jesus desired one thing: To rest His soul on the bosom of the Father. The crucified rabbi reigns as King of the Universe precisely by having only this one desire. Namely that the Father’s eternal plan of love would come to fulfillment.

To follow that path, behind Him… How totally must we abandon ourselves? How much trust must we have?

St. Paul put it like this: “Neither death nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height nor depth, can separate” us from Him. “Think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”



St. Callistus and Julian Apostate

The Via Appia runs southeast of Rome. A number of ancient Christian cemeteries can be found on this road, including the catacombs of St. Callistus. They bear his name because he cared for and beautified this cemetery.

Pope St. Callistus was martyred during a persecution brought on by one of the Roman imperial lawyers. The martyred pope was buried 1,789 years ago today.

A century later, another emperor persecuted the Christians. He despised Christians as “atheists,” because they would not sacrifice to the Roman gods.

But Julian grudgingly acknowledged that Christianity had made enormous headway, owing to the three distinctive characteristics which Christians had:

1. Their kindness and charity to strangers.

2. The gravity of the way they carry themselves.

3. Their care for the burial of their dead.

Let me quote the emperor on this last point:

They bury their dead with modest religious respect, which is most movingly expressive of their firm hope in the resurrection, in which they regard the mortal remains of their dead as precious in the eyes of God, who watches over them, regarding them as the apple of his eye, to be raised one day in the brightest glory, and made shining lusters in the heavenly Jerusalem.

The Lapsed

During the third century A.D., the Roman emperors repeatedly persecuted the Church. The Emperors Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian ordered that all Christians must renounce the faith and offer pagan sacrifices. Registries of compliance were to be kept in all provinces. Recusants could be punished by forfeiture of property or death.

Human beings being human beings, a mad whirlwind of attempted scams ensued.

By the third century, the Empire was home to many well-to-do Christians. These did not relish the prospect of offending God. But neither did they want to be impoverished or executed.

So they paid their slaves to offer pagan sacrifices on their behalf. Or they bribed officials to produce false certificates, saying they had sacrificed, even though they really hadn’t. Or they lent their identification documents to a pagan, who would then offer sacrifices under the assumed name.

The Christians who employed these stratagems to save their hides came to be known as “the Lapsed.”

The persecutions of the third century came in fits and starts; they lasted for a time, but then the Church would enjoy a few years of peace. St. Cornelius was Pope, and St. Cyprian a prominent bishop, through a couple of these cycles.

During the intervals of peace, a question inevitably arose: Could the Lapsed be forgiven? They had failed to exercise the heroic faith and courage of the martyrs. But, at the same time, they had never stopped believing in the Trinity and in Christ.

Now, of course, neither Cornelius nor Cyprian ever lapsed. Both of them eventually went to their deaths as martyrs. But, before they themselves were killed, they had to deal with the question of what to do with the conniving Lapsed who wanted to go to communion.

Perhaps we might think that, since Cornelius and Cyprian proved to be heroic martyrs themselves, that they would have insisted on Christian heroism. But the opposite is the case. Both of them were roundly criticized by other bishops for being too lax.

Cornelius and Cyprian both taught: We believe in the forgiveness of sins. Let the Lapsed confess their sins, do penance, and be reconciled. The martyrs are our heroes. The Lapsed do not pretend to have been heroes. But they are our brothers nonetheless. Let’s gather around the altar together, so that we can all learn to be heroes next time.


The man is incredible:

Whoever wishes to come after me must take up his cross and follow me. –Mark 8:34

tombstone cross

This is what the Son of God said. He went to heaven after He rose from the dead, so we certainly want to follow Him.

But wait: Are we fools to want to follow Christ? To come after Him, we must take up our crosses. This is what He clearly says. We have to be clear on what He means.

The cross was the implement the Romans used to kill their worst criminals. The cross may mean many things to us, but when the Lord first used the term 2,000 years ago, the cross meant one thing: execution, the death penalty.

Among Christians, to speak of one’s crosses has become a metaphor for all kinds of difficulties. It is a good metaphor.

But: We cannot use the phrase as a metaphor if we do not first consider the literal meaning. We cannot forget what the cross essentially is. The cross is an instrument of one thing—death.

Continue reading “Death-Defying”