From The Way of the Cross
At the very first step of the way to Calvary, Jesus stumbles and falls. He is down on his knees in the dirt!
What has happened to this man? This man who had just now declared himself to be king of a spiritual world with legions of angels at his command, who has been known to hold back the overwhelming force of the storm and still the raging seas by an act of his will, who by a mere touch of his hand caused a living fig tree to wither, and has fallen now under the purely material weight of the cross he so lately welcomed!
Only a few moments ago he held out his arms to receive it, seemingly with joy. Now, at the very first shock of its weight on his shoulder, he has fallen!
The crowd thronging outside the judgment hall are laughing derisively. Some of them remember him say that – that any man who wanted to follow him could only do so, carrying his cross. Now it seems that he can’t even take the first step on the way to be marked out by his footprints without falling!
Is not this the man who claimed to be the Son of God? Why, he is not even a superman, he is not even equal in stamina to one of those splendid young Roman soldiers who are prodding him with their spears to get up! After all he is just an ordinary man, like any other in that huge crowd milling around him!
Yes, Christ is living through the experience of ordinary men, of each and every ordinary man in whom he will abide through all the ages to come. He has not come into the world to indwell only exceptional men, or supermen. He is not here and suffering his Passion in order to be glorified in those who succeed where others fail, or to make himself an exception to ordinary men. He has come to live out the life of every man, of any man who has any love for him at all and tries to keep his word. “If a man has any love for me, he will be true to my word; and then he will win my Father’s love, and we will both come to him, and make our continual abode with him,” (John 16:23).
The cross which Christ has fallen under is the cross that most ordinary men fall under, and that at the beginning of adult life; a material cross, the burden of the material struggle that nearly everyone must shoulder. This is the first fall, the first gall that each one of us knows, with the shock of it and the shame. Jesus takes the shock and the shame for us all.
There in him we are watching ourselves today. There is the young man or woman taken by surprise by the violence of the first sudden onslaught of the temptations of grown-up life. There is the one who a little while ago, from the dream world of adolescence, welcomed the hardships and struggles of economic life in a spirit of adventure, tripped up by the first stumbling block of the materialism of the real world. There is that one who imagined that natural love alone could sustain him in marriage on a pinching wage, flung down by the first impact of grinding poverty for himself and his bride. There too is that most broken-hearted one who in a land of martyrs believed he could accept suffering and dreamed of martyrdom for himself, but at the first shock of the terrible reality, the first hard, rough crushing of the cross on his own back, has fallen – an ordinary man, persecuted by the supermen of the ideologies, derided and mocked by his own disillusioned fellow countrymen.
Yes, Christ, prostrate there under the cross, lives through the humiliation and bewilderment of those who seem to fail at the start. Those taken suddenly and by surprise, who came out full of self-confidence to wrestle with and overcome the world, to overcome its materialism, its political and economic systems, its injustice, its hardships and its terrors, confident that they could set their feet in Christ’s footsteps, shoulder his cross, and make the journey of life, only to find themselves tripped up in his first footprint.
“And they have stretched out cords for a snare for my feet; they have laid for me a stumbling block by the wayside!”
That prophecy was spoken of Christ, of Christ fallen under the cross in Jerusalem, of Christ living on in all who are cast down by the grief and humiliation of the first fall.
He who never yielded to temptation himself has already lived through and overcome the discouragement and the sorrow of those who do. That is why Christ chose to be not a superman, not in a physical sense an extraordinary man, but an ordinary man. He allowed his own words about the majority who would follow him to be in a sense applicable to himself: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” We did not identify ourselves with Christ, he identified himself with us.
It is humiliation, wounded vanity, that makes it difficult to get up and go on after the shock of the first fall. If we have failed before others, if we have fallen openly, making ourselves objects of contempt and derision, it is still more difficult; our humiliation is the more bitter because we have not only betrayed ourselves to ourselves, but we have made fools of ourselves before men. They will watch us now they know our weakness; they will watch our “heroics” as we try to start again, and they will mock at us!
Christ, who chose to be an ordinary man on the Via Crucis, chose to feel as ordinary men feel. Foretelling the anguish of his Passion, it was the mockery that he spoke about first of all. “The Son of Man shall be mocked and spat upon and crucified.”
Because Christ identified himself with us, because he suffers the humiliation of the first fall in us, his love transforms it. The very wound can heal us.
The first fall is the first real self-knowledge. Now we know our weakness, we know our helplessness before the difficulties of life, our total inability to shoulder our responsibilities. We know that we cannot get up by ourselves, we cannot shoulder the burden for the second time by ourselves, we cannot face our own self-contempt or the derision of others, by ourselves. We realize now that we are wholly dependent on Christ, dependent on him to act in us, to lift himself up in us and to lift us up in him. His weakness is our strength.
In the light of this new self-knowledge, in the realization and acceptance of our utter dependence on him, the second start, look as it may before men, is infinitely better in the eyes of God than the first. No longer do we seek to carry the burden with our own hands, but with his. No longer do we try to walk in his footsteps, we tread the way with his feet.
we thank you
for your compassion for us,
for the mercy of your first fall
under the cross.
We thank you
because you have identified yourself
who are ordinary, weak men and women.
You have made yourself one
with those who fail,
who are humiliated,
who are overcome by circumstances;
those who fall at the beginning of the way.
We thank you
because you fell
at the beginning of the way to Calvary,
fell for us under the material weight
of the hewn wood.
You carried the burden,
the heaviness of our circumstances,
the load of material things.
You accepted the difficulties
that sometimes overwhelm
each one of us.
You took to yourself
the painful humiliation
of our first fall.
You gave us your weakness
to be our strength.
Grant to us, Lord,
that the shock of the first sin,
of the first failure
at the beginning of life,
may give us self-knowledge
and a truer knowledge of you;
may help us to know ourselves
and to know the depths of your love.
May it teach us
our dependence on you,
and that without you
we can do nothing.
Turn the humiliation
caused by our vanity
into your humility,
and lift us up in your power
and with your courage
to take the cross
and to start again on the way,
not in ourselves
but in you.