Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 35-45
The first reading for Mass today, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, was written some six centuries before the birth of Christ. The prophesy announces the victory of the Suffering Servant, who is put to death for being the servant of God, but ultimately rewarded and delivered by God from eternal death. Though the servant suffers and dies, a greater good comes forth, intended to bring much hope to a people in exile.
We might ask who the inspired author of the Book of Isaiah understood the Suffering Servant to be. Some Biblical scholars see the servant as Israel herself, the chosen people of God, punished for infidelities, now in exile. The people are described as a single “person,” suffering greatly because of their rebellion. Other scholars believe the author of Isaiah understood the Suffering Servant to be himself, a prophet of hope for a people in exile, but rejected by God’s people. The servant might also be understood as an unnamed bringer of peace and restoration, sent by God for the ransom of the people of God. In any case, Biblical scholars understand the Suffering Servant in various ways.
The Catholic Church has always understood Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of what was described in the Book of Isaiah and Christ as the Suffering Servant above all others. The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurated a new era of relating to God. Sealed in the Blood of Christ, the New Covenant is the loving response of God to the willing obedience and self-sacrifice of the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
Our response to this can only be what is chanted as the responsorial psalm this Sunday: “May your love be upon us, O Lord, as we place all our hope in you” (Psalm 33:32).
Closely connected to the saving action of God on behalf of the human race are the words Jesus spoke concerning himself and his mission as “Emmanuel,” that is, God-with-us, also prophesied in the Book of Isaiah centuries before the birth of Christ. Jesus proclaimed during his public ministry, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, verse 45). That is the essence of the coming of Christ among us: to save us from sin and death, to overlook, literally, look over the top, of our sins, and bring true life. The bringer of life is Life itself.
Though sinless, Jesus poured out his Blood for all sinners, bearing in his own person the sins of all. Through the passion and death of Christ, we humans are capable of partaking in divine life. The consequences of sin, understood as separation from God and eternal death, are reversed by the death of Christ, who in rising threw open the gates of Paradise for all who are willing to receive and respond to the gifts of God.
We are all being called to share in the cup of suffering in our ordinary lives, giving ourselves for the good of others. Mysteriously but surely this kind of living for others and dying to self becomes the means of sharing more fully in the life of God.
The second lesson at Mass this Sunday, from the unnamed author of the Letter to the Hebrews, written after the Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord, clearly states the importance of “holding fast to our profession of faith” (Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 4, verse 14), also translated as “never letting go of the faith that we have professed.”
We may waver from time to time or regularly in our commitment to Jesus Christ as weak and sinful creatures. Despite this, we are encouraged in the Church and our local faith community never to give up in the struggle or seek another path contrary to the Gospel.
Jesus, who suffered before us, completely sympathizes with our struggles. As fully human, Jesus knew temptation. He knows what we experience and we should confidently approach our God with a cry for help at all times. As fully divine, Jesus is always present in our midst to hear our plea. The help of God is not just sympathy, though, which literally means to suffer or feel with what another is experiencing. Much more than that, God bestows power, what we usually call “grace” in our Catholic tradition, that is, real assistance in our attempts to persevere unto death, in our life’s work of being united to God. We seek as well to draw others into that same circle of everlasting light and happiness in God’s presence.
Approaching God each and every day, as the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to do, we are confident in finding mercy for our past wrongs and the loving-kindness of God to strengthen us for the future in any “time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). In other words, the love and mercy of God are always near to those who call upon God.
This brings us to the Gospel passage, which is a dialogue between Jesus and the two brothers, James and John, regarding the nature of true discipleship. James and John are ambitious to say the least, but Jesus does not scold them, but seeks to redirect their ambition. The reply of Jesus to the disciples is a call to total renunciation of all self-assertion to truly be his disciples.
The brothers James and John represent all of us, eager perhaps for an easy answer to discipleship and getting whatever we ask for, because we have given our life “to the cause,” so to speak. Jesus teaches, instead, the way of sharing in his cup of suffering which begins at our baptism, the word meaning, literally, “to be plunged into the water.” This requires setting aside the old person and putting on the new, putting on Jesus Christ, who is everything. This will mean obedience to all the commands of God, forgetting self and undergoing real conversion, and fully accepting God’s plan of salvation by God for us, rather than relying our own devices.
What we are describing might be compared to taking the bypass or the relief route through a city, when in fact we need to go right through the center of town. That is what the two disciples in the Gospel today were wanting to do, looking for an easier way. Jesus explains that it has to be otherwise. No bypass, but willing acceptance of suffering and baptism, even by fire, to reach the desired goal of union with God.
The true meaning of discipleship, the focus of the Scripture texts this Sunday, is all about seeking the things of God and the will of God, embracing without fear the plan of God, letting go of worldly ambitions, places of honor and glory at home, at work, at home, in community, at school, in the parish, wherever we find ourselves and hopefully humbly serving others however we can, in imitation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The ways of the world and the way of Jesus are different. We are being called to the way of Jesus, and the ultimate goal is salvation and eternal life, after a life on earth of daily sacrifices and disappointments, setbacks, struggles and temptations. But it is not just about the next life. Even now we are called to the consolation given by the Holy Spirit in this life when we earnestly seek peace and loving service at all costs.
An early Church father referred to all this with the phrase, “To serve is to reign with Christ.” We share in the Kingdom of God here and now, by laying down our lives in humble and caring service of each other, as Jesus did for us. In addition, we live now in expectant hope for the fullness of happiness in Paradise after this life.
May our hearts be on fire with the love of God and neighbor in order to give generously and joyfully each moment of our life.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB