I was struck, this week, by an image of an elderly man carrying a cross, following Jesus, also carrying a cross, both followed by a dog, carrying a little cross in its mouth. This week the image of Jesus, the elderly man and the dog popped up on my screen and I knew that was the one – but I wasn’t sure why. I suppose, behind this question – why this image? – lies the bigger picture of what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. This is Jesus’ command in this week’s Gospel – ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
These are difficult words for us, 21st century western Christians. We live in a culture where having what you want, when you want it is held to be the most important thing of all. We live in a culture which esteems self fulfilment, seeking out what makes you happy and fulfilled. And we probably all know someone with that unhealthy character trait which we might call ‘martyr syndrome’: someone who puts others first and makes sure that everyone knows about it: someone who desires the feeling of being a martyr for their own sake, seeking out suffering or persecution because it feeds a psychological need.
All in all, the idea of deliberately taking up the cross, an instrument of suffering and torture, sounds most unappealing. Why would you do that? I think the picture appealed to me because it was not so much about suffering as about faithfulness. You get the feeling that this man will follow Jesus wherever Jesus leads him – a sort of dogged determination.
And I think this reflects the pattern of our lives as Christians. The journeys of our lives are not meaningless but journeys of faithfulness, lived as disciples – followers of Jesus. There is no need to seek out the suffering of a martyr, but suffering will come to us – it is part of being human, of being part of creation which is beautiful but broken – we see this all around us. If we follow Christ, we follow One who has suffered – as Christians we follow the Son of God who has taken suffering into the heart of God’s being. In the suffering we encounter, we are called to be faithful. That is not an easy calling.
Suffering is difficult – that is its nature. Sometimes suffering is overwhelming, and we lose sight of the man walking just in front of us, carrying his cross to the desolate place outside the city where he will be put to death. As followers of Jesus, though, it is our life’s work to try to see this man, Jesus, to locate him in our journeys. Where is he in our suffering? In front of us? By our side? Within us? Sometimes he seems absent – we feel utterly forsaken. Such experiences are deeply traumatic and may cast a long shadow over our lives. I think particularly of the suffering of children who, by their nature, are unlikely to understand or formulate what is happening to them. It may take a lifetime, after such trauma, to work out that our forsakenness is held within the forsakenness of the one who cried ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ on the cross. Most simply put, you could say that you are forsaken together.
Some people seem to have a lot of suffering to endure – their lives are marked by sorrow after sorrow. We ask ‘why’? There is no answer to this question. All we can do is to be faithful to the friends, family members, or people far away whom we don’t know personally, but whose suffering we see on our TV screens. To be faithful to someone who suffers, is to be there without trying to explain things away, or to tell them everything will look better in the morning. In the face of the suffering of others, we must , once again, be faithful – being there, doing what we can, saying little, loving and praying much. Look at the dog in the picture – carrying a little cross and being faithful. It might not look like much, but if you keep on looking, the dog with the cross is very moving. In the face of suffering we may feel completely useless. Then we have to remember that we’re not there to solve things – tempting though this might be – but simply to be there, to be faithful and to carry what we can. To carry even such a tiny cross as the little dog is something wonderful and something beautiful.
For most of us, life isn’t all suffering. And maybe carrying a cross isn’t all suffering. In the picture, the man and the dog are simply followers, carrying the cross. To be marked by the cross at our baptism is to have the cross etched into who we are as human beings. Such a mark means that our walk through the world God has given us will be one informed by our faith; the pattern of our days shaped as we follow the man carrying his cross, the invisible imprint of which is part of who we are. In this is our faithfulness as Christians – as the ones with the mark of the cross, following the man carrying the cross, wherever that might take us.