The Crosses We Bear; The Hope We Carry
The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
How can a religious liberal understand the difficult parts of the Easter story, namely the awful punishment of crucifixion and the promise of resurrection from the tomb? Are they simply to be dismissed as legend, as a revered but unscientific fable, or can the Mythic metaphor of what the cross represents in our lives provide us with a heartfelt key to understanding the message of Easter? In contrast to traditional Christian theology where the historical sacrifice of Jesus as the Christ ransoms or saves us, liberal theology takes a more personal approach. As the mystical poet Angelius Silesius puts it, “The cross on Golgotha will never save you- the cross in your own heart alone can make you whole.”
When people describe a particularly challenging time in someone’s life where the burdens have been heavy, they often say that “he or she has a cross to bear in this life.” This is not just a sympathetic euphemism. It points to the universal human need to take on, and work through, whatever difficulties our lives contain, as best we can. When taken seriously, the cross stands for our inescapable human process, and our sincere hope for progress, that cannot be attained without perseverance. Each cross we bear deals in some real degree with our losses or suffering. Suffering- and our human capacity to create it, endure it, and overcome it, is an essential part of our humanness and our brokenness. People in our world are carrying a lot of pain with them this Easter… This brokeness extends from countries through communities, from broken homes to broken hearts. Easter can be a time of dealing with profound sense of loss and only through befriending our pain, which releases passion and cultivates compassion, do we find relief, find release, and enact our own resurrection. It is the facing and then overcoming this awful fact that makes the insights we get from the Easter story come alive for us, and offers us a deathless supernal message of healing and hope.
Another way to reframe this is that if it were not for hope, our hearts would surely break… and I believe that the hope that the human heart can contain, when aligned with good or God, is stronger than anything that can happen to us in life. In fact, such spiritual depth defines our life. Psychologist Carl Jung states “that there is only one essential measure of a person, and that is their relationship to the Infinite,” how well they listen to their soul or attend to the needs of the Spirit’s reality that is within them.
It is my conviction born from generous amounts of recent suffering and from hard won wisdom and my life’s soul-centered apprenticeship, that each of us has sufficient resources, adequate will, and enough strength to overcome the graves of fear, pride, addiction, and illness, or at least be given enough courage and hope to sustain us through our afflictions.
You see, to be whole is not to be free of problems. It is to be centered and secure, and when faced with a crisis, to be in touch with those values and virtues that inspire us enough to carry us through our personal Good Fridays.
Crosses appear in our lives in many different ways: chronic illness, addictions, difficult marriages, rebellious children, and career insecurities, just to name a few. They can scourge or hang us as individual tests or trials that seem to endure without let up…
So the question becomes, how does one take up their cross and make it into a source of hope? How can we take our obstacles, tests, and trials and turn them into a deeper sense of gratitude for the refinement of our character, and the sincere empathy we need to respect and care for others?
We hear the answers echoed in the choir’s music this morning: That we are to walk confidently through the valley of loss or loneliness with its tearful sorrows and lurking shadows in our lives, and we are bravely compelled to seek the light even when our hope and faith appear dim, and our lives seem to be at their darkest.
The cross we bear need not be a curse. As the poet and theologian Dorothy Soelle teaches, that God (or Spirit), is closest to us during our cross bearing times; That grace is most disclosed or revealed within our struggles, we are never closer to God than during our times of crisis and questioning. Just as it appears to be darkest before the dawn, Easter’s first light reminds us that within each human heart there lives a deathless hope, an eternal faith, an invincible love.
In that way, Soelle teaches that when we feel injured by life, wounded or slighted by certain life circumstances and situations, that passion and distress brings us closer to a spiritual approach that transforms pain, attachment, and suffering into wisdom, freedom, acceptance and release. However, this transformation is not for the faint-hearted or the timid- as Jungian analyst Edward Ettinger puts it, Living true to one’s soul will take all we have got- and all we have got is what it will truly take to be authentic, and loving. You see, just as we mirrored back our parents behavior, so too, do we live with the fact that our spouses and our children will mirror back to us all that is unresolved, fearful, or egotistical in us! And this is as it should be! For until we accept that we will be let down by those we love, let down by those we thought we could trust, does such disappointment lead us to finding our own truth. As we learn to stop carrying the crosses of false expectations, let go of our negative perceptions, our ego justifications, we can we become a healing, tranformative model for the people in our lives.
