Today’s Sunday scripture readings open with a passage from the prophet Isaiah, in which the prophet speaks of his fidelity to the Lord even in very difficult times, and of the way in which the Lord provided refuge for him in this time of testing. We read, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced” (Isa 50:6-7).
This part of Isaiah’s prophecy is one of the four so-called “servant songs” contained in chapters 42 through 53 of this lengthy book. The servant songs can be read in a number of ways, but in Christian interpretation they have often been considered anticipations of the suffering of God’s messiah—Jesus Christ. Isaiah reminds us that the redemption which the “suffering servant” brought about would be established precisely through the suffering he freely accepted on behalf of his people.
Christ gave himself over for us in an act of love that every parent recognizes when they look at their children, every wife or husband understands when they think fondly of their spouse, and every true friend imitates when he or she makes a sacrifice for their alter ego. Christ’s act of self-giving goes beyond our human inklings and attempts however, and reaches its perfection in his free acceptance even of death for the sake of our salvation.
The same point is at work behind the scenes in today’s reading from the Epistle of James. This great leader of the early Church writes “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (James 2:14). James is telling us that if we truly believe in Jesus then our faith in him will naturally be followed by acts of self-giving love in imitation of him: these are the “works” of which James speaks. The self-giving witnessed in these works of Christian charity does not effect our salvation, but rather is an authentic sign of our faith in Christ and the redemption he accomplished through his perfect self-giving.
To bring this self-giving in imitation of Christ to its perfection means to be willing to suffer, and to do so, if necessary, on behalf of others. To be most like Jesus, to be his most faithful disciple, thus means to share in his resurrection and new life through a sharing in his cross. Our contemporary society firmly rejects this as the naiveté of religious belief, but then again the society of our Lord’s own day did the same, as Saint Paul witnesses: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…. we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:18, 23-24).
In today’s gospel Jesus asks his followers “Who do people say that I am?” and then gives the first prediction of his passion and death, the ultimate example of self-giving love. Let it be our prayer that we may always “say” that he is the Lord and messiah who redeems us through his freely accepted suffering on our behalf, and may always find strength in his words: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.