By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
I FELT SOMETHING – or someone – tugging on the edge of my chasuble after Mass one Sunday morning. At first, I paid no attention to it, busy as I was greeting and exchanging a few words with parishioners who were heading home. But I felt another tug, this one insistent enough that I couldn’t ignore it.
Looking down, I saw the radiant smile of a young child, who – when she noticed that she had gotten my attention – greeted me with “Good morning, Jesus!” I didn’t know how to respond. On the basis of her greeting, it appeared that this little girl, just 5 years old (as I later learned from her only mildly embarrassed parents), had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the theology of holy orders, though it was pretty unlikely that she had the opportunity to study the documents of the Second Vatican Council in her kindergarten classroom.
So-so, Even on Best Days
In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (“Lumen Gentium”), the fathers of the Second Vatican Council explained that during the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest acts in the person of Christ, in persona Christi (“Lumen Gentium,” 28).
My momentary speechlessness had as much to do with surprise as it did with my acute awareness of the fact that even on my best days, I do a so-so job when it comes to the imitation of Christ.
Being reminded of that calling by a 5 year old wasn’t exactly what I expected that morning, but it must have been a lesson I needed to hear, because it comes to mind every time I read the portion of Mark’s Gospel that is proclaimed this Sunday.
Jesus, the Teacher, fully cognizant that His disciples haven’t even come close to understanding what He told them about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection, repeats the same difficult message once again: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise” (Mark 9:37).
The first time Jesus broke this news to them – in the text from Mark that we heard as last Sunday’s Gospel reading – Peter wouldn’t have any of it and tried to convince Jesus that things had to be otherwise. This time the disciples go from bad to worse. Not only do they fail to understand; their fear of what Jesus’ words might imply keeps them from asking Him any questions.
What could possibly have been so hard to swallow? Was it the dying, or was it the rising?
Or was it the enigmatic way in which Jesus seemed to be talking about Himself in such a detached way, speaking in the third person about “The Son of Man”? That title underscores the humanity of Jesus, the vulnerability of God’s Anointed One who is handed over to mortals who put Him to death. Yet, the Son of Man is also the Son of God over whom cruel death could not claim a lasting hold.
The journey continues, and Jesus bides His time before proposing a pointed question of His own: “What were you arguing about on the way?”
This time a guilty silence follows, for as the evangelist explains, “They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.”
Harboring Sinful Attitudes
It serves as curious relief for me to recognize that Jesus’ closest friends were no less susceptible than any of us are to the sinful attitudes about which this Sunday’s reading from the Letter of James warns, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.”
No mincing words this time!
Jesus sits down for some straight talk with the Twelve: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
There is no room for selfish ambition for those who want to walk with the Son of Man!
There is profound consolation in knowing that the disciples whom Jesus Himself chose by name and then sent forth as His apostles, as witnesses to His Gospel, were both frail and failure-prone. Looking at Matthew, the tax collector with eyes of mercy, Jesus invited him, “follow me,” in the words of Pope Francis’ motto, “miserando atque eligendo” (“by having mercy, by choosing him”).
At his best, the apostle Simon Peter knew he wasn’t worthy of walking in the company of Jesus, exclaiming, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).
We can be confident in the words of this Sunday’s verse before the Gospel that “God has called us through the Gospel to possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Infinitely patient with us when we give in to “jealousy and selfish ambition,” and equally persistent in continuing to call us back as often as we lose the way. By the wisdom that is from above, we are taught that the only path that leads to life is the imitation of Christ who humbled Himself to become like us.
Here’s a reality check for would-be followers of Jesus: When others catch wind of what we say and notice how we walk life’s path, is it “jealousy and selfish ambition” that they see, or do they recognize in us fruits of a holy wisdom that is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity?”
Can they see Jesus at work in us (and at work on us), or do we get in the way?
Readings for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 2: 12, 17-20
Psalm 54: 3-4, 5, 6 and 8
James 3: 16 – 4: 3
Mark 9: 30-37
Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.