The Sunday Gospel
In today’s Mass we reach the halfway point of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 8: 27-35). The first half develops the identity of who Jesus is and it is time to ask the question, “Who do people say I am?” The second half will deal with the question of the way that Jesus is going, namely to his cross and Resurrection.
Starting with the first question regarding who Jesus is, his identity is gradually revealed in how he teaches with an authority that gives him victory over evil spirits and the power to perform great miracles of healing. The passage immediately preceding today’s reading is the strange story of the unusual way that he healed a blind man. It wasn’t an instantaneous miracle but a gradual process. After touching the man’s eyes with spittle and laying hands on him, Jesus asked him if he could see anything. He said that he saw people but they were like trees walking. It was still imperfect sight, representing the imperfect understanding of the apostles. So, Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes again and he saw clearly.
Beginning to see
From the start of this Gospel the apostles did not understand Jesus but this gradual healing represents how at last they were beginning to see. So, it was time to ask them “Who do you say I am?” Peter spoke up and said to him, “You are the Christ”. This meant he was the anointed one, the promised Messiah. But Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell anyone.
This is called the messianic secret, and the reason for secrecy was that the popular expectation of the Messiah was very different to the role Jesus would play. Most people expected a political leader who would lead them to freedom from foreign dominion and they would have great earthly power and wealth.
The road towards Calvary
Jesus then made the first prophecy of the Passion. He was destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected and put to death but, after three days, to rise again. Again, it was Peter who spoke up, but this time he told Jesus that this could not happen. But Jesus rebuked him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking not as God thinks, but as human beings do”.
Here we have begun the second half of Mark’s Gospel. Repeatedly we are informed that Jesus is on the way to his destiny and his followers must travel in the same direction. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”
Three steps on the way
The first step on the way is to renounce self, that is, to overcome being self-centered. In today’s second reading, St James tells us that the sort of faith which is not expressed in practical works of compassion and charity is dead.
In the second step Jesus invites us to take up our cross. Before the crucifixion of Jesus, the cross was regarded as a cursed thing, reserved for condemned criminals. But in rising from the dead, Jesus transformed the tree of death into the tree of life. “Having loved his own in this world, he loved them to the end”. That is how St John introduced the Passion of Jesus. Christians now understand the cross as a symbol of the total, life-giving death of Jesus.
The third step on the way is the invitation of Jesus, “Follow me.” It reminds me of a story about Saint Teresa of Kolkata. Her Missionaries of Charity spend an hour in prayer before going out to serve Christ in the poor. One morning Mother Teresa noticed one sister going out with a very sad face. Mother gently pulled her aside and asked her, “Did Jesus say ‘Go before me’ or did he say ‘Follow me’?” Sister got the message and her mood changed. We are never on our own when we follow Jesus in our own sufferings or in meeting others in their suffering.
Walking the road with Jesus
By entering into the world of suffering, Jesus expressed his solidarity or companionship with us in any kind of suffering. He suffered physical pain, the injustice of a sham trial, betrayal and desertion, the sword of sorrow which his mother felt, and even the spiritual darkness of feeling abandoned by the Father. We are never alone in our suffering once we know that we are following Jesus who has been in that valley of darkness before us.
I remember many years ago how a recovering alcoholic shared his story with me. Giving up drink was no problem: he had done it countless times. Staying off it was another matter. He was in and out of hospitals, in and out of meetings. One night after an AA meeting, an oldish man with the battered face of long years of abuse gently pulled him aside and said, “There’s only one problem in your life, Jack. Self-pity.” He took a little crucifix from his pocket and pressed it into Jack’s hand. “Here, take this cross. Always keep it in your pocket, and the next time you’re feeling sorry for yourself, just look at him there on the cross. And give up all your self-pity.”
The Twelve Steps were reduced to three. Renounce or give up your self-centeredness, take up your cross and follow me.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Lord Jesus, we thank you for your total love in allowing yourself to be taken and put to death as the lamb of sacrifice on our behalf. When we look up at you raised on the cross, may we be inspired to be less self-centered, to take up our cross, and to follow you. You are always walking with us: may we always walk with you.