A “cross to bear” is a common English expression meaning an emotional or spiritual burden. The expression originates with a well-known passage in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, sentenced to die by Roman and Jewish leaders, is forced to carry the cross that will be the instrument of his torture and death while bystanders heckle and humiliate him. The modern meaning of the phrase is of a solitary task or burden. Despite this usage, most versions of the New Testament story maintain that Christ did not bear his cross alone.
The action that inspired this phrase was based on Roman military techniques for subjugating a foreign populace. During the time of Christ, the Roman Empire was spread far across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Uprisings were put down brutally, and rebel leaders were often tortured and executed in public to discourage other potential rebels. To the Roman forces stationed in Palestine, Jesus was just another such rebel. The method of his torture and execution was practiced on countless other Roman prisoners; unlike Christ, most of these other victims have been forgotten by history.
According to the New Testament, Roman soldiers compelled a passerby named Simon of Cyrene to carry Christ’s cross to his execution place. Many Christian traditions, such as the re-creation of Christ’s final hours known as the Stations of the Cross, hold that Jesus stumbled under his burden, so Simon was forced to relieve him. For this task, Simon was later made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. The Gospel of John does not mention this incident at all, implying that Christ literally had his own cross to bear.
The phrase “cross to bear” eventually became an expression for a burden someone must carry alone. It usually does not refer to a physical burden, but rather a figurative burden that can cause lasting stress and dismay. Examples might include a potentially damaging secret, a life of poverty, or a moral quandary. Often it is used to mean a responsibility that cannot be transferred to another person.
The phrase still has religious overtones for many people. Ironically, this solemn usage has brought the saying “cross to bear” into humorous usage as a mondegreen. This is the term for a frequently misheard song lyric or saying. Jon Carroll, who as of 2011 writes about mondegreens for the San Francisco Chronicle, reports that the most commonly submitted example is “Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear.” This is a misquote for the popular gospel hymn “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear,” written by Fanny Crosby in the 1800s.