It was the summer of 2012. During a prayer service, Junior Garcia was struck with the feeling that his life of faith was not all that it should be. He was 19 at the time and all the other priorities of his life had crowded out his relationship with Jesus. He wanted to be free from all the attachments and concerns that had kept him from following the Lord with all his heart. He wanted to put Jesus back at the center of his life and live only for Him. From the bottom of his heart, he cried out to God to forgive Him and help him. “Whatever you want me to do, I will do it,” he prayed.
It was during that prayer service that he got the idea to carry a cross on his shoulders from his home in Texas to Washington, D.C, a distance of 1,369 miles. He hoped not only that it would give him new focus in his relationship with Jesus, but that it would inspire others as well. So, with help from friends, he built a twelve foot cross, put it on his shoulders and began the long journey to Washington, D.C.
Along the way, he began to wonder if he had the strength to do it. The walk alone would have required much strength and endurance but carrying a twelve foot cross seemed nearly impossible. There were sections of roadway where the walk became dangerous because of traffic. He and those who accompanied him were often insulted or given resistance by local officials. However, Junior decided he would trust in the Lord to give him strength and provide him with what he needed to accomplish what he believed God had set out for him.
Amazingly, just thirty-seven days after leaving his church in Texas, Junior arrived at the steps of the White House. He along with members of his congregation who traveled there to celebrate the accomplishment with him held a prayer service there. This is how he described the purpose of his journey of faith to The Christian Post: "I did this for others.....I just want them to see the same love I felt — the forgiveness, the mercy, the love....Jesus has already carried the cross... I'm just trying to show his love and remind people of who he is and the salvation you can have through Jesus Christ."
Junior Garcia’s walk is not only a story of endurance and strength. It is also a story about faith and, in particular, faith in the cross. The cross is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. As He tells us in today’s gospel, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Without the cross, we cannot be disciples of Jesus. We cannot separate Jesus from His cross.
Each of us has a cross to carry which is peculiarly our own. For some people it is physical suffering caused by illness or injury. For others it is mental suffering caused by anxiety, loneliness or depression. Still others suffer rejection, ridicule and even violent attacks because of their Christian faith. For many people the cross comes in the form of temptations that they must work hard at avoiding and falling into. If you are human, you have a cross to bear.
If we all have a cross to bear, then, what makes the Christian different from any other person? It is the attitude with which we accept our cross. If the difficulties of our life make us bitter, cause us to be angry with God or to lash out at others, then we are no different from anyone else. However, if we humbly accept the challenges we face, if we offer them up to God in union with Jesus on the cross, if they become an opportunity for us to grow in compassion for the poor and the needy, then we are truly following Christ who laid down His life for the salvation of the world.
Like Junior Garcia, however, the cross is not a matter of our own strength and endurance. Carrying the cross is an act of trust in God. Many times we can falter under the weight of our burdens. It can all seem as though we are given more than we can handle. We fear that we may be crushed by it. It is at those times that we must cry out to God for help. He will give us the strength we need or provide us with the help of family, friends or maybe even strangers to lighten our load. And He will refresh us along the way, reminding us of His love and inspiring us with the stories of others who are suffering just as we are. Our cross is given to us to help us grow in faith, to teach us to rely on Jesus for strength and to grow in love for those who are struggling as we are.
By carrying our cross with courage and trust, we can also serve as an inspiration to others. How many times have we heard the stories of people struggling with illness or other hardships and been motivated by what they were able to accomplish despite their limitations. The same is true of us. We can inspire our brothers and sisters to have patience and faith as they carry their crosses. Our good example can make their crosses just a little lighter as we make our journey of faith together.
As Christians, then, we are not to avoid the cross, consider it a punishment from God or try to toss it off our shoulders. Rather we are called to embrace it, even to love it, because it is through the cross that Jesus saved the world and saved us. It is by carrying the cross that we will enter into heaven.
Thomas a Kempis in the Christian classic, The Imitation of Christ , describes it this way: “Take up your cross then, and follow Jesus; and you will go into life that has no end. He has gone ahead of you, bearing his own cross; on that cross he has died for you, that you may bear your own cross and on that cross yearn to die. If you have died together with him, together with him you will have life; if you have shared his suffering you will also share his glory.”