by Bill Carroll
Are you able to drink the cup that I drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?
Jesus addresses these shocking questions to the sons of Zebedee in Mark 10:38, appointed for next Sunday. He also poses these questions to us. Jesus thereby takes familiar sacraments—the shared cup and ritual washing—and makes them unsettling and strange. His cup is that of a murdered prophet. His baptism is that of a martyr, washed in his own blood.
Are we able to drink his cup? Are we able to be baptized with his baptism?
These questions—central ones in the life of faith and discipleship—are not meant to be morbid. By them, Jesus intends to give us life. Ours is not a joyless or life-denying faith, but it is a realistic one. Without grappling with the forces that put Jesus to death, without drinking the cup of his suffering and drowning with him in the waters of baptism, we cannot receive the gift of Easter joy. As Christians, we make sense of our lives by following in the footsteps of Jesus crucified. It is here—in the places where he walks—that we find resurrection hope and new life.
Our own sufferings are likely to be small by comparison with those of Jesus and the holy martyrs. And yet, there is no particular suffering Jesus has not known. And no one (no, not one single person) is beyond the reach of his compassion. Moreover, we have been given his Spirit and a share in his very own mission of love. In baptism, we have pledged ourselves to follow him. We cannot know in advance how this will put us in conflict with the rulers of this present age. Nor can we know ahead of time what other sufferings life will bring.
On the occasion of the acknowledgment of the sainthood of Archbishop Oscar Romero by his own Roman Catholic Church, I would like to turn our thoughts to the writings of Jon Sobrino, SJ. In particular, I’d like to share a bit from Fr. Sobrino’s book, Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified Peoples. In it, Sobrino reflects on the meaning of martyrdom, in light of the Church’s experience in El Salvador.
Sobrino narrowly escaped martyrdom himself. He was out of the country, when assassins entered the University where he taught, looking for Jesuits like him who had confronted the brutal regime and its abuse of the people. Six of his brothers were killed that day, along with Elba Ramos, their housekeeper and Celina Ramos, her sixteen year old daughter.
Rather than dwell on these martyrs or on Archbishop Romero himself, who was murdered at the altar and whom Sobrino knew firsthand, I’d like to share with you from Sobrino’s account of the funeral of four women from the United States, three nuns and a social worker from the Diocese of Cleveland, who were also martyred in El Salvador. Until these women answered God’s call to serve in El Salvador, they lived lives not unlike our own. Here’s what Sobrino had to say about them:
I have stood by the bodies of Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan…There has been martyrdom upon martyrdom—an endless procession of priests, seminarians, students, campesinos, teachers, workers, professionals, and intellectuals murdered for the faith in El Salvador. Death has come to be the inseparable, dismal companion of our people. And yet, each time we gather to bid our martyrs farewell, the same feelings well up inside…
There were three hundred of us priests and sisters gathered in the chancery to hear Archbishop Rivera. His voice had a new and different ring as he denounced the Security Forces of the Christian Democratic Junta. He tore the masks from their faces. He pointed the finger of shame and guilt. Once again the truth was crystal clear. And with the truth came courage—and the Christian resolve to keep on, shoulder to shoulder with the massacred people, even if it meant the church must march once more to the cross.
It was like the first Christian Easter all over again. The horror, the abandonment, the solitude of Jesus’ cross had driven the disciples to their refuge in the upper room. But Jesus’ spirit was mightier than death, and it flung the doors wide apart. The disciples emerged stronger than before, determined to preach resurrection and life, determined to proclaim the good news of the reign of the poor. The archbishop’s residence had been transformed into a latter-day upper room. The God of life was there.
(Jon Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), pp. 54-55.)
I think it would be easy for us to judge James and John for their desire to sit at the left and right of Jesus. In some versions of the story, it is their mother who seeks these places for her sons, because she wants them to reign with Jesus. In Mark, however, the brothers ask for these places themselves.
What are they looking for? Power and authority? Perhaps. But they are also looking for a place close to Jesus, in whom they have found forgiveness, mercy, and life. Jesus does not dispute the claim that they are able to drink his cup and share his baptism. Indeed, he knows that both of them will do so. Which of us could be so certain that we are willing to follow Jesus, regardless of the cost? For all the flaws implicit in their question, James and John are willing to follow Jesus wherever he leads—and to do whatever he tells them.
But the place of honor, at the right and left hand of Jesus, is not his to give. That place belongs to those for whom it is prepared. Despite their profession of willingness to follow Jesus, James and John do not yet see the scandal of his cross. Jesus is to be crucified between two common criminals. He is to die in the place of shame, so that he may be the servant of ALL and give his life as a ransom for many.
It’s not that Jesus does not know the human cost of suffering. As the letter to the Hebrews assures us, “in the days of his flesh,” Jesus offers “loud cries and tears” and is heard for his “reverent submission.” Although Jesus is born the Son of God, his mission in the world is brought to completion through his suffering and death—and through the willing obedience by which he embraces his passion. In the fallen, violent world we have made for ourselves, suffering is often the price of obedience. Enduring the world’s hatred, mockery, and violence is often the price of setting others free. By his suffering and death, Jesus becomes first of all and the servant of all. He transforms the cross of shame into the tree of life.
Even in the darkest and most abandoned places of our lives, we discover the God of life who accompanies us on our journey. We discover Jesus, who lived and died among poor and simple people—who broke bread with them and shared their struggles. We discover Jesus, who sets us free.
Are we able to drink his cup?
image: worshipers gather around the body of Oscar Romero moments after his assassination