29th Sun [B] 2006

Fr. Charles Irvin

Isaiah 53:10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

Today’s Gospel account confronts James and John with the question of how they will deal with suffering. Along with James and John we also have to deal with the question. How do we respond to the fact of suffering? Do we respond passively, stoically accepting suffering when it comes our way, or do we actively face it and even enter into it so as to come out on the other side as better persons because of suffering? The Christian answer is the latter. If Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday have any meaning for us, they call us to enter into Christ’s path through suffering into a new, higher and better life. Hope in the face of loss, pain, and suffering is the greatest gift Christians can offer those around us in the world in which we live.

We need to get fully into the scene just depicted in this Gospel account. Jesus is making His way to Jerusalem where He will suffer and die. The vision of that horror is fully before His eyes. Here in today’s Gospel we find Him beginning to give His last teachings and say His last words to His disciples. He’s pensive and quite concerned about what He will leave behind with those who have been His closest disciples over the past three years.

Jesus has evidently decided not to pull any punches with them. He’s telling them straight out what’s going to happen. He’s going to Jerusalem, He tells them, to suffer, be crucified, and die in order to enter into a new life. It is a terribly tender and poignant scene.

Incredibly, as soon as He has poured out His heart to them, two of His closest disciples, James and John, ask Him for places of privilege. They want to bask in fame and share in Christ’s greatness, ruling it over others like kings along with Him.

This is St. Mark’s Gospel account of their bid for greatness, glory and fame. St. Matthew has their mother asking Christ to give her sons, James and John, power, glory and authority in His kingship. It’s hard to imagine the insensitivity manifested here. Jesus is struggling with what it means to be the Suffering Servant of others in obedience to His Father’s wishes and James and John decide this is just the time for them to make their selfish and self-centered bids for power. Is fame to come at any price?

But just what constitutes human greatness? What makes any human being a great person?

When you examine the lives of many great human beings one thing you will notice is how many of them faced suffering in their own personal lives, some facing terrible suffering. Mother Teresa of Calcutta comes to mind. So does St. Therese of Lisieux, Abraham Lincoln, Ludwig van Beethoven, to mention only a few. I am tempted to claim that all great men and women have had to deal with personal suffering although I really cannot make that claim with any degree of certitude. Suffice it to say that personal suffering is a common theme found in the lives of many of our greats.

Most if not all of these great figures were not born into or given position, privilege, power, wealth, fame or beauty. A few had these given to them either by birth or by good fortune. Some of them would tell us that they did not earn these things – that they did little, if anything, to acquire them.

But what about their greatness? Was that given them? I think not. Greatness has something to do with how one shapes his or her own soul. Greatness comes to those whose hearts are filled with compassion, who have developed extraordinary generosity, who live their lives in self-sacrificing service toward others. Greatness flows from great hearts, most of the time in great adversity. In their suffering they learn generosity of spirit.

Great human beings form partnerships with others. Greatness has much more to do with partnering than it does with prominence, position, power or privilege.

We must never confuse greatness with fame. Beauty? Well, many beautiful women have had hard and cruel hearts. Fame? Many a rock star has been little more than a jerk when it comes to relating to and living with others. Many in positions of power and privilege have used their good fortune to advance themselves, satisfy their lusts for money and sex, and lord it over others, causing all who were unfortunate enough around them to have to live with them in misery, hurt and pain.

And greatness costs – it usually comes after periods of significant pain and suffering. Beethoven wrote his greatest symphony when, as a result of lead poisoning, he was stone deaf. Can you drink of that cup filled with the costly blood of pain and suffering? When you look below the surface into the lives of so very many of the great people who have lived among us you will discover the cross and the cup of poured out blood that come with pain and suffering.

There is an enormous difference between power and authority. Power is the ability to force people to do things. Power comes when you force folks to obey you. Authority, on the other hand, comes from within a person. Authority is related to the word “author” – it’s something that comes out of a person’s character, soul and personality.

A person that is known to always tell the truth has authority. A person well known to be caring for others speaks with authority. A person who is self-sacrificing, generous, compassionate, kind and considerate – a person like Princess Diana of England, for instance – has a tremendous amount of authority. A person genuinely involved with others, in partnership with others, speaks with authority.

The Last Supper was no picnic. What is given us here in this sacred banquet comes to us at a terrible cost. It came to us with the crucified and risen Christ’s love and desire to be your partner throughout life. He wants to be yoked to you and thus help you pull your load through life. But more than that, He wants to be totally and completely a part of you. He wants His body to become your body — His blood to mingle with yours. He wants to give Himself to you completely. His is a life of involvement, self-sacrificing service, and commitment to care for you and to love you forever.

Anyone who would be great must follow that model – there is no other pattern or model for us, if we want to be great human beings.

Years ago when John F. Kennedy was being inaugurated as our president he said: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask, rather, what you can do for your country.” Those words are on my mind when I listen to the presidential debates and hear all of the rhetoric of the candidates for political office. Is it a question of what the government will give us? Is it a question of what we can get from those elected to political office? If so, where is the challenge for greatness?

Finally you and I need to ask ourselves how we can become greater Christians. I need to challenge you as I was once challenged. “Be an extraordinary Christian – we have enough of ordinary ones.” Be ambitious for the higher gifts and seek greatness. Don’t settle for cheap fame. Fame is fickle; fame is fleeting. Greatness is lasting – something that you can take with you into the next life. But like anything else of real value, it comes at a great price.

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”