“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.” So begins the title story in Tim O’Brien’s book about American soldiers in Vietnam, "The Things They Carried". Published 20 years ago this month, "The Things They Carried" uses the objects soldiers carry into and away from war as a way to focus on the soldiers’ own internal burdens and the larger burdens we place on them. The title story begins with a matter-of-fact list of what might be found on a soldier’s person during the Vietnam War:
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending on a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. [Tim O’Brien, "The Things They Carried", p.2]
Over the course of "The Things They Carried" the list, of course, expands. As the tale evolves we learn that the soldiers carry with them more than their personal items, weapons, or supplies. The list of “the things they carried” grows to include different burdens: their own hopes and fears, the history and ideals of the nation they represent, the unresolved conflicts of the people back home. So as we move more deeply into the narrative the soldiers are seen to carry not only their own burdens. They carry along with them the burdens of everyone else as well.
I thought about "The Things They Carried" this week asI thought about Palm Sunday. Today begins with a playful entry into Jerusalem and ends at the cross. For a Christian, the cross is the heaviest burden anyone can carry. “If you wish to be a follower of mine,” says Jesus, “take up your cross and follow me.” In today’s Passion Gospel, from Luke [23.26], we are told, “As they led Jesus away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.” This is only one version of the story. In John’s Gospel, which we will read together on Friday, Jesus is shown “carrying the cross by himself.” [John 19.17] In the traditional Catholic fourteen Stations of the Cross, Jesus falls three times as he carries his cross up to Golgotha. However we understand the carrying of this burden, we know it has come to stand for much more than itself. Like the implements in a soldier’s pack, the image of Jesus’s cross as a burden has come to represent that part of ourselves that each one of us is unable, or refuses, to bear.
“Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” [Isaiah 53.4] “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” [Isaiah 53.6] I do not entirely understand the mechanisms by which we human beings project our hopes and our fears, our anxieties and expectations, our joy, our rage, and out guilt onto others. But even if I don’t understand them, I have lived in the world and the church long enough to know that we do it. Not only have I seen it, I’ve done it myself. We project the things we can’t acknowledge or bear onto our adversaries, onto our spouses, children, and friends, and even and especially onto our leaders. Carl Jung called that part of ourselves that we could not acknowledge our shadow, and over the course of his work he taught that the only way toward psychological and spiritual health lies in owning, knowing, taking responsibility our shadow and the things we displace into it. Or, as Prospero says of the half-human Caliban at the end of Shakespeare’s "The Tempest", “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”
The people who take Jesus to the cross do so for a complicated mix of political and religious reasons, but they do so primarily because of their own shadows and the way they have projected onto Jesus those aspects of themselves that they cannot acknowledge. To the religious system of his day, Jesus represented a compassionate, spontaneous freedom that threatened to render the entire established legalistic order pointless. To the political structure, Jesus’s parody of a royal procession when entering Jerusalem was the kind of thing he did that scared them to death because it questioned the absolute power of an oppressive state by holding political pomp up to ridicule. To the zealots like Judas who betrayed him, Jesus’s insistence that his kingdom was not of this world seemed itself a betrayal of a radical’s hopes to throw the Romans out in the name of political liberation. Except to those who were healed and loved and included and taught by him, Jesus was an absolute threat to those with something to lose. And so why should we be surprised when we hear ourselves, in today’s liturgy, alternately crying, “Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord!” and “Crucify him!”
Jesus makes his way up Mount Calvary to Golgotha bearing his cross, falling three times under the burden of it, finally passing the cross to Simon of Cyrene. As he makes his way up that hill, the cross, like a soldier’s pack, takes on the literal and figurative burdens that have been loaded onto it by others. The cross Jesus carries bears the expectations and disappointments, the longings and aggressions, of those who have projected their unknown shadows, the things they cannot acknowledge in themselves, up onto Jesus. He carries the burden of their hopes and their fears, their shadow places. He becomes a walking “thing of darkness” on their, and our, behalf.
What is it of yours that Jesus carries with his cross as he moves toward Calvary? What is it about yourself that you do not know or accept or love or understand that you want to displace onto Jesus? As with the soldiers’ burdens, “the things they carried” are like the cross Jesus carries. As they went for us, so he goes, for us, today, up the hill with his cross, on a journey into a part of ourselves that we cannot acknowledge. The reason today and Good Friday are so painful is that they are like coming out of a darkened theater into the midday sun. Jesus opens up our shadow places and exposes them to our view, and we never like that kind of thing very much. As T.S. Eliot said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” ["Four Quartets"] We resist having our shadows opened to God’s healing light. But that is what happens this week.
The carrying of that burden, the opening of it to God’s healing light, is Jesus’s hard, painful Gospel gift to you on this difficult Sunday. The one we cheered, even in jest, has become the one we want put to death. In making that move we have placed on Jesus what Isaiah calls “the iniquity of us all.” And like a soldier doing what he knows is his duty even as it scares him to death, Jesus shoulders that burden and carries the cross to the place where God will do with it what only God can do with aggression, sin, and death—transforms them: evil into good, hate into love, war into peace, sorrow into joy, death into life.
Jesus takes up this burden for us willingly. He goes through this week for you and for me. So use this Holy Week to ask yourself: what thing of darkness have I placed on Jesus’s shoulders? What burden of mine does Jesus carry with him toward the place of the skull? How can I let Jesus help me face into and accept, even embrace those things about myself that I cannot acknowledge or stand? The center of our faith is revealed to us in this painful, wonderful week. God in Jesus is willing (or “contented” as the old Prayer Book had it) to take on our burdens and transform those parts of ourselves we’d just as soon not accept. Jesus takes up his cross and with it carries our burdens and opens us up to the possibility of something new and good. Even if there were no Easter, even if we were to celebrate nothing else in Christianity, this transaction that happens between the palm procession and the cross would be enough. “Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” [Isaiah 53.4] “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” [Isaiah 53.6] Amen.