In the last post we took a look at Jesus’ Crowning with Thorns and how it ties into our mental illness discussion. Now we’ve reached the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery. This particular mystery has quite a lot to unpack. Realistically I could devote an entire series of blog posts just to this one passage of scripture, but for the purpose of our current series, I’ll try to make it more concise.
If you missed Part 1, I recommend you check it out to get an understanding of why I’m writing these posts in the first place.
As with the Scourging at the Pillar, the Gospels don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on Jesus’ trip from Pontius Pilate to Calvary. Mathew and Mark only state that Simon the Cyrenian was forced to carry the cross for him (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21). Luke adds the bit about Jesus pausing to address the weeping women (Luke 23:27-30). John fails to mention any of the above. The Stations of the Cross, a tradition that allows a person to meditate on certain aspects of Christ’s Passion, provides a lot more detail about this journey. There are usually 14 stations, and the are as follows:
- Jesus is condemned to death
- Jesus willingly takes up His cross
- Jesus falls for the first time
- Jesus meets His Blessed Mother
- Simon the Cyrene helps Jesus carry His cross
- Veronica wipes the Holy Face of Jesus
- Jesus falls for the second time
- Jesus comforts the Women of Jerusalem
- Jesus falls for the third time
- Jesus is stripped of His garments
- Jesus is nailed to the cross
- Jesus dies on the cross
- Jesus is taken down from the cross
- Jesus is laid in the tomb
Sometimes a 15th station is included that recounts Jesus’ resurrection as well. For the purposes of this post, we’ll be discussing stations 2-9, though not necessarily in that precise order. We dealt with station 1 previously, and we’ll deal with the final stations in the next post.
Firstly, lets start with some context. Jesus has been through severe emotional torture in the Agony, betrayal by his loved ones, extreme physical torture in the Scourging, and utter humiliation in the Crowning with Thorns. He is covered with deep, bleeding wounds, dust, and spit. He’s weak from lack of food and rest, not to mention blood loss. It’s just been one thing after another, and it’s only going to get worse.
Does that last sentence ring a bell? I know it does for me.
Now a heavy piece of wood is dropped onto Jesus’ shoulders— his bruised, mostly shredded shoulders. Does he deserve this? No. In fact, he’s the only person in existence who doesn’t deserve anything of the sort. It isn’t his fault humanity messed itself up so badly. But he willingly accepts his cross, nevertheless, because it is his Father’s will. Can we say the same for our own crosses? Of course, we aren’t innocent like Jesus was. We’re sinners. But did we personally do something so horrendous that we were cursed with our mental illnesses as retribution? Probably not. And even if we had done something horrible, God doesn’t go around dealing out punishments. But He does allow us to have our illnesses for a purpose, even though we might not have a clue what that purpose is at the moment. The weight of such a cross tends to provoke thoughts of “Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this?” I don’t have answers to either of those questions, although I’ve asked them myself in the past. All I can say is that Jesus fully understands that feeling far better than any of us ever will.
Jesus, shaking from pain and exhaustion, stumbles, and the weight of the cross drives him to the ground. As his body hits the earth, the heavy cross lands squarely on his back, compounding the pain of his countless injuries. Every inch of his body throbs, his limbs ache with exhaustion. But he hasn’t given up. He tries to gather his strength to get back to his feet, but he isn’t fast enough for the guards. He is kicked and hauled roughly up, then shoved down the road again.
Sometimes mental illness feels like an endless treadmill of misery. You go for days putting one foot in front of the other, struggling to think, struggling to focus, sometimes struggling just to breathe in and breathe out. You raise your head to look down the tunnel you’re in and you can’t see any light at the end of it. You do everything you can to try and pull yourself together and make things work. And sometimes you fail. You hit the ground hard, and you don’t know if you have the strength, let alone the will, to get up again. But you do. You don’t have any other choice. So you get back up and keep walking, even though you don’t see how things are ever going to get better again.
Jesus fell three times on that journey. Three times his legs give out; his horrific injuries slam against the earth and the stones. Each time it’s more difficult than the last to get back to his feet again. And to what purpose? There is nothing good waiting in his future. When he reaches his destination, he isn’t going to be relieved of his burden. He’s going to be nailed to the cross and left to die. He more than understands the feeling of having no light to look forward to at the end of the tunnel.
