23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Carrying Your Cross

SCRIPTURES & ART: God has given you your life and your cross. It’s the right size for you. Take it up!

El Greco, “Christ Carrying His Cross,” ca. 1580
El Greco, “Christ Carrying His Cross,” ca. 1580 (photo: Public Domain)

Today’s Gospel combines two threads that seem superficially to lack a connection: Jesus’s demand for total abandonment of self to be his disciple and his teaching about prudent planning. The disconnect is, however, only apparent, not real.

Once more, “great crowds” follow Jesus. He is often the celebrity of the hour. He cures people. He feeds them. Though he may not provide them “bread and circuses,” he offers at least bread and food for thought. So the crowds glom on to him.

But, whenever they do, Jesus asks for a further commitment, one the crowds tend not to take up. When he uses the multiplication of the loaves to segue into the Eucharist, the crowds declare: “This is a hard teaching! Who can accept it?” (John 6:60). 

Ten weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell candidate disciples that first wanted to go off and say farewell to their families they were unworthy to follow him, riffing off a similar episode with Elisha and Elijah. 

We regularly see throughout the Gospels the readiness of the Apostles to have “the rule restored to Israel” or to acquire box seats at the Last Judgment … as long as neither required a stopover at Calvary.

How many fallen away Catholics today would follow Jesus if it wasn’t for “hard teachings” like the permanent of Christian marriage and the impermissibility of divorce or the immorality of contraceptive intercourse?

The opening of today’s Gospel, then, should not be surprising. Following Jesus requires turning one’s back on everything else, even “hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life” if any of them get in the way of that unreserved commitment. This same theme came out three weeks ago in the Gospel about Jesus wanting to “cast fire upon the earth.” Following Christ means turning wholly to him, which means turning from sin, from what separates us from him. That causes division. That requires you to take sides. Sometimes even against yourself.

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Keep that verse in mind when we reflect on today’s artwork.

Jesus then turns to two examples of prudent planning. A man is building a tower. Jesus asks for the building plan. Does he have the stones? The money to buy the stones? The access to a loan to get the money to buy the stones? 

If he doesn’t, he shouldn’t start, because he’s liable to be “unable to finish the work [and] the onlookers should laugh at him ….” It’s not just a question of getting something done. It’s a question of face. Ancient Israel clearly was tolerant neither of cost overruns (unless you were Herod, who had his own infrastructure building plans) nor supply chain disruptions!

Jesus’s second example is more life or death. If you’re a leader with an army of 10,000, can you beat a foe with 20,000 troops? Maybe? Perhaps your men are better trained or equipped. Perhaps they’ve had more practice. 

Still, the other side has a 2:1 advantage. So, “if not, while [the opponent] is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.” It’s not just a question of face (though, if you were Zedekiah back at the time of the Babylonian Exile, it was a question of eyes — yours being put out by the Babylonian king). It was a question of survival.

So, does Jesus want us to plan or to commit? Both.

Jesus first and foremost wants us to rely on him. Not on our ability to control the situation. Not on our wits. Not on all our possessions. Jesus, who elsewhere assures us that the hairs of one’s head are counted, knows what is needed, even if we do and especially when we don’t.

That said, Jesus also wants us to contribute our mite to the effort, as long as we do not rely on that mite in lieu of God. “Pray as though everything depended on God [which it does]; act as though everything depended on you.” That idea, attributed at various times to St. Augustine and St. Ignatius of Loyola, perhaps give us a sense of what the Gospel urges, though with a bit of a qualifier. Put in your best work, but remember it all still depends on God.

Because God’s in control. You’re not.

The path to following Christ is clear: unreserved commitment to Christ. And since Christ’s unreserved commitment to the Father passes through Calvary, those who would be “sons in the Son” must also “carry his own cross and come after me.”

“His own cross.” σταυρὸν ἑαυτοῦ.

God has given you your life and your cross. It’s the right size for you. Take it up!

That idea is well illustrated by a late 16th-century El Greco painting, “Christ Carrying the Cross.”

As we’ve previously noted (see here and here) El Greco — a Greek who spent his artistic life in Spain — had his own unique style that blended East and West along with his own particular characteristics. That’s true of today’s painting, too.

As the commentary of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (which owns the painting) notes, El Greco’s painting differs markedly from contemporary treatments of the Passion, particularly in Spain. Spanish art of the time (and since) tends to depict — sometimes in great detail — Christ’s bloody sufferings. They typically show the many actors involved in Jesus’s Passion.

This painting does not. There is one, and only one figure in the painting: Jesus. Jesus and his cross. 

Jesus’s sufferings up to the Way of the Cross are not prominent in this painting. Jesus wears a crown of thorns and droplets of blood appear on his forehead and neck. But, by and large, Jesus looks relatively healthy in this painting, which would not have been in fact true of someone who underwent a Roman scourging and a “king’s crown” game.

El Greco’s Jesus grasps his cross. He looks forward, eyes heavenward. He knows what’s coming, but he goes forward with trust in his Father. Behind him, right on his back, a storm gathers. But he is going forward.

In that sense, this painting illustrates the carrying of our crosses. Life’s storms gather. But, as the Gospel today instructs us, our eyes should be fixed forward, on the One in whose hands it all lies. That’s not to say we’re not aware of what’s coming, any less than Jesus was nor what the tower builder or king marching into battle should know. Trust in God, take up your cross, and move forward, soberly yet serenely. It’s in God’s hands. 

That’s what making an unreserved commitment to him means.