It has been an unseasonably warm winter here on the Prairies and I have been taking advantage of the balmy temperatures to get outside more often, so the other day saw me walking back from the local grocery store with a few items for our dinner that night. As I walked the few blocks I could feel the weight of the grocery bag pulling on my arm. Even though it was only moderately heavy, I felt the strain in both my arm and shoulder muscles. I consciously began to switch the bag from one arm to another as I walked, trying to distribute the load. Things get heavy when you have to carry them for a long time, I thought.
The pull in my muscles reminded me of an article I read recently. A massage therapist was reflecting on the work she does. She pointed out that the skeletal framework of the body, the spinal column itself and across the neck and shoulders, literally forms a crux, a cruciform shape. Many of her clients come to her because of tightness in that area, especially through the neck and shoulders. They are rigid and hunched over, as if they were carrying something heavy on their backs. Our bodies, she realized, recognize more than physical loads. We “carry” the stresses and concerns of our lives in the crux, the cross of our body. If we could see our spirits, she says, they would be like pack horses, loaded down with the emotional and spiritual burdens of life, and they literally weigh us down.
Our language reflects the truth of this. When we are emotionally distressed, we say “our hearts are heavy.” We talk about being “weighed down with responsibility” and of “the emotional baggage we carry.” In the language of spirituality, they are the crosses we bear and everyone has them. Sometimes these crosses are relatively minor and we walk almost carefree, but at other times, the pain and worry can be so great that we fear we may fall under their weight and not rise again.
It is here that experience and faith intersect. Our experience tells us that our crosses are real, even if invisible; our faith tells us what God does with them. It is the essence of our faith as we hold that Good Friday, the day of the cross, gives way to Easter, the day of resurrection, and our belief and most profound hope is that what God has done in Christ, God will do with us.
It is why, each Good Friday, believers flock to the churches for the service that sees the cross lifted high. It is why we process, one by one, to touch and reverence that cross. Babes in arms, toddlers and teenagers, young and old, we all come before the cross, embracing it, kneeling before it, laying gentle hands upon it. We come with our own crosses to lay them, symbolically and really, before the cross of Christ.
It is an Easter faith that brings us before the cross; it is our testimony to God’s saving action in Christ and in us. We witness to at least three things in front of that cross. First, in coming to the cross we are saying that we recognize that here is a place where God is present. Christmas gives us Emmanuel, God-with-us, and Easter tells us that God is with us not just in our pleasant and happy times, in the celebratory times of life, but also in our suffering and sadness, in our sorrows, anxieties and despair. Golgotha might look and feel like a God-forsaken place, but Easter eyes see through the cross to the powerful presence of Spirit and love being poured out. The cross, our faith tells us, is never a place where God is absent; it is always a place where God’s grace is working powerfully to bring about good.
Second, we come before the cross of Christ to lay our own crosses at the foot of our Saviour’s cross. We intuitively know that on their own, crosses are death, but that taken up in Christ, they can be gateways to newness. Our Easter hope is that what God has done for Christ, God will do for us and that we too will end up not in tombs of death but in gardens of life.
Finally, we come before the cross of Christ in the belief that Christ will be with us in our carrying of them. Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says, while at the same time reassuring us that his yoke upon our shoulders is light as he helps us to bear it. The promise, I am with you, has never been more true than when we feel ourselves dying under the weight of our worry and suffering.
It is true: the weight in our hearts often times pulls us down more than grocery bags or physical burdens. Yet those burdens, brought to Christ, have the potential to be transformed. Rev. Andrew Greeley wrote years ago, “Those who put on the cross of Christ go carefree into the night.” Being carefree might not quite describe our reality, but to know that our darkest hilltops can be places of grace and that our heaviest crosses are held in Christ is good news indeed. Happy Easter everybody!
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.