Readings: 1 Peter 1:18-25; Psalm 147; Mark 10:32-45
Someone once described the history of Christianity as a history of the many ways in which Christians have tried to run away from the Cross of Christ, to tone down its message, to draw its sting.
The earliest Christians searched the Old Testament for images and symbols, hints and clues, as to the identity of the Messiah for whom they waited, and the purpose of his mission. In the Book of Isaiah they found long, poignant and beautiful passages about a Suffering Servant. He was to be the servant of God who would carry the sins of all. His life and death would be a victory, not just for himself, but for the many who would become one with him. These passages are in the Book of Isaiah, chapters 42, 44, 49 and 52-53. John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, knew these passages which helped them to understand their mission.
The 'Lamb of God', the 'Son of Man', the 'Servant of the Lord', came on earth not to be served but to serve, and to suffer, to die and to give his life as a ransom for many. Some of the language in today's gospel reading will feel foreign to us, some of it strange, and as it has been interpreted in Christian history, perhaps even scandalous. To speak of drinking a cup is okay but to talk of a ransom is a bit odd. Ransom to whom? Why? What price? A phrase like 'the Lord has been pleased to crush him with suffering' (Isaiah 53:10) sounds positively obscene. What could such a sadistic God have to do with the heavenly Father, merciful and compassionate, in whom we believe?
For some reason we need the shock which the suffering servant gives us. We could easily, through familiarity, forget the horror of the crucifixion, the desolation of Gethsemane, the failure of Calvary, the night of 'my God, why have you forsaken me'. The 'suffering servant' is a constant reminder of what Good Friday involved: strange that it remains one of the days of the year that draws many people to the liturgy who would not otherwise go.
What does it mean to call Christ a suffering servant? What moves our heart and mind when the corss is placed before us in all its solitude and sadness? The cross speaks of human sinfulness. Compare this with the comical concern of James and John as to who would have the best seats in the kingdom - the 'price' of entry to the kingdom was the passion and death of Christ! God's anger is not a defence of his own wounded pride, but rather a sadness at the damage we do to ourselves and to one another. This is the seriousness of sin: lack of love, injustice, cruelty, selfishness.
But the cross speaks also of the great love of God, God's humility and vulnerability, the lengths to which God is prepared to go for those for whom God cares. The suffering of Christ is a cry for our love, a cry echoing down the ages in the hearts of all who seek to love. To call Jesus the 'suffering servant' is to recognise in him the one whom God sent to save his people. Jesus has saved us by his teaching and example. He has saved us by showing us the way of love. He has saved us by breaking through the knot of sin and death in which we were trapped. He has saved us by living in truth, without compromise, even when this meant his own death. He showed that, serious though sin is, love is more serious and more powerful. It is love which creates a place where all can live in integrity and justice, in joy and at peace - what we call the Kingdom of God.
This reflection was first published in 1985 in The Sunday Letter, published by Rollebon Press, Tallaght