The Superstar with the Scar
“Anyone who loses his life…will save it” (Mk 8:35).
The great orator Bishop Fulton Sheen in one of his many sermons makes a positive comment on the eagerness of Apostle Thomas wanting to put his fingers into the mark of the nails in the hands and feet of the Risen Christ (Jn 20:24-29). The Bishop says, Thomas wanted to see the scars of his superstar! Yes, our Superstar Jesus has his scars. He is a suffering servant!
The gospel text of today, on the one hand, invites us to a personalization of our perception and experience of Jesus. Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” (Mk 8:27). On the other hand, the Liturgy of the Word also invites us to acknowledge the role of suffering in the history of salvation. Jesus says, “The Son of Man was destined to suffer grievously” (Mk 8:31); the readings also invite us to reflect on the role of suffering in our own personal story in following Jesus: “Anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mk 8:35). There is a link between the personalization of our own experience of Jesus and sharing in his suffering: when we accept Jesus as the Son of God we are also motivated to carry our own cross.
The Suffering God
At the core of our Christian faith is the truth that at a particular time in history, God in Jesus suffered, died and rose again. It is not fair to understand the suffering of Jesus in terms of what is sometimes called, ‘vicarious expiation’ – that the Father demanded the death of the Son in the place of the fallen humanity. However, I would like to look at the suffering of Jesus as flowing from his love expressed in his total sharing in our humanity, and his death as a natural consequence of our rejection of God. As St Paul writes in his Letter to the Philippians, “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:7-8).
Our first reading of today from Prophet Isaiah was an extract from what is called the “Hymn of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh” (Isaiah 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12) In this passage, the Prophet talks about the Servant of Yahweh who is ill-treated by the people and condemned to die. The Servant offers no resistance. Yet the Servant expresses trust in the justice and protection of God. Within Isaiah, this text could be speaking about a prophet who stands by what he preaches and as a consequence has to suffer. Often this passage is taken to allude to the sufferings of Jesus. And very aptly so! Jesus takes up his cross willingly, for he knows this is the final act of love. He has to stand by his message of love. What is the human response to this love? What is our response to this suffering love of God?
Like the Master: Take up your cross and follow me
In the gospel story of today, Peter emerges as one who has mixed motivations. Enabled by the Spirit he makes a theological statement about the nature of Jesus: “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29). However, he also jumps to purely a human way of looking at Jesus. When Jesus started talking quite openly about his sufferings, “Peter took him aside, and began to rebuke him” (Mk 8:32). What did Peter want? Why did Peter hesitate to accept Jesus with his complete story – being the Christ who will suffer? I would like to think that Peter really understood the implication of Jesus’ predictions of his suffering: that if the master was to suffer even the disciple needs to be prepared to suffer. And perhaps Peter was not ready for this. He wouldn’t be ready for it until the death and resurrection of Jesus. No wonder, he denied Him (Mk 14:66-72).
Our own response to the immense love of God made visible in the suffering of Jesus could be to accept our own human condition that comes with some degree of pain and suffering. It may not necessarily imply dying for God. But often suffering consists in the little troubles that we have to endure when we aspire for higher purpose in life. Speaking in very simple terms, for instance, it is easier to watch TV than to read a book. At another level, it is easier to join a friend in their birthday celebration than to reach out to a stranger in need. Watching TV and joining in celebration could provide us with some sense of pleasure. And pleasure could be accompanied by a sense of euphoria. However, often at the end of that experience of euphoria we experience a level of dysphoria or depression. On the other hand, reaching out to a stranger in need initially demands some effort – some risk and suffering – but eventually that act of kindness brings a sense of gratification. Often we humans tend to choose the easier path. Repeatedly making such choice of pleasurable experiences only makes us losers. In the gospel text of today, therefore, Jesus invites us to challenge ourselves to make that initial effort to choose acts of higher purpose which may entail some suffering so that we will enjoy immense gratification in due course – the resurrection and the foretaste of heaven: “For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it” (Mk 8:35).
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.