Sunday Scriptures

Presence Informs the Practice

by Father Thomas Catania

To this day, I can hear him roaring, “Oh, GAD, NO!!” He, my first-year English teacher, left no doubt in your mind when you had blundered into some unimaginable (to him) gaffe. Subtle he was not, but pointed he was. A no was a no, and — rarely — a yes was a yes.

Would that Mark’s Jesus had been so explicit. Peter answers the question, “Who do you say that I am?” and Jesus’ words are not recorded. All we hear is that “he strictly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Well, why should they not?

The answer has been given that Jesus wanted to keep His messianic role a secret. Or at least that Mark’s literary strategy has Him doing so. And there is some sense in that, except that, as the next lines of the passage make clear, Jesus considers Peter a “satan” — an “adversary,” literally, but, in the context of Mark’s whole Gospel, one of the clearest manifestations of the Evil One himself. And He does so once Peter decides that being messiah cannot involve the cross, the being “put to death.”

The problem is that Peter is right. Messiahs don’t suffer humiliation; they don’t look like losers. A “messiah,” or anointed king, is one who leads in majestic dignity, and, if there was any common denominator to the picture of the restored king of Israel who would eventually give Israel back her independence as a nation, it may have incorporated battle scars, but it could not have included the image of a miserable, shameful death at the hands of the adversary (in this case, the Roman Empire) who continued to hold the king’s people in check.

It is clearly Mark, the evangelist, who has something to say in response to his figure of Peter, because it is he who taught us how to understand what messiah means in Jesus-terms. The triumphant figure of popular imagination has to give way, in Mark’s thinking, to a provident king, much along the lines of the one who fed thousands with bread unmistakably identified with the Eucharist (He “took, blessed, broke and gave” it — language still used in the Eucharist of today). This feeding image of only two chapters ago clearly depicts Jesus as the messiah-king who does what the prophets of Israel implied in their cries for the poor; the good king (Good Shepherd) takes care of the helpless. He does not look out for Himself, but “gives his life as ransom for the many.” All right, that last line isn’t what the prophets said about the messiah, but it is Mark’s formula describing what a “good king” does: He’s willing to give His all for the people to whom He’s been entrusted.

And so, on that count, Peter is wrong. Jesus, as Mark represents Him, is not the “conqueror king” (though, as I noted last week, He does paradoxically conquer the egotism of the Evil One by just this means) but the one who gives away His life. Imagine Him saying, “If it is bread they need, I will give them bread; if it is sustenance they need, I will give them myself.” That is a good king; that is the messiah Mark hails. In the long run, Peter has judged “not by God’s standards but by humans.”

So we need to hear again this passage, without Matthew’s addition of “Blessed are you, Simon son of John,” because Mark hasn’t written that into his teaching. His Gospel message has no celebration of Peter’s insight; instead, it represents Jesus crying, “Oh, GAD, NO!” when Peter too quickly recites the formula, without understanding the spirit within it. How different is he from the maligned Pharisees of two weeks ago?

Actually he is worse: His deafness to Jesus’ insistence on the cross as the precondition of messiahship will lead him to deny that he knows Jesus (in truth, I guess, he doesn’t) and then, with the others, in Chapter 14, having fallen asleep, despite Jesus’ plea that he and the others stay awake, to “abandon him and flee.” There is an obstinacy here that goes beyond what appears like supportiveness — not you, Lord; we’ll make sure you never suffer. There is an insistence that the ways we want things done will also be done by God, that the route to success, or heaven if you like, is success — heaven, all the way. (Though the Crucified said, “I [not success] am the Way,” and the specific directive that His own “take up the cross” can’t be avoided in this instruction about discipleship.)

So James’ exhortation about “practicing” faith — i.e., giving real flesh and blood to the relationship, the covenant, between ourselves and God — takes on new, and perhaps difficult, meaning. There can be no relationship with God (“faith”) that does not include “practice,” and that practice must involve the self-denial of the cross.

But yet, that can’t mean a life spent looking for opportunities to be miserable. On the contrary, it means that one who is deeply in love with God, in a “faith” connection, will, as Jesus did, find delight in that connection. The “practice” will be a renewed incarnation in every one of us. The “presence” is what informs the “practice.”

There can’t be a shortcut; the way is the Way of Jesus, the messiah who is so because He did not shirk the pain of being human. Would you, ultimately, want as your lord and leader one who had no recognition of your struggle? It would seem that in presidential elections that is a serious question. But in messianic matters, it has long since been settled. The one we hail is not Peter’s impervious conqueror but is instead the Crucified.

Something in us, when asked to accept that messiah, still may resist. But even as we relish the image of a conquering messiah, a conquering Church, a triumphant religion holding sway, we have to hear Jesus, mounting the cross and saying “Yes” to the Father and roaring, in the same breath to our misunderstanding, “Oh, GAD, NO!”[hr]

Readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 50: 5-9a

Psalm 114: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9

James 2:14-18

Mark 8: 27-35[hr]

Father Catania is an English professor at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, L.I., and an assistant at Holy Child Jesus parish, Richmond Hill.