From: The Way of the Cross
Somehow or other, a kind of “bread and circuses” approach to life has begun to permeate modern society. Everything we do is about winning something or measuring one person against another or garnering goods in great quantity, not because we need them but in order that others can’t have them. We make life one great competition, a win-lose situation, a measuring stick by which we parade our value to others and, saddest of all, use those same things to convince ourselves of our own value. As if what we get outside of ourselves is any measure whatsoever, any indicator at all of what is at the soul of us internally.
We dedicate our lives to collecting things that have little or no permanence, even for us. We position our own value on having bigger houses, more money, a job with a private office, a collection of adult toys we soon tire of and, of course, a party list of prestigious strangers, guests who are more our “contacts” than our friends. All of those things function simply to prove our social status, at least to ourselves. And we call it life. Until one day the fire happens, or the mortgage comes due, or the stock market crumbles under our feet. Or worse yet, one of our own – a child, a spouse, a sister, a relative – lets the brand down and disgraces us in public or embarrasses us in the church circle or becomes a public figure even more impressive than ourselves.
Then reality strikes. The matchstick tower we have made for ourselves and upon which we sit for all to see begins to sway a bit. Then what is left? Then what do we do? Then where can we go to get a new perspective that can distinguish real life from what is nothing more than a bogus attempt at it?
The Stations of the Cross could be a very good place to start. There at the third station all pretense ends. Reality sets in.
We ourselves have set out to glorify the crucifixion of Jesus. From a distance of over two thousand years it is easy enough to forget the crowd shouting, Crucify him, during the greatest of the Jewish holidays. We have lost sight of the fact that it was during one of the most crowded feasts of the year where all of Israel heard of his downfall, his disgrace, his loss of status even among the peasants. They, after all, are the kind of people who would later say, I know not the man, and, Others he saved; himself he cannot save. It is easy to look at the third station and forget that Jesus the wonder worker, at the height of his popularity, fell in the mud on a dirty garbage-strewn street of a sandy village in the Middle East. It is easy to forget now that he looked anything but regal, that the crown was made from the branches of a thorn bush, and that this is the one who said, Come, follow me. It is easy to ignore the necessary question now: Will you? And if you do not follow this one, whom will you follow?
The day we fail in the face of everyone we have ever wanted to hear applaud us is the day of truth. That is the day we finally begin to determine what is really important in life. It is a time for deciding what separates winners from losers in life. Then, it is time to pick one route or another for ourselves.
But such a time is not an easy time. It means that we must be prepared to re-examine everything. We must ask ourselves what impels what we do – ourselves or the others who cheer as we go by. Now we are forced to look again at our goals in life. Are we living to make the world a better place or ourselves a more powerful one?
When we miss the cheers – when we care more for the cheers of some than the jeers of others – we have come to the point in life where we need to check our attitudes as well as our actions. We need to ask ourselves how we really feel about the poor, the women, the immigrants, the one who is not like us. We have to determine what systems we really identify with in our hearts – the rich or the poor, the local or the international, the denominational or the universal. And we must ask those questions of ourselves with searing sincerity.
An experience of failure requires us to turn life upside down, to turn ourselves upside down. The process is an important one. As a result of it, we may well discover that what others may call success may actually be failure. It means that we must accept the fact that what others call failure may indeed be what rings through the ages as true. It is the dialect of the cross in which courage means more than security and the coming of the reign of God means more than public success.
The sign of it is devastating: he is on the ground now, one knee in the dirt, clinging to the cross itself to hold him up. What can we make of him now – the healer, the prophet, the Chosen One? Where’s the power? Where now are the crowds who shouted, Hail, King of the Jews? The pain of the moment is about more than the pain we see on Jesus’s face. We have some misgivings, some painful moments at this station ourselves, because we know the answer to those questions. The answer is that the image we hold so dear, the image of prophet, of rabbi, or healer and miracle worker, the image of the hero – is gone.
The third station of the cross reminds us that success often looks like failure. We do things that seem to falter, to fizzle, to miscarry only to realize later that the floundering was part of the process. If Jesus had not fallen under the cross, who of us could possibly have come to see that what appears to be collapse may actually be the beginning of another insight into success?
What we call failure is not the falling down, the proverb says, but the staying down. The fact is that Jesus could have stayed down where he fell, having decided that he’d gone far enough, leaving it to his executioners to drag him the rest of the way. But he didn’t. Instead, he showed us all that the important things in life are worth struggling for to the end.
The question with which the third station confronts us is a simple one: Is the struggle of my life worth enough to struggle for to the end? If I am not engaged in a large enough life issue, no amount of struggle can dignify the paltriness of it. On the other hand, if the struggle of my life is equal to the Gospel, to the coming of the reign of God here and now, no amount of duress can ever deter it.
The gift of life that comes with the third station is a simple one. What grows in us as we sit with this station is the awareness that reality is greater than either image or fantasy. It is coming to know that life consumed by the cosmetics of public appearance is, whatever it is built on, short-lived as well as endemically false. Money can only take us to the edge of the grave, power only lasts as long as people allow us to have it, sooner or later things go to rust and physical attributes will all eventually turn gray, get brittle, go dim and soft and thin and fragile.
To accept reality as it is, to give ourselves for the lives of others, is the only thing that can enlarge our stature and will not diminish us as we go.