Isn’t anybody listening?! That’s my gut reaction to today’s Gospel. Jesus’ teaching was crystal clear. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be all that surprised that the disciples couldn’t get a handle on this prediction. They were terribly distracted. Jesus had been traveling with these disciples for quite a long time. They witnessed him healing the sick, and freeing people from demonic possession. Peter, James and John had witnessed his transfiguration. They saw him wrapped in the light of divine glory. They saw Moses and Elijah speaking with him. They heard the Father’s testimony: “This is my beloved Son.”
The prediction of his betrayal and death put them off. “They did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.” I don’t think they were afraid of Jesus. I think they were afraid what his prediction would mean for them. They were like those people, we all know them, who won’t make an appointment to see a physician because “they always find something wrong with you!”
The disciples were privileged to see his power and glory. They wanted a share in that power and glory. I guess I can’t blame them. We’re all tempted by power. So when he said he would be betrayed and murdered they were shocked. Their ears questioned what they had just heard. They even blocked out the part about “rising.” They were just like the Wicked Witch of the West in the Broadway musical, The Wiz, who demanded of her court, “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!!!” They wanted the glory to be separated from the suffering. But it wasn’t meant to be that way. Jesus was opening the deepest of mysteries to them, the Paschal Mystery.
We use that term a lot – Paschal Mystery. We hear it often in the prayers of the liturgy. Priests regularly refer to it during their funeral homilies as they speak about our journey from death to resurrection. Though appropriately referenced during a funeral, its importance extends beyond that occasion.
The word paschal is derived from the Hebrew word pesach. It refers to the Passover. The Greek form of the word is pascha. In the Jewish tradition it celebrates the journey from the living death of slavery in Egypt, to the new life of freedom in the Promised Land. In Christianity, it refers to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus – his journey from death to new life. However, Jesus’ teaching wasn’t speaking exclusively of his personal Passover. He was speaking about a way of life he had willingly chosen, and was now offering it to his disciples! I think, deep down, the disciples may have had an inkling of what he was saying, but they weren’t ready to digest it.
They soon began to discuss who would be the greatest among them. This was contrary to the message Jesus was trying to impart to them. So he stated it in another way. Though he had first spoken to them about his eventual murder and resurrection, he now spoke to them about the true meaning of greatness. However, he was imparting his message from the context of the Paschal Mystery.
True greatness wasn’t achieved through the development of personal power, but by dying to oneself. His disciples were not to aim at becoming masters, but rather, “the servant of all.” If they were to abandon their desire for greatness and embrace a life truly dedicated to others, they will have begun the journey from a life of slavery to power, to a life of true freedom of spirit. He was inviting them to step into the Paschal Mystery.
Bringing a child into their midst he connected an image to his teaching. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” He was telling them that if they gave up their inflated egos, and put on the powerlessness and simplicity of a child, they would understand his teaching, and take him into their lives. Once they had taken him into their lives, they would realize that he had brought the Father into their lives. They would have begun the mysterious Paschal journey from death to life.