Iheard the crowd’s angry shouts and curses before I saw them. As I drew closer, I watched them throw dirt in the air and shake their fists overhead.
Soldiers lined the road on either side to keep them at bay. I pushed through the mob to get a better look at the reason for the excitement. Then I saw him. The prisoner was bloodied worse than I’d ever remembered seeing others on their way to the Hill. In his case, someone had woven a thorn branch into a crown and jammed it into his forehead. Blood caked around his eyes and cheeks.
He stumbled under the weight of his cross, caught himself, took a few more steps, then fell headlong. The cross fell with him and bounced off his back with a dull thud. Two guards picked up the cross. Another pulled the prisoner erect and laid it back onto his shoulder.
From the jeers, I guessed him to be a terrible criminal. But I had business in the city, and so I began to push my way back into the crowd when a shout broke out again. I turned just in time to see the man fall once more to the dirt.
“You!” A soldier pointed his spear at me. My stomach churned.
“Me?” I nearly whispered.
“Get over here,” he barked.
“Hey! You deaf? Get over here!” He made a move toward me, but I hurried out of the crowd and went to him. He grabbed the cross from the ground, lifted it and shoved it at me.
“Carry this for him.”
I knew better than to argue. I laid the crossbeam across my right shoulder. Meanwhile, two other soldiers pulled the prisoner back to his feet and shoved him onward. I was thankful the cross came between him and my line of sight. I began walking toward the Hill alongside him.
“Thank you for carrying my cross,” I heard him say a moment later.
I didn’t answer. It wasn’t my idea to help him. If the soldier hadn’t ordered me, I’d have been on my way into Jerusalem.
“Thank you for carrying my cross,” he said again, a little louder.
“Listen,” I shot back. “This wasn’t my idea. The soldier made me do it.”
“I know,” he said. Then he added, kindly, “Thank you for carrying my cross.”
We walked in silence for a while. I tried to ignore the mob.
“Would you move the cross to your other shoulder so you can see me?”
But I didn’t want to look at him. I didn’t want to be here. The less I participated in this cursed matter the better. And then I thought, “He’s about to die. What could it hurt?” So I readjusted the beam to my other shoulder. And I looked at him.
He smiled. And we continued toward the Hill.
We didn’t speak further. We just walked. Slowly. Every now and again we looked at each other. I remember his eyes. Kind. Gentle. Not at all what I would expect from so terrible a criminal.
Oddly, the burden on my shoulder seemed a little lighter the more often I looked at him.
When we at last reached the hilltop, two soldiers grabbed the cross from me. Two others threw the prisoner down onto the wood and prepared to hammer spikes into his flesh. I turned to leave, but before I could go, the man smiled at me and said once again, “Thank you for carrying my cross.”
In my life experience I have often watched helplessly as life thrusts us against our will to carry a cross. Terrible sickness. Gut-ripping divorce. Unspeakable loneliness. Darkening depression. Agonized death of a beloved.
And there, in the cavernous recesses of our brokenness, we hear words that almost seem to mock us, “Thank you for carrying your cross.”
“Thank you?” we nearly shout. “Thank you? This is not my idea. I never wanted this cursed cross laid on my shoulders.”
“I know,” He answers. “Thank you for carrying your cross.”
For a while we walk in silence. The cross, heavy on our shoulders, obscures our view of the Lord.
“Will you look at Me?” He asks.
Some of us try to ignore Him. The cross hurts too badly. But some of us, in time, do look at Him. And our look becomes a gaze.
“Thank you for carrying your cross,” we hear Him whisper.
The burden never leaves. It lingers with each passing week, each passing year, year after year. But we discover as we journey together toward the New Jerusalem, the longer we gaze at Jesus, the lighter our burden seems.
Especially when we hear Him say from time to time, “Thank you for carrying your cross.”