James D. Paradis, O.S.A.
Church of St. Augustine
Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
It seems easy to judge and target James and John, as well as the other apostles upset at them, for they all wanted the same thing: to stand out and be “on top” with a sense of success and superiority. After all, hadn’t they learned anything about discipleship and self-giving? Jesus journeyed at length with them and had just told them for the third time that in his mission, he was going up to Jerusalem where he would suffer, die and be raised on the third day. But the apostles never seemed to get it! Their energy was taken up-as it can be for any of us-in the business of comparison and climbing.
Jesus doesn’t reject the apostles in their desire for status but instead stretches them to find a heart beyond it-to go deeper into the demands of discipleship and living a new way of life in him. He asks them, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” He challenges them to let go of seeking position and power, and embrace the mystery of pain and suffering and loving service to others as he did. This was the path of servanthood Jesus was committed to in building a new humanity–letting go of everything and giving his life “in ransom for many,” for everyone.
James and John so glibly responded, “we can” when Jesus asked them if they could drink his cup of suffering. How do we respond? None of us wants to accept pain and weakness. We do our best to avoid it. But Jesus says that in our lives there is a painful cup we must drink at some point to learn about real discipleship and the depth of God’s love. It’s only by experiencing suffering–our own and in sharing that of others–that we begin to discover what’s truly important in life and what’s superficial. It’s here–if we permit it–where we come face to face with our powerlessness, our fragility and dependency on God. This is a crisis that can easily bring us to our knees or perhaps down a road of bitterness. But it’s also here in our painful longing where we learn the compassion and mercy of God who accepts us, forgives and heals us, absorbing our pain from the cross. This is the God whose love changes and shapes us in these same ways into a new creation as servants of beauty and goodness. The invitation here is vital. As Pope Francis says, unless we are first “caressed by the mercy of God” in the real context of our lives, then we won’t be able to serve others with that same tenderness and mercy that brings new life.
I think of the cup of suffering that my father received at age 52 that he never expected with a devastating form of cancer. He was always a strong, “on top” person, an achiever and self-made man who lived with black and white certainties about everything. Weeks and months of drinking from the cup of radiation and chemotherapy stripped much of that away. But what was beautiful to see was that he came to terms with the weak and broken place of his life. He didn’t run from it but brought it to the accepting heart of God. A time of pain was paradoxically one of grace. He let go of all that he couldn’t control, surrendering in faith to the God who loved him. In so many ways, he was transformed to live with a new joy and freedom in life that he shared passionately in service to others. He reminded us like Jesus of the pattern of a disciple.
I think also of the servanthood of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, canonized last weekend, who trusting in the love of Christ entered the pain of his own isolation and the great sufferings of his people. He was murdered giving his life for them, freely speaking out for love and justice. His heart was in discipleship of the Gospel that brought new life.
The gospel today turns upside down so many of the attitudes and images we absorb–and sometimes live by–about success and the power of being “on top.” It challenges us to see differently through the servanthood of Jesus. Real power, Jesus tells the disciples, is not at the top but at the bottom–in a place of service and solidarity with those in pain, where we live inside the love of God in the midst of suffering. It took the apostles time to learn this and really get it. May our hearts be transformed to learn it and live it as well.