13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Take Up Your Cross and Follow Christ

SCRIPTURES & ART: Our suffering is tailor-made for our capacities, and by it we grow in holiness when we join it to the suffering and cross of Christ.

Barna da Siena, “Christ Bearing the Cross, With a Dominican Friar,” ca. 1330-1350, The Frick Collection
Barna da Siena, “Christ Bearing the Cross, With a Dominican Friar,” ca. 1330-1350, The Frick Collection (photo: Public Domain)

The Gospels for this and next week might at first seem in opposition: today’s Gospel speaks of “whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” while next week’s speaks of “my yoke is easy, my burden light.” So, which is it? Perhaps the 19th-century Russian Orthodox theologian, Ignatius Brianchaninov, has the answer: “The cross is only burdensome as long as it is our own cross. When it is transformed into the Cross of Christ, it takes on an extraordinary lightness, ‘for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30) said the Lord.” 

Jesus, who was sinless, bore his cross to free us from our sins. When we bear our crosses, we do so deservingly, for we are sinners. But God, in his mercy, never lays upon us more than we can bear. Our suffering is tailor-made for our capacities, and by it we grow in holiness when we join it to the suffering and cross of Christ. That is the paradox, as Brianchaninov writes:

The cross is death-bearing to those who have not transformed their own crosses into the Cross of Christ; who murmur against Divine Providence, blaspheme it, and give themselves over to hopelessness and despair. The sinners on their crosses who do not recognize and repent of their sin die an eternal death. … The Cross of Christ lifts from the earth Christ’s disciple crucified on it. The disciple of Christ, crucified on his cross, contemplates the heights, lives in mind and heart in heaven and beholds the mystery of the Spirit in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today’s Gospel affirms that one cannot go wrong in following the Lord. It is trust in the Lord whom we then bring to others that is the assurance of the “reward” of which the Gospel speaks. Some might be tempted to separate the two parts of the Gospel: what Jesus says about taking up one’s cross and what he says about “rewards.” That would be wrong. Matthew does not have them together for us to put asunder.

The disciple of Christ will encounter the cross, both because he himself is also a sinner in need of purification but also because the cross is a stumbling block to those who would build a world without God. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus promise his disciples a rose garden: man lost his garden with Adam and Eve. Nowhere does Jesus promise an undisturbed existence: he promises peace, but “peace the world cannot give.” Nowhere does Jesus promise us all sitting around singing “Kumbaya”: in fact, he expresses his wish to “cast fire on the earth.” 

Right after Jesus confirms Peter’s profession of faith — “you are the Christ, the Son of God” — he immediately speaks that the Son of Man will suffer and be killed. To Peter’s rebuke at this downer message, Jesus directs his own rebuke: he calls Peter “Satan” for trying to divert him from his cross. 

God remains faithful to those faithful to his way. That’s what the Gospel is talking about when it speaks of “rewards.” What is done in the name and out of love of God, no matter how seemingly minor — even a glass of cold water on a hot summer’s day — will not be forgotten. 

The saints all insisted that man can never outpace God in his generosity. The First Reading underscores that: when Elisha, the prophetic successor of Elijah, came to the little town of Shunem in northern Israel, there was a “woman of influence” with whom he dined. Later, on her initiative, her husband provided Elisha accommodations in their house for him to stay there. 

But while this woman had “influence,” she had no child, and this was not a world in which “blessed are the barren.” Her goodness to God’s prophet is outdone by God’s reward: she is promised a son within the year. Like Elizabeth and John the Baptist, like Sara and Isaac, God’s greatest gift is another person.

(The First Reading omits the rest of 2 Kings 4:18-37, which recounts that child’ death and how, invoking God and breathing into him, Elisha later restores him to life).

St. Paul today reminds us that Baptism is inclusion in Jesus’s Death: “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death …” and, therefore, share his Resurrection. But we must keep the path and the order of what comes along it before our eyes: Easter Glory requires a trip through Good Friday. Jesus speaks of the Son of Man being raised, but he first says the Son of Man must go to Jerusalem to be betrayed, suffer and die. 

The cross is unavoidable for the true disciple of Christ. The one who tries to avoid it has deviated from the Way.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated artistically by a 14th-century artist from Siena, Barna da Siena. This tempera (pigments mixed with egg yolk) painting dates from about 1350 and is on view at New York’s Frick Collection. Its size is relatively modest (12 x 8.5 inches), about the equivalent of a standard sheet of paper.

It’s a typical, late Gothic medieval painting, where theology predominates over art (e.g., no background or “scenery”). The only “landscape” we have is an ascending hill — Calvary — which is not just topography but also theology because of what happened there. Otherwise, we have the usual Gothic golden background, which points us beyond the temporal to the eternal, to heaven.

We don’t have a crowd, which historically was there along the Via Dolorosa. (The whole purpose of any crucifixion, including the Crucifixion, was to have a crowd ready either to mock or be scared by the crucified.) We have a large Jesus. We have a small friar. In medieval art, size indicated the importance of the figures. A small figure in medieval painting was usually a depiction of the patron paying for the work. Since Dominican friars took vows of poverty, our little man more likely represents the individual soul who wants to follow Christ and his cross.

Christ is dressed totally in blood-stained red. What is interesting to me is, in some sense, how “easy” and “light” is Christ’s burden. Unlike the usual depiction of the Way of the Cross, where Jesus carries the cross with the point where the vertical (stipes) and horizontal (patibulum) beams intersect on his shoulder, Barna’s Jesus carries the cross by the bottom. That would have been a feat, both because Jesus at that point would have undergone major physical abuse for about the preceding 15 hours, and a full-blown cross might have been up to 300 pounds. 

Even our usual depiction of Christ carrying his cross might be inaccurate. There is evidence that, in the typical crucifixion, the condemned carried only the patibulum. He might have dragged it, been tied to it, or even already nailed to it. The horizontal beam itself might have been up to 75 pounds: remember, it had to support a moving adult body. The vertical beam was probably left in place at the execution site: securely repositioning it to be stable would take a lot of work.

Barna’s painting captures today’s Gospel: it is Jesus’s cross, and we follow in its wake when we carry our own crosses. Jesus is our leader. 

(There is a wonderful Orthodox icon depicting Jesus carrying his cross and a variety of Christians, mostly monks, carrying theirs in his wake. The Greek inscription is from Luke 9:23 — “take up your cross and follow me” — and individual saints are named in their halos. As I do not know the date or origins of this work and the image is too small for me to read it accurately, I chose not to make it this week’s art focus.