Jesus tells his followers in the Gospel for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Such an invitation to discipleship might seem unappealing in our contemporary culture which values individuality. We might even question Jesus’ promise, “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” In ordinary circumstances few of us would sign up for such a deal.
“Taking up our cross daily” could mean loss of prized possessions successes, security, even of cherished desires and dreams for the future. It could mean choosing God’s will over our own wants and aspirations. The processional cross used at Mass reminds and encourages us of this admonition. It may hold the figure of the crucified Christ (a crucifix) or of the risen Christ. It could remain plain or be adorned with decoration. The cross reminds us that death never has the last word; that loss will lead to gain even if we cannot see how such could be possible.
During the Mass, the processional cross leads the entrance and concluding processions of the ministers. Like the military insignia’s and national flags which have led armies into battle, the processional cross declares that we belong to Christ and follow him wherever he may wish us to go.
When the stationary cross does not contain the figure of Christ crucified, the processional cross must be a crucifix and be placed near the altar to remind us that the Mass is a sacrifice as well as a meal. Often the processional cross will be decorated to emphasize this symbol and call our attention to it. The decoration can also connect the cross with the feast we celebrate. For example, palms could be added to it on Palm Sunday. Flowers could adorn it for Easter or the Triumph of the Cross.
We understand that the cross is a sign of victory as well as surrender. Jesus was victorious over death as God raised him up. We believe that our “daily crosses” are joined with the death and resurrection of Christ. We remember that, like the processional cross, Christ went before us and showed us the victory that can be ours through our self surrender to God and God’s will. It encourages us to accept our crosses (some given to us and some chosen by us); to name them, claim them and embrace them as we follow Christ during this life into eternity.
Johnston is the former director of worship at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Manitowoc.