Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
St. Mark tells us that our Lord and His Disciples were “on the way going up to Jerusalem.” No matter where you were in Israel, you always traveled “up” in relation to the Temple located in Jerusalem, “the mountain of God.” We always ascend to the heights to be with God and to worship Him. We “ascend” to the Altar situated in the Holy of Holies or sanctuary of the Temple, as we call it. For our churches are built in accordance with the divine plan given to the Prophet Moses which is but an icon of the heavenly reality (Ex. 25:9).
Our Lord and His Disciples, as noted, are on their way up to Jerusalem where Jesus has a date with destiny. Not a fate, if you will, but with His predestiny as revealed in the prophecies of God. In fact, He now foretells His Great and Holy Passion for the third time to His Disciples. “’[T]he Son of Man shall be delivered unto the chief priests and unto the scribes,’” He forewarns, ‘and they shall condemn Him to death, and shall deliver Him to the Gentiles. And they shall mock Him and shall scourge Him, and shall spit upon Him and shall kill Him. And the third day He shall rise again.’”
Jesus’ solemn discourse seemingly does not penetrate the ears of His beloved Disciples with whom He shares His final days, telling them of what awaits Him – and them – in the city of God that notoriously kills the Prophets, the city of God that eats Prophets for breakfast and spits them out (Mt. 23:37; Lk. 13:33-34)!
Almost in comedic relief to our Lord’s solemn prophecy is the response of His seemingly obtuse Disciples, James and John, affectionately dubbed “the sons of thunder” (Mk. 3:17). You can almost see the quizzical look on their faces, that dumb-faced blank stare, struck by our Lord’s words that do not seem to register. It doesn’t last but a brief and fleeting moment. They launch into their own self-interested quest. Remember, they are two of our Lord’s inner circle of three – Peter completing the triumvirate – and so, in an apparent preemptive strike to secure their places of prominence in the Kingdom of the Lord, they ask Jesus for a political favor. “Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom, ‘grant unto us that we may sit, one on Thy right hand and the other on Thy left hand, in Thy glory.’”
As I said, it would almost be a comedy show if it wouldn’t be for the fact that they are dead serious! This is what stands out for me in stark and vivid contrast: the solemn work of salvation being executed and their interest in places of power, prestige, and influence! And these are going to be the ones Jesus will entrust with the Faith of the Church!
But, as it is, God’s ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts (Is. 55:8-9). Our long-suffering Lord perseveres with His self-serving Disciples and He guides them into greater Truth, helping them to see what they are missing. This is also how He deals with us who frequently fare no better than the obtuse Twelve. He says to them – as to us oftentimes – “You don’t know what you’re asking. You don’t know what you’re praying for.” For all intents and purposes, this is the prayer, is it not, the request of the saints-to-be, James and John? So often we pray in our enthusiasm and zeal, but we do so clouded by our lack of knowledge of God and of how God works. We pray, as did James and John, without reflection and examination. We pray, sadly, swayed by self-interest rather than by the interests of God and His most holy will for His world and for our lives. Instead of beseeching the great mercy of our Lord and His help in understanding so great a salvation He has embarked upon and what this means for them, they pray rather for positions of authority and of importance, getting a jump on old Peter, their fishing buddy.
There are several places in the Gospels where our Lord pauses the inquiry of seekers in order to get them to ponder and reflect upon the gravity of their quest – as noble as it may be. The rich young ruler comes to mind Mt. 19:16-30; Mk. 10:17-31; Lk. 18:18-30). But, then, there was the enthusiastic scribe who eagerly said that he would follow Jesus wherever He went to which our Lord replied, “’Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ Then another of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’” But, what does Jesus say? He says, “’Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead’” (Mt. 8:18-22; Lk. 9:57-62). On another occasion with great multitudes trailing after Him, Jesus speaks to them about the cost of being His disciple. He speaks about loving others or things more than Him and about self-denial and taking up the Cross. And, He asks them – and us – “Who among you doesn’t first sit down and calculate the cost of a building project to make sure you can actually finish it without being embarrassed by failing to do so? Or, what general doesn’t look at the battle plan, assess the situation, and determine whether or not he can win the fight with what he’s got? ‘So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple’” (Lk. 14:25-35). For, “’No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God’” (Lk. 9:60).
James and John are sure they can do this in light of Jesus’ question to them, “’Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’” “’Yea,’ the sturdy dreamers answered, ‘to the death we follow Thee’” (Are Ye Able? Protestant hymn). Of course, we know what happens there in Jerusalem that Great and Holy Friday. All but John and the Theotokos abandon Jesus in His dying hours.
This, beloved, is Great and Holy Lent. It is about salvation – our salvation, the salvation of the world. It’s also about discipleship – living out the salvation of the Cross, working out the salvation that has been won for us on the Cross and doing so in fear and trembling (Pp. 2:12). To be quite simplistic: this is Great and Holy Lent. And it’s all about Jesus and not about us. Jesus is steadfastly set on the Cross looming on the not-so-distant horizon, towering over Jerusalem, “towering o’er the wrecks of time” (In the Cross of Christ I Glory, Protestant hymn). “[F]or the joy that was set before Him [He] endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hb. 12:2). Jesus shows us the way. We are to follow after Him, not with the flash-in-the-pan human zeal that we mistake as the Holy Spirit or with the sugar-inspired religious enthusiasm that masquerades as faith. We follow with Him Who never abandons us. We do it in His power, trusting that “He Who has begun a good work in us will complete it until the Day of Jesus Christ” (Pp. 1:6). We do it for Him – for the love of God alone. And where we end up in the Kingdom of Heaven is totally up to God the Father Who alone assigns those things. Better to be a doorkeeper in the House of God than a foolish bridesmaid on the outside begging to be let in (Ps. 83 :10; Mt. 25:1-13).
Surely, if we yield to Jesus and go with Him up to Jerusalem where He will be offered up on the Altar of the Cross as the great and holy Sacrifice for the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29), we, too, will drink of His cup and be baptized with His baptism. Everything else is up for grabs. What, ultimately, matters, however, is God. And the path to God is humility which is exactly what Jesus sets before His contentious disciples riled up by James and John’s prayer. The greatness James and John were pursuing, but which eluded them, is only within the grasp of humility in the form of servanthood – more especially, the Master’s servanthood. Humility is not only the key to “success” in the Kingdom, but, ultimately, it is the key to our salvation, even as our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ teaches us elsewhere,
‘Verily I say unto you, unless ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as [a] little child, the same is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 18:1-3).
Do we pray to be close to God? Then pursue humility. If we wish to be closest to God, then we must be the humblest of all! For greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven, like salvation, is measured by humility defined by the Cross and our Lord’s Great and Holy Passion.
Through the prayers of our holy Mother Mary of Egypt, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
Hb. 9:11-14 // Ga. 3:23-29
Mk. 10:32-45 // Lk. 7:36-50