The readings touch on the most profound mysteries of Christianity: why do the innocent suffer, why must the followers of Jesus deny themselves and take up their crosses? The first reading presents the third of the four servant songs (see Is. 42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12), which expresses the motif of the suffering just person who is foolish by human standards, but who is accepted by God (Job; Wis. 2:12-24). The Gospel comes at a watershed in Mark, when Jesus begins his way to Jerusalem and to his cross (8:27-10:45). Mark has artfully composed this section by bracketing it with two narratives about the healing of blind people. In the first (8:22-26) the blind man recovers his sight gradually, while in the second (10:46-52) the healed Bartimaeus jumps up and follows Jesus on the way. This whole section is structured around three declarations of Jesus that he must suffer and die, followed by three misunderstandings on the part of the disciples, which evoke further teaching on discipleship. The stories of the blind people are symbolic of the gradual growth in understanding that is to lead to following Jesus on the way of the cross.
The Gospel today contains two sections, the messianic confession of Peter and the prediction of the Passion followed by misunderstanding and teaching. Jesus begins by asking, Who do people say that I am, and the disciples offer various common opinions. He then goes on to ask, But who do you say that I am? Peter, the first disciple called, immediately responds, You are the Messiah, that is, God’s anointed bearer of salvation. This evokes from Jesus a strong command not to tell anyone. Mark follows immediately with the Passion prediction, foretelling that the Son of Man, a powerful figure in the first part of the Gospel (2:10, 28) must be rejected, suffer, die and rise again. Peter then takes him aside and begins to reprimand him (the verb used earlier when Jesus silences demons, 3:12, or calms the raging sea, 4:39). With consummate irony, Mark then notes that Jesus reprimanded Peter in turn (the same verb) and called Peter Satan. Peter’s failure is that you are thinking not as God does but as humans do.
The following verses provide God’s thoughts on suffering, couched in the universalized form, whoever wants to be my disciple. These hard sayingson denying one’s very self, taking up the cross and losing one’s life if one wants to save itare a challenge not simply to the called disciples, but to anyone who wants to follow Jesus on the way. Since Mark was written within vivid memory of both the horrors of the Jewish war against Rome and the persecution under Nero, when Christians were used as torches to light Nero’s garden, such predictions were tragically fulfilled in the community, but with the hope that such loss was paradoxically saving one’s life by being joined with the risen Son of Man.
These readings offer rich and sober material for reflection. The pointed question of Jesus, Who do you say that I am? cuts to the heart of Christianity. Amid the welter of contemporary opinions, each person must answer this question, and not simply once, but amid the changing currents and circumstances of life. Especially shocking is Peter’s failure, culminating in his virtual apostasy in 14:71, when, after being with Jesus almost every moment of his public life, he states, I do not know this man about whom you are talking. Such a picture of Peter may have been especially consoling to the Roman community, which experienced apostasy and betrayal during Nero’s persecution yet knew that Peter died a faithful disciple. It also provided strong motivation for reconciliation with the betrayers in the community, and can do so today in those manifold situations where peace and reconciliation must follow appalling internal wars and slaughter. The call to take up one’s cross has served as the clarion call for martyrdom, as Pope John Paul II pointed out on May 7 in the Roman Colosseum at an ecumenical ceremony honoring thousands of martyrs: Where hatred seemed to corrupt the whole of life, leaving no escape from its logic, they proved that love is stronger than death,’ and proclaimed their loyalty to Christ crucified and risen.
While voluntary martyrdom has been the glory of Christianity, it is difficult to think of the unwanted suffering of the innocent as willed by a loving God. The Jesus who predicts his resurrection must be paired with Jesus, racked with fear, who prays that his Father take away the cup and who dies with a cry of abandonment. Jesus speaks of taking one’s cross, not of imposing it on others. Nor is suffering a punishment for sin or a sign of self-neglect. God did not spare his beloved Son pain and death. Pastorally, when confronted by shocking suffering, people often cannot hear the word of the cross; hopefully, they may come to realize that they do not suffer alone. Christianity does not solve the mystery of why people suffer, but offers guidance on how cross-bearing can take place. Even Jesus ended his life with another helping him to carry his cross (Mk. 15:21).