Have you ever been going through a tough time, and somebody told you to “put it before the cross” or “give it up to God?”
I have been given this advice by well-intentioned people countless times as a remedy for everything from test anxiety, to a breakup, to deaths in the family. No matter the situation, my answer was always simple: “how?”
How does one give up a share of one’s burden? How can I simultaneously pick up my cross, and let Christ walk with me?
All of this came to a head in January, as I journeyed with our Diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As Social Media Leader, I had asked Diocesan faithful to share their intentions on our various media platforms so I could bring them with me on the journey. I had also reached out to friends, family members, and everyone I talked to, asking for their intentions. On this trip, I tried very intentionally to hold them in my heart, praying for them at specific, meaningful holy places, and doing so with intensity and passion.
I was amazed by the personal, oftentimes tearful, conversations I had with people in the months and weeks leading up to the trip. I found myself carrying people’s most important, most cherished, and in some cases, most desperate intentions.
The day we arrived, just as we were about to retire for the evening in Bethlehem, I received news of a sudden death in my girlfriend’s (now fiancée’s) family. Again, for the first time in my life, I felt the desperate inclination that someone has when they see someone they love in pain – the longing feeling of wanting to take their pain away.
I made plans to come home a few days early to attend services, which would mean missing the opportunity to walk the way of the Cross and to journey with Christ towards Calvary. I was upset, of course, but resolute in my decision to head home early.
As the trip progressed, I was blessed with a guide (and a Bishop) who were adamantly set on making sure I did not miss this holiest of holy sites. There was a catch, though: I would have to walk this journey alone, without the rest of my group.
For those of you who have not been to the Holy Land, I am sure you can understand that this pilgrimage is emotional, moving, and powerful. My fellow pilgrims and I were moved to tears with regularity and spent hours in the evenings discussing and reflecting on the wonders (and challenges) that we had seen. After visiting Mt. Tabor, the group was filled with a combination of dread and excitement – we knew the next stop was Jerusalem, and that would mean we finally coming face-to-face with the Lord’s passion and death. We were all nervous as to how we were going to react.
For me, I was anxious that I would feel “nothing” or “everything.” I was anxious that I would be too overwhelmed to deal with my emotions, or worse, that I would be unable to control my emotions and become an embarrassment to those around me.
I voiced this to the Bishop, who said to me: “Perhaps you were meant to walk this journey alone. Perhaps Christ has something to share with you.”
And so, I did. Our group was incredibly encouraging as we parted ways along the Way of the Cross, and our guide pointed down the street to where I must go. As I departed, I became more emotional, and as I took a step, I felt the crushing, physical, heavy weight of those intentions I had carried with me all week, of my anxieties, and of our recent loss.
The pain I felt was real. I am not speaking about anything metaphorical; I am talking about a physical, heavy burden on my shoulders. I felt it as I walked around with tears streaming down my face, slightly hunched over, and white as a ghost from lack of sleep. Remember that part about being afraid to make a scene? Well there I was, making a scene. Thankfully, nobody seemed to notice.
As I walked through the streets of Jerusalem, the burden seemed to grow heavier and heavier, and the tears continued to flow. I imagined what this must have looked like 2,000 years ago. I pictured the humiliation that Jesus had endured. I could not believe the cruelty, the evil, the injustice of it all! I was completely inconsolable.
Finally, I turned the corner and entered into the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As I walked into the dark Church, I prepared myself for what was surely going to be an even more intense reaction. I took a deep breath, walked in, and then…
Nothing. I felt nothing.
The burden on my shoulders? Gone. The tears streaming down my face? Gone. I could not produce a tear if I tried. What was worse is that I was lost, confused, and faced with hundreds of tourists talking, laughing, and smiling.
I finally found my way to the site of the crucifixion and waited in a line around the corner. Now, I was angry. How could I feel nothing? I was in the spot that Christ suffered and died for MY sins. The place where my salvation itself was born! How could I feel nothing?
The nothingness lasted only until I rounded the corner and saw the stones of Golgotha, and the Crucifix hanging over the spot where our Lord died. The tears returned, and the burden was back. I wasn’t just sniffling. I was audibly, loudly, crying. So much so that right before it was my turn to venerate, the nun behind me put her hand on my shoulder and said in broken English “it’s okay! He lives!”
I knelt down to venerate the stone, almost out of necessity, for the burden was too heavy. “I can’t do it anymore,” I said, “It’s too much. How did you do this for all of humanity?”
At that, I felt the burden from my shoulders lifted, and my tears dry up. “Let me help you carry those,” I heard in the very depths of my soul. “You don’t have to do this alone.”
It seems I had confused nothingness with emptiness. The intentions were never mine, they belonged to Him. I was the vessel people used to get their prayers to the Holy Land and I let them overwhelm me. Now, face to face with the darkest place on earth, I realized, perhaps for the first time, the true meaning of Matthew 11:29.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
It took a trip to the place where Jesus died on the cross to understand how to let Him into my sufferings. It took touching the stones of Golgotha to understand that “giving it up to the Lord” was not just a platitude, it was the only way. God does not just want me to share with Him my joys and my triumphs, He wants to walk with me in my sufferings, in my faults, and in my failings. God does not allow me to suffer alone. In fact, I am never alone. God wants to help me through my sufferings. God wants me to know that even though suffering is inevitable, so too is the fact that suffering is not the end. For my journey to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher did not end at Calvary. It ended inside the Empty Tomb, and the joy there was radiant and indescribable.
But that is an experience to be shared at another time.
Today, Good Friday, we remember suffering. We remember death. We remember sacrifice. Most of all, we remember the great gift of freedom and peace and joy that His suffering gives to each of us.
By: John Grosso, Social Media Leader