Conrad Pepler O.P. 29th Sunday of the year
Isaiah 53.v.v. 10-11; Hebrews c.4 v.v. 14-16; Mark c10 v.v. 35-45.
ALL THREE readings this Sunday are concerned with suffering, human suffering and our Lord's suffering in particular.
From Isaiah we are given two important verses from the longest and most comprehensive of the four sections on the Suffering Servant. In the Gospel our Lord follows the prediction of his passion, read last Sunday, by insisting that James and John must share in that passion. Undoubtedly pain and suffering are paradoxically the core of the Good News. Although our Lord went about everywhere curing the sick, casting out devils and feeding the hungary, he did not offer those who followed him a panacea that would abolish suffering. On the contrary, "Happy are the poor, those who mourn, who suffer persecution... "
And when the sons of Zebedee seek a good position in the Kingdom where they anticipate suffering to be abolished, the answer is clear. "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised." He uses symbols recognised by his followers: the cup of God's wrath, or the cleansing by the cataract of water. His followers must continue in his footsteps which lead through the extreme of suffering, which precisely because it is taken on for others, vicariously, is the more agonising for that. One of our contemporary difficulties is to be found in the expectation of a kingdon without suffering; the majority have come to realise that religion cannot offer them this escape, so they turn to the doctors and surgeons, the N.H.S. and those who profess to abolish pain — or if these fail they seek an escape from life itself.
Since the majority of us have adopted materialism as the only way of life for ordinary mortals. we ought to be prepared to suffer something, since matter bears in itself the need of its own corruption. While recognising the fact. we search for more and more drugs that will hide the disease. But our Lord's entry into the world of pain was not into a world primarily of physical suffering. He accepted physical as well as psychological pain as the way through, not as the way out.
He knew that Isaiah's suffering servant was the role cast for himself. the prophet continues two verses below the passage read today: "He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; Yet he bore the sins of many". (V.12) The double mystery of Calvary lies in that the Son of God bore pain and death for the sins of mankind and yet pain and death continue unabated. But vicarious suffering does not mean that the pain is removed from the shoulders of the sinner and placed on the shoulders of the innoceV Son of the Father.
Rather the agony and death of Calvary have opened up the way through, towards the new life, linked at here by Isaiah. "His soul, anguish over he shall see the light." (Jerusalem Bible). It is the will of the suffering servant that has transformed the evil of pain into the power that brings new life and joy. "When he makes himself an offering for sin . . he shall see the fruit of the trevail of his soul and be satisfied." (R.S.V.) The senseless horror of the scourging, the thorns, the nails in hand and feet, the lance in the side is His followers do not escape the pain, but through his choice they receive the power to effect the same transformation: "The cup that I drink you will drink." This challenge has changed horror of suffering into a source of hope.
Wherever human pain is to be found there may be seen the shadow of the cross.
The letter to the Hebrews moves in this world of symbols. Indeed the author sees the crudities of the earlier liturgy fulfilled and transposed into a new and more perfect intelligible world.