Easter is our yearly metaphor for this lifelong struggle for significance. It can become for us a gracious intersecting time when we discover the meaning behind William Butler Yeats words, “Birth and death hour meet, or as the great sages say, “men dance on deathless feet.”
The cross we bear need not be an outer physical one or even an interpersonal one: we can easily learn how to crucify ourselves. Whenever we accept indignities, practice personal cruelties, act with selfish desires, or hold on to our fears, we are just a short step from taking our place on Calvary’s hill. In the same way, we can easily crucify others whenever we become unfeeling and unsympathetic, whenever we turn our hearts from one another, we crucify them, and we can bury the best in ourselves whenever we choose against love, when we lose faith, or abandon hope.
Our first steps out of the grave come from admitting that we have hurt others and take responsibility for its effects, just as we have to eventually learn to forgive those who have slighted or trespassed against us. As the choir reading so forcefully reminded us, we cannot hide behind the lilies, or expect that Spring has enough warmth to thaw out hate or stop our pain and sorrow. In our world, in our hearts, peace is hard won, and healing often comes to us only after a personal sacrifice- and it comes gradually, for it takes courage, persistence, and the genuine support of others who will honestly care for us, so that we can rise from our emotional graves, and claim a new life of freedom, dignity, service and compassion.
The Unitarian Christian, Helen Keller, knew and endured suffering, and she gives us this piece of compassionate counsel concerning our crosses, and warns us not to define ourselves by our wounds. She said:
“Face your deficiencies and acknowledge them, but do not let them make decisions or let them master you. Let them teach you about what you most need to learn. … Let them teach you patience, and insight… Whenever we conscientiously do the best we can, we never know what miracle can be wrought, either in our lives, or in the lives of others.”
Because we share the earth and belong to the community of Earth, we have to find a sustaining sense of hope for our lives, and promote such hope among all humankind. We come together as churches and communities to lend each other support, strength and friendship for our individual battles.
It is in our communities and in our families that we learn to turn our extremities into opportunities, and our opportunities into victories that overcome the cross and rise up from the grave of doubt, fear, egotism and separateness. Our hope is found in community, in mutual trust and respect, in our commitment and our caring.
Hope, as I see it, might be the most powerful emotion we have or can hold… Hope sustains us when the light of our love for one another goes out… Hope makes our faith in the spirit of life possible, and our hope will not disappoint us, because within hope we find ourselves connected to the community of earth and the web of life itself.
May this day of days symbolize for you, a renewal of hope and the promise of healing that you can carry confidently in your heart, and be able to share it courageously with others. As our closing hymn puts it, “I am the life that will never die, and I’ll live in you, if you live in me…” May this Easter find you sharing in and living inspired by Jesus… That “All things are possible for those who believe; they are less difficult for those who have hope; They are easy for those who love, and a joy for those who understand that faith, hope and love overcome the crosses in your heart, and the cares of the world.” Amen
[” Jesus was a man, and not a god, and therein lies the wonder and our surprise.” These words of Kahlil Gibran express what most religious liberals believe: that if we make Jesus into a God, he has less significance for us as human beings. It is his humanity that causes us wonder and surprise. That this is what human life could be all about- loving, compassionate, just, unselfish, strong.
…Perhaps we cannot be exactly like he was… But as all the great spiritual traditions, East and West teach, we are “as holy and as good, as we have the will to be.” The importance of Jesus’ message is that if we are willing, then we are capable. The kingdom of God is at hand; it lives within and among each and everyone of us. It just takes you and me, discovering who we really are, and then believing in what we know as God, in ourselves, and in one another.”