A recent Gospel reading focused on the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration was fabulous! Jesus and three friends simply dazzled on a mountain top. Just before this sequence, however, was Jesus’ first crucifixion pronouncement. Jesus had just rebuked Peter for not understanding this gift of sacrifice that must happen. Honestly, taking up the cross is no idle matter. It is not and should not be treated as just another Biblical sound bite. This saying is shared in the three synoptic traditions: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
I sometimes observe that we, who are well off, perhaps “the privileged”, create a narrative about the poor. We drop into Dickens happy endings with Tiny Tim or perhaps the happy Chimneysweeps in Mary Poppins. I suspect that in doing so we also elevate ourselves to a place that is gracious and thoughtful, a sort of self-appreciation for our generosity. I have, in my own case, found myself expecting some form of gratitude for the gifts that we provide. Not too often, I hope, but on occasion I expect a “thank you.” When the expected gratitude does not develop, I feel somehow robbed, taken advantage of, “they are just hustling.” Does that sound familiar to any of you?
It is sometimes easy to start generalizing about those who come to our door or that we meet in homeless camps. Somehow, we become tempted to fall victims to our bias and prejudices. On occasion those who work with the very poor will slip into a “those people” mindset. Be it race, drug addiction, or other generalization. Yet, “take up your cross” is the anthem that is either explicit or implicit in the Jesus ministry, or should be. Working with the very poor on any regular basis can be difficult, emotional, draining, and challenging. Sometimes we are physically at risk if not emotionally so.
Yet as Christians, there is that invitation that whispers in our ear, “if you would follow me take up your cross.” Reference.com says, “the cross was approximately 7 to 9 feet tall. The patibulum that Jesus’ arms were outstretched and nailed to was likely 5 to 6 feet long. The entire cross is estimated to have weighed well over 300 pounds.”
So, as a physical reality even the metaphor begins to take shape as a burden of unbelievable proportions. We know and believe that Jesus measured his words and that the Gospel writers took great care in communicating the essence of Jesus’ message. Yes, words matter and so do the phrases and context of those phrases. “Take up your cross.” Too often real Christianity is lost in hatred, bias, and institutional hypocritical self-promotion.
But what really is that cross? The cross to bear can be both our own interior struggles and it can equally be those that we take upon ourselves. By this I mean that our cross can be our bias that sifts its way to the surface or it can be an environment that we have placed ourselves in. In the latter case, the cross can be the endless necessity to feed the hungry and minister to the poor. An example is Brother Don and Rusty’s trips to the underpasses and homeless encampments to offer comfort and consolation. They deliver small “blessing bags” which stand as much for affection and attention as they do for the relief from thirst or hygiene.
So, the cross can be a weight of temperament or place. When we create a fiction of poverty, i.e., Oliver Twist, Little Timmy, or Chimneysweeps, we start to rob poverty of its desperation.
Remember I used the phrase “being hustled” earlier. Read that now in a different way, “desperate.” Street people do hustle, they do become aggressive, they are sometimes impolite and demanding. Why? Because they are desperate.
What must it be like to stand guard over a rucksack each day with a few dirty clothes? What must it be like to be an object of violent predators that stalk each night? What must it be like to remain invisible? What must it be like to live each day in a heightened state of fear and legitimate paranoia?
At this point it should be mentioned that historically the LGBTQ+ community has very often set aside these biases to take in runaways who are members of that same community. “The Community” knows what desperation feels like or at least rejection. To its credit, the Community often responds with kindness born out of its own painful past. Yet there are all the others that don’t seem to be attended to.
“Take up your cross” means understanding the conditions of poverty in existential terms as well as economic terms. “Take up your cross” means to constantly check our own visceral responses to poverty and its confrontational style. We, the staff of St. Anna’s Church and so many of our volunteers, often work with those at the very fringes of society. Over time we must look to each other to check ourselves and to provide that emotional maturity that reminds us “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Perhaps this Lenten Season we might consider a deep dive into our own relationship with abject poverty.
¨ How do I understand poverty? Are those affected by it “victims” or do I think of them as “underachievers”?
¨ How do I respond to the very poor? Do I see them? Do I ignore them? Am I afraid of them?
¨ What do I think of the poor? Do I generalize? Do I think that they represent a given race? Do I believe that they are irredeemable?
¨ How might I change those things that I can about my own cross?
Remember, that while Jesus said “take up your cross” with its terrific weight, he equally held out hope. He calls us to conversations with crosses like poverty. If we begin the spiritual work of dealing with poverty both as an interior investigation and as a situational appraisal, we may find that over time and with meditation, with observation using eyes of compassion, and with the tenacity that God granted us, we may then begin to live by his refreshing words:
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”