Just a Thought.
Among Old Testament texts, few have been commented on more often than the ‘Four Poems’ of the Book of Isaiah called ‘Songs of the Suffering Servant’. The mysterious character of the person presented in these four songs: the torments he undergoes, his unwavering attachment to God’s will in the midst of his suffering, the certitude with which he expects to see his righteousness recognised and rewarded, make of him an unusual person. Christian tradition has seen in the Just One, persecuted and then exalted by God, one of the most striking figures pre-figuring of Christ. In particular, the Church has pondered these poems in conjunction with the Gospel readings of the ‘Passion’, and as a parallel to the announcements of the ‘Pasch’. Especially today, where the third poem of the ‘Servant’ is read. In this poem the ‘Servant’ himself speaks. He evokes the ill treatment that his torturers have inflicted on him, resorting to blows in order to crush him by physical pain, and to insulting actions in order to overwhelm him under their contempt. This evocation is more dramatic in its restraint than would be a detailed description of the tortures undergone: so much fury and cruelty makes us shudder. But the way in which these torments are spoken of shows us a man of extraordinary grandeur and dignity: physically reduced to nothing in his body, yet, he has not been injured in his soul. What is more, he remains serene beyond what we can imagine.
No violence has succeeded in altering in the slightest his non-violence. Obviously, his endurance is not that of an impassive and haughty stoic confronting his merciless fate. What is his secret? The ‘Suffering Servant’ indicates from what source he draws the strength of his non-violence and his serenity in the worst tribulations: “The Lord God…. Opens my ears that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned my back.” Therefore, this man has heard God revealing both his plan and the mission to which he calls his servant in view of accomplishing his work. At the same time, this man learned of the difficulties he would have to face.
God never deals with anybody in a disloyal manner. But he expects a complete trust and a total commitment of being, soul and body from those he calls: “Behold I come.” Then in spite of their weakness, humans become able to do anything. The servant experiences this certitude again and again: “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Faith in the future, the conviction of not suffering and dying in vain have always been the source of superhuman strength for all those who have devoted their lives to a just cause. They feel certain that others will arise to continue their work and bring it to completion. They seem not to be touched by the abuse and humiliation they are made to undergo, even when pain engulfs them. The torturers are taken aback by this; they cannot understand — nor tolerate — the faces “like flint” of these non-violent persons who silently reveal the failure of the violence that was supposed to crush them. God’s servant is unshakable because he knows he can count on the Almighty, who never abandons the ‘Just’. When reproaches rain upon him, along with blows, God’s servant even defies his persecutors: Who disputes my right/ Let him confront me.” assured of being in the right, apparently abandoned to himself, but certain of God’s presence and assistance, the one whom human beings condemn dares to cry out without fear of being contradicted: “Who will prove me wrong?” It’s uncanny, almost a mirror image of Our Blessed Lord’s Passion: Is Jesus the Suffering Servant par excellence? Is this Suffering Servant of the Book of Isaiah asking: “Who do people say I am?” Just as Jesus asks his apostles in today’s Gospel. “Who then is Jesus?”
All through the first part of Mark’s Gospel, this question recurs again and again. Most of Jesus’ hearers ask themselves this question of the Lord’s identity. Some people already have their opinions based on the influence of others — to them, Jesus is a man under suspicion, a blasphemer (Mk 2:7), whose disciples observe neither the Sabbath (2:24) nor the tradition of the elders (7:1-23), a man possessed by the devil (3:22). Jesus knows these people and what they think of Him — all these answers, whether they were pronounced aloud or whispered in the heart (2:8) Jesus knows. He therefore does not need to know what these people “say of Him” They have made their choice. The disciples also; are well aware of these divisions concerning their Master because at some stage they must also decide where they themselves stand with regard to these contradictory verdicts. So the apostles ignore the opinions of these people when Jesus asks: “Who do people say I am?” Jesus of course is talking about the multitude of women and men of goodwill who follow him. It is these people who show their enthusiasm at his miracles; and they are struck by the authority of his teaching: but they too are probably troubled when they hear the peremptory judgements of the Scribes and the Pharisees who attack the young Master and sway people’s minds by their ill will. For their own part they are uncertain: “John the Baptist? Elijah? One of the Prophets?” is the response of the apostles to Jesus’ question. Jesus makes no pronouncement either on this diversity of opinion or on the indecision of the people, but comes straight to the point: “And you, he asked, who do you say I am?” It is no longer a question of reporting what other’s think; they, as we, must make a personal commitment, move from opinion to a faith decision.
