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March 23, 2015

Even after 2,000 years of Christianity, the cross is a scandal. Good Friday annually confronts us with the message St. Paul says "is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1.18).

In many nations today, violence is a lived reality. War, terrorism, marginalization in poverty or homelessness, or simple abandonment by loved ones are defining characteristics of the lives of tens of millions of people. Many among these people would suffer, even give their lives, if they knew that their acceptance of the cross would bring wholeness to a broken situation.

Yet, self-giving is not reciprocated. If you sacrifice your life in a war zone, the killing does not stop. The violent power of the perpetrator may even be enhanced, and one's sacrifice has no apparent fruit.

Jesus' greatest agony was not physical suffering, but abandonment. Abandoned by his followers, abandoned by God. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15.34). No positive spinoff was on the horizon as he offered up his life. His was another apparently useless death, a life crushed by the unrelenting march of violent worldly power.

This is the fullest meaning of taking up one's cross. It's somewhat more demanding than even our most onerous Lenten penances.

The options are two. One can reject the cross and join in the search for power, prestige and "the good life." Lots of people and resources will be at hand to help in that journey. Or, one can take up that cross and join the downtrodden.

The modern world believes with all its heart that violence and injustice can be halted in their tracks. It believes technology, economic prosperity, better laws, ever-improving medical treatment and more just social arrangements can create the good society.

Of course, we should use these means within the bounds of prudence and justice to improve and transform society.

However, the cross says evil, injustice and suffering are intractable. Although we do our best to eliminate them, we can never fully succeed.

The cross is a stumbling block – not just to Jews and Greeks, but to us as well. Following Jesus need not mean living in a cave, but it does mean not being cozy with the surrounding culture. Paul aimed his most basic criticism of the Corinthian Christians at their belief that following Jesus would always be a bed of roses.

To be a Christian is to be like Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross behind Jesus or like the women who followed Jesus from Galilee and were brave enough to be present when he breathed his last (Luke 23.49). A rare few – not so rare in some countries – are called to give their lives.

When we awake to the joy of Easter, we should never think Christ's humiliating death was not real. His call to take up our cross daily remains basic to Christian living.