By Fr Brian McCarthy
The Evangelists present Jesus’ ministry in two parts. The first, the manifestation of the Kingdom of God, takes place in Galilee; the second, his progressive rejection by the people, takes place in Jerusalem. A watershed between these two is Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God at Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus’ transfiguration before Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor.
We are told that from that time on “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt 16:21). He reiterates this many times. In St Mark’s account (Mark 8:32) he makes it clear that he is not speaking figuratively.
The Apostles are scandalized and cannot understand what he is saying. Peter goes so far as to take Jesus aside and remonstrate with him because his words are upsetting the others. For his pains he receives the strongest rebuke in the entire New Testament: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a scandal to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matt 16:23).
Our Lord’s passion and death, therefore, are not the result of some error or miscalculation on his part. Indeed, they are the whole purpose of his mission. Consequently, he is not going to be deterred by anything, not even the well-meaning words of his favoured Apostle.
St Mark, in his account of Jesus’ last journey, as they ascend from Jericho to Jerusalem, describes Jesus as walking ahead and the Apostles hanging back because they are afraid and apprehensive. St John, in his account, has them travelling to Bethany to the tomb of Lazarus, at which the Apostles caution Jesus: “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” (John 11:8)
Even after two millennia we still find it difficult to comprehend the centrality of our Lord’s passion. It is part of the enigma of the Incarnation. And yet, it is only through it that the mystery of human suffering acquires meaning. Otherwise, as St John Chrysostom puts it, people “hold numberless satanical devices—as that there is a birth-fate, that things happen at random, that all is haphazard and chance” (Commentary on Acts, 47).
For all that we admire Jesus’ single-mindedness in fulfilling his Father’s will, an even more moving episode occurs in Gethsemane when he comes face to face with the imminence of the passion in all its dreadfulness, and prays to his Father, “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me”. We can identify with Jesus prostrate on the ground much more readily than with him entire and unflinching before the Sanhedrin. And so we too are led to make the second part of his prayer our own: “Yet not my will but yours be done”.
St Paul calls the Cross “a scandal to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). The Cross is difficult to bear; but it is also difficult to understand. When Paul proposed it to the pagan philosophers at Athens they laughed at him. The Cross as “folly” is a constant theme in his preaching. Although Christianity is at pains to demonstrate that its doctrines are rational, one can only push that so far. Our faith is full of mysteries, in whatever direction we look; so there is light, but also darkness. And central to them all is the mystery of the Cross, second only to the mystery of the Incarnation itself.
In his address at Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI quotes the Greek emperor Manuel II as saying, “Not to act reasonably is contrary to the nature of God”. God’s reason is not always apparent to us. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts, says the Lord” (Is 55:9).