Partway through this journey, Jesus meets his mother. Can you imagine what she must have felt, seeing her only son in such a condition, with such a fate awaiting him? She is completely helpless. She can do nothing to intervene or save him. She cannot shield him from the abuse of the guards, or make his journey any easier. She stands in the place of every person who has ever had to watch a loved one suffer, unable to aid the afflicted person in any way, shape or form. She feels his pain as if it’s her own.
Anyone who has been in that sort of position can testify to the misery of it. I doubt anyone can feel more helpless than someone forced to stand by while mental illness consumes a loved one. As the person you know and love begins to disappear beneath the symptoms, or the mind-numbing side-effects of medication. Or to know your loved one is struggling with suicidal impulses that they might not be able to curb. But there’s a whole other side to the story. Jesus can see the pain he’s causing his mother. He knows its his fault that she is suffering to such an extent, even though it isn’t his fault that he’s in the position that he’s in. That’s something many mentally ill individuals can understand perfectly well. The added guilt of knowing your loved ones are worried sick, and being unable to do anything fix it.
Partway along this journey to death, Jesus becomes physically incapable of carrying his cross any farther. The guards are faced with the prospect of him dying before he even reaches the place where he is to be crucified. That’s unacceptable. They seize a bystander and press the man into service, forcing him to carry Jesus’ burden.
There are several things about this particular station that ring true when it comes to mental illness. First, the feeling of being incapable of taking care of yourself. Being unable to handle ordinary burdens while you’re in the midst of an episode. Or being unable to bear the burden of the illness itself. Other people are forced to step in and do the work that you’re unable to complete, or take time out of their lives to look after you. Sometimes these people do so willingly out of the goodness of their hearts. But sometimes, they resent you for it. They’re being forced to deal with something that isn’t their responsibility because you’ve proven incapable. It’s humiliating and guilt inducing. But there is another side to this station. Jesus’ Father knew he would be unable to complete the journey without assistance. A provision was made for that. Whether Simon was willing or not, he wound up being there to unknowingly assist the Savior of mankind. Even though He had to allow his son to go through that brutal experience, He didn’t abandon him. He made sure Jesus would be able to complete his mission. And He will do the same for us.
Along the same vein, Veronica arrives. She breaks past the guards and has to opportunity to wipe clean Jesus’ face. Did that do much practical good? Probably not. But it likely meant more on an emotional level than we’ll ever realize. In the face of such cruelty from the very humans he’s dying to save, there is someone who willingly reaches out to him, makes a conscious effort to comfort him even though she knows there is little she can do. This moment of compassion and solidarity offers him encouragement to press forward and do what needs doing.
Have you encountered any Veronicas in your life? Sometimes they are hard to come by, but sometimes they walk into your life precisely when you need them. A well timed comment or gesture of affection can have an enormous impact. It’s hard to tear our gazes off ourselves when we’re in the midst of misery, but have you ever considered being a Veronica for someone else? Sometimes a suffering person can comfort a fellow sufferer far more than anyone else can.
Finally, we come to the women of Jerusalem. Was it helpful to Jesus to have a group of them trailing after him wailing? It’s hard to say. There is the fact that they were there for him, that they were against his unjust condemnation and cared enough to become distraught. Sometimes its comforting when people are outraged and upset about something on your behalf. But sometimes it’s just frustrating. I can’t say one way or another what sort of impact it had on Jesus, but he can certainly understand what it’s like to have the people that care about you (to some degree or another) bewailing your condition. In the case of mental illness, it really isn’t a helpful response. It can be bewildering, and downright annoying, when other people are more upset about your illness than you are, especially when you’re newly diagnosed. “I’m the one with the disease, here. What reason do you have to be so freaked out?” Not everyone encounters this problem, but some people do. Jesus understands.
This brings us to the end of the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery. Tomorrow is Good Friday. Jesus will reach the end of his journey to the cross and give up his life to save mankind. In the final part of this series, we’ll examine the how the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery, The Crucifixion, fits into our discussion of mental illness.
Until then, take care and God bless!