In the well-known hymn, Rock of Ages, there are lines that make a very vivid image:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling.
It would be hard indeed to cling to the cross of Christ if we were also clinging to our own achievements and reputation and virtue. The cross begins to make sense the very moment we reach the end of our own resources. It often happens that people discover its meaning in prison or in wartime, but rather seldom when they are in the lap of luxury. During the second world war Edith Sitwell wrote
Still falls the Rain -
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss -
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.
This makes it very clear that the cross of Christ, far from being a decoration or just an external badge of identity, is the very substance of our pain and struggle. It tells us there is hope for us even at our very worst; and equally that our best is not good enough - "Nothing in my hand I bring." It extends beyond us at both ends of the scale: it measures our life.
Or rather, Jesus - the man who bore the cross - is the measure of our life. The cross shows his range: and it goes beyond our reckoning.
St Thomas Aquinas was asked where he got all his wisdom. "At the foot of the cross of Christ," he replied. There, contemplating the life and death of Jesus, he found a wisdom that went beyond human wisdom. Wisdom is described (in the Book of Wisdom, 8:1 ) as "reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other." In Jesus we see this as no abstract thing, but as a lived experience. He reaches mightily from one end of the human scale to the other, and beyond. He so identified with us that St Paul could say he became sin for us: "For our sake God made the sinless one into sin," (2 Cor. 4:21). And at the other end of the scale "Through him we have access to the Father" (Eph. 2:18).
There is a difference between inevitable suffering and the suffering we bring on ourselves. (Still, they are equally painful.) Much of our suffering is self-inflicted. Have you heard of the monkey trap? It is a box with a very small opening at the top. When the monkey reaches into it for a piece of fruit, he can’t pull his hand out again because his fist clutching the fruit is too big. To be free, all he would have to do is open his fist and let go of the fruit. But that is the one thing he is unwilling to do! And so he is caught. He is caught by his own greed…. Aren't we all? Don’t we make our life a monkey trap? We trap ourselves with our own greed, fear, lazy habits, addictions, anger… in a word, everything we hold onto. Then we say, "Oh I'm suffering so much! I feel frustrated! Life is so hard!"
Of course we are trapped in the other kind of suffering too, the inevitable suffering that is part of every human life. We have reason to believe that birth, life and death are all difficult. But whatever our suffering is, self-inflicted or otherwise, it finds its meaning and its remedy in the cross of Christ. Because Christ is one with the Father he too is the beginning and the end, the full range. "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End" (Rev. 21:6).