Peter responds to the Lord’s question: ‘You are the Christ’” in other words “You are the Messiah.” This statement is clearly different from the ‘people’s’ opinion. Jesus is not a prophet of old come back to earth; but He is — whom the Prophet’s announced — He who is spoken about especially by the Prophet Isaiah. From now on, the true disciples, in whose name Peter speaks, are decidedly distinct from the crowd: they have taken a great step forward toward the true knowledge of Jesus’ identity. But they still have a long way to go, and the hardest part for sure. Jesus knows this and he warns them: “Not to tell anyone about him.” The same command recurs several times in Mark’s Gospel. Why? Because we must take into account the fullness of revelation before professing our faith. Here for the first time, Jesus Himself gives us the reasons for this delay. To his disciples who recognise the Messiah in him Jesus “openly says” — “That the Son of Man must suffer grievously and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the Scribes and then be put to death, and, after three days to rise again.” It is thus that he will be Messiah — Saviour — as God had announced Him by the Prophets, Isaiah in particular. Only by the light of his Pasch of death and resurrection can we correctly interpret and understand everything else. Lacking this, the commitment to the Lord, though sincere, remains, as it were, that of catechumens: we are still in the time of initiation, of novitiate, still searching, during which we’re introduced to Christian life and at the end of which we shall be called to make a fully informed profession of faith.
In fact, Peter strongly reacts to this first announcement of the ‘Passion’. Although he has made his confession of faith, Peter does not fully understand what it entails: He rebukes Jesus in the way one would rebuke someone who spoke in a thoughtless manner. The rebuke of Peter strikes Jesus right in the heart. Peter’s thoughts contradict God’s. In the disciple’s remonstration, Jesus perceives the echo of the perfidious words of the devil, who in the desert during the forty days had attempted to dissuade him from setting out on the way marked out by the Father: “Get behind me Satan!” We are all taken aback by the vehemence of this retort. We must place this side by side with what Jesus will tell Peter during the Last Supper: Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” (LK 22:31-32).
The Cross of Christ remains a great obstacle, to some — the great scandal — on the road to faith. To surmount this obstacle without stumbling, we must, through God’s grace and the Lord’s entreaty, let our hearts be freed from human thoughts — exorcised — and penetrated by divine thoughts. Having begun to “openly” tell his disciples for the first time that he must suffer his Passion “And rise after three days”, Jesus “Summons the crowd” so that all may hear what he was going to add: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake or the sake of the Gospels will save it.” Therefore, these words of Jesus are addressed to all those who want to become his disciples. Early Christian tradition understood this well. The evangelists have taken care to faithfully record these words — For Mark and all our Gospel authors, Christ is the Good News. Not all followers will be called upon to shed their blood for Christ, but they will be called upon to prefer nothing to Christ, including one’s life. This is an obligation for all Christians, but an easy obligation if we truly love the Lord. Under one form or the other, each one, in the ordinary circumstances of daily life, is confronted with crucifying choices. Who is Jesus Christ for People today? In order to answer this question, it is sufficient for all of us to think of what we hear in our own circles. For many, Christ is certainly one of the foremost religious figures of humankind. We believe as Catholics that Christ is God Incarnate. What we have had revealed to us, comes from the gift of faith that we receive at our baptism.
And to keep us focused — everyday Christ asks us:
“But You…. Who do you say I am?