I love the picture and note of solemnity with which St. Mark paints the opening scene of today’s Gospel. For we are, as the first disciples, on a journey. “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem.” We are on a road, the road of discipleship, that is, of learning, always learning, learning that to follow Jesus is filled with amazing twists and turns, some at God’s direction and intervention, some not; following in the Way of faith verses fear—there is a lot for faith to believe and plenty of things that make us afraid. “They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” We join the ranks of trembling, fearful saints marching behind Jesus. And that’s the one, most important detail we missed in the middle: “Jesus was walking,” not behind them, or beside them, but “ahead of them.” Jesus leads the way because He knows where He is going and He knows where we are going, and He knows what lies ahead for Him and for us. “Christ leads us through no darker rooms than He has gone before.”
But what lies ahead? Imagine, if you can, not knowing the rest of the story as we do and join the disciples on that road. This is now the third and final prophecy of Jesus concerning His coming death. But only now do we find out more of the details, not the least of which is the answer to the question, “Why,” why He is going to be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, why they will condemn Him to death, why they will deliver Him over to the Gentiles, why they will mock Him, why they will spit on Him, why they will flog Him, and why they will kill Him.
Before we find out why, however, there is a little “interlude of ignorance,” a “segment of stupidity,” the “punctuation of sinful pride” on behalf of the disciples. And it seems always to be so. Each passion prophecy is punctuated by the exposition of the presumption of the disciples. Ever since Peter’s mighty confession, Jesus has been inculcating in His disciples the spirit of self-renunciation demanded by the cross. This incident proves, however, that both the sons of Zebedee, James and John, as well as the rest of the disciples in their indignation at the two still just don’t get it.
“Grant us to sit,” they ask, “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Glory? Who’s talking about glory? “You don’t know what you’re asking for,” Jesus says plainly. Then He describes the way to glory—His way to glory—using the images of a cup and a baptism not of glory but of suffering. The cup Christ must drink, the baptism He must endure is His innocent, bitter suffering and death. “Are you able to drink” that cup and endure that baptism? Jesus is expecting a negative answer, for no one is able to do what Jesus is preparing to do in Jerusalem. Yet, they reply,
“We are able.”
“Okay then. You will drink that cup and endure that baptism.” These disciples will share the fate of their Master in suffering for the faith as well as even martyrdom (except for one). All disciples share, if not to the point of shedding blood at least in sharing in the humiliation and rejection of the world. “But as to the positions of glory, it is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
Only now comes the answer to the question, Why? Why must Jesus suffer and die? Why do we still endure suffering whether that be because of illness, disease, accident or violence? Why? Because “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The suffering and death of Jesus would not be and was not for Himself alone. He came to offer Himself as the only sufficient sacrifice or ransom payment to God for the sin of the whole world. In, with and under the horrid details of what He was about to suffer in Jerusalem at the hands of the blind chief priests and scribes, and the wild, uncontrolled mass madness of the Gentiles, the mocking, the spitting, the flogging, the jeering and cursing, was the holy Son of God in the flesh becoming The Sinner, the scapegoat, the substitute for us and for our salvation, the one payment for sin, for all sin in the whole world.
This is the new covenant of God’s design written no longer only on stone or parchment but now on fleshly hearts by means of faith in God’s Word; faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself up for us that we might be released from the slavery of sin and death.
For now we are still on the road, Jesus walking ahead. We are still amazed and afraid. But Christ has died and Christ is risen. The destiny of our journey is assured. Glory! Glory be to God.