“Take up your cross and follow Me.”
It’s such a strange command that honestly it takes me back whenever I read it in the gospel. And yet, it is a phrase that seems to come up quite often, and so early in the gospel that it is startling when you read it.
38and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
34He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
23Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
When Jesus utters the phrase, His disciples probably didn’t realize that He was being quite literal in its meaning. They also probably didn’t realize that some of them would end up being crucified for the faith, so they too would literally carry their cross.
And yet, Jesus was being very literal with them. And, through scripture, we know that His words are relevant to us today.
Of course, nowadays, the likelihood of us literally carrying a cross and being crucified on it is pretty slim. Yet, we will all die in one way or another, and if we are to die, we should do so while following Christ, who will lead us to eternal life in God, who is love.
And to follow Christ means to take up our cross. Which we, as Christians, are called to do.
Perhaps this is why I love this picture:
When I first saw this picture, I was struck with its originality. Many pictures of Jesus and the Cross are very literal — by watching Jesus carry His Cross, we are reminded by His ascent to Calvary. There, He was crucified and died. And, by seeing the artist’s depiction of the event, we are reminded of the inescapable truth that Jesus suffered and died — for us.
But, this is not a literal picture. This is an allegorical picture.
In it, Jesus shoulders His Cross… and looks back at a woman who is struggling with hers. While Jesus stands upright, though bowed down with the weight of the Cross, the woman is really struggling. She’s on her knees, seemingly tripping over herself, even while struggling to get back up. She’s seems to have a really tough time holding up the cross at all.
Surrounding them are crosses — more crosses than can be counted. Each one of them presumably has someone else who will shoulder them and follow after Jesus. All of them different, all of them heavy. They even blanket the path that this woman is going, making it even harder for her to follow Christ.
And yet! Her eyes are locked on Jesus and His eyes are locked on hers. He seems to be waiting for her to continue following Him while she seems to be pausing and reflecting on Jesus, who is right in front of her.
So, who is she? She is an allegorical figure of the Christian soul. That is, she represents us as we pick up our cross and follows Jesus.
Which makes me think… how many times do we stumble and fall as we do our best to carry our cross?
How many times do we fail day by day to carry our crosses and follow Jesus?
How many times do other crosses trip us up, even while we struggle to carry our own?
And yet, the figure of the Christian soul, though weak, is beautiful. She is dressed in lovely clothes and flowers adorn her hair. In many ways, she looks like a bride. And there Jesus, the Bridegroom, watches her with a loving gaze and urges her on with His eyes. Which reminds me that this invitation, to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, is not a threat. It is a declaration of love in which Jesus invites us to trust and follow Him, no matter what.
Which reminds me of a song which, coincidentally, also refers to someone wearing flowers in their hair. The lyrics that are written on this video aren’t quite all correct, unfortunately, (you can read the correct lyrics here!) but take a listen to this song, “After the Storm,” by Mumford and Sons:
The chorus says this:
And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.
Sometimes, we balk at the notion of carrying our cross, and for good reason. The cross is a guarantee of suffering. There is a reason why the Christian phrase, “valley of tears” is a reference to life. Life is hard and full of stumbling and failing and getting back up, only to fall back down. Again.
And yet, when we follow Jesus, there is hope for mercy and grace.
So, let us follow Jesus always and carry our cross. And, when we inevitably stumble and fall — just as He did on His way to Calvary — let us remember that He is always with us, urging us to keep on going and to always follow Him.