TWELFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – Zec 12:10f. Gal 3:26-29 Lk9:18-24
Life through Death . Quality of Life through Christianity’s Paradoxes.
A paradox is a statement that is inherently contradictory or seems opposed to common sense and yet is true in fact – for example, “mobilizing for peace”, or “all of us have a perennial longing to be what we are not.” There is paradox all round us. For example, common sense tells us that the earth is flat, but in fact it is round; that the sun goes round the earth, whereas in fact it is the opposite; that if you fire a bullet from a revolver at the same time as you let another bullet fall, the latter will hit the ground before the former, whereas in fat both will reach it at the same time.
Jesus used paradoxes often. Today’s Gospel is full of paradox. Let us consider the scene. Jesus and his Apostles were in the north, outside their own territory, near the town of Caesarea Philippi, named “Caesarea” in honour of the Emperor, and “Philippi” n honour of the sycophant tetrarch Philippi who built it, to distinguish it from the many other towns and cities dedicated to Caesar. In this pagan area there were no crowds around Jesus. And Jesus was feeling very deeply the rejection of his own people. He prayed, as he had done before when he had faced important events such as the selection of the twelve.
Needing a feel for his identity, he first asked his followers, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” If the crowd’s answers were wrong, then despite his popularity at such times as the multiplication of the loves answers were correct, he would have at least a glimmer of hope and could go further in his teachings. All of their answers – that he was John the Baptist, or Elijah, or some other prophet – had overtones of the “Conquering King” concept of the Messiah. So he would have to turn their ideas upside down. Somehow, he would have to get across the paradoxical connection between the Messiah and the cross.
Timorously now, he approached an even more important question: “But who do you say that I am?” These men were his closest trainees – more, his closest friends. More was hanging on their answer than on the crowd’s. For Peter, Jesus was the realization and concretization of all Israel’s hopes. So, in the impulsive way that was his custom, he answered that Jesus was the Messiah of God. Jesus was relieved. Now he could tell them what God expected of them and of him, what sort of death was reserved for him, what glory would be his, and what demands would be made of his followers. He could refer to such First Testament prophecies of his suffering as the third-century B.C. collection known as “Zechariah” in today’s First Reading and, if they all believed what Peter had said, they wouldn’t be scandalized.
Again the paradoxes – Jesus’ life and their lives, judged perhaps failures by other stands, by God’s standards were a success; and, because of the false current notions of Messiahship and the danger of further unnecessary misunderstandings, he still had to forbid their telling anyone of his being the Messiah.
Referring to himself in the words “Son of Man” from the Book of Daniel – an assertion of divine authority – Jesus spoke of the sufferings which he must endure. It is interesting to see in St Luke’s Gospel the times when Jesus used this word must: when, as a child, his parents were looking for him in Jerusalem, he said, “I must be in my Father’s house”; when his ministry in Galilee was so successful that the people tried to keep him from leaving them, he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns”; when threatened by Herod and the Pharisees in Jerusalem, he answered, “I must continue on my way”; and over and over he mentioned that he must go to his cress. And now, he must suffer greatly, be rejected, and be killed (v. 22).
Jesus’ next words have no “must” about them: “If anyone wishes to come after me… whoever wished to save his life.” They are an invitation – an invitation to the three elements that constitute the essence of being Christian, denying oneself, carting one’s cross, and following. To be baptized into Christ, in the words of St Paul in today’s excerpt from his letter to the Galatians, means adopting Jesus’ attitude. To be Christian has as many implications as the titles we use in other areas of everyday life. When we use “Mr. and Mrs.”, for example, or “boss”, or “brother/ sister”, each of these titles conjures up relationships and obligations. So does the title “Christian”.
But we are free. Only a few people contemplate the observation of the philosopher (Kierkegaard) that “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” For many, life is mindless; “saving” life comes from no deeper a level than trying to acquire all the comforts possible, and they prefer the manipulative logic of the TV commercial to Christ’s honest laying out the cost as well as the invitation. But, in truth, the consequence of accepting Jesus’ invitation is to pay the price in daily instalments, to wholeheartedly take up one’s cross each day – remembering, though, that it is God Who leads, and He asks us but to follow.
The greatest paradox of all is the last line of today’s Gospel, that whoever clings to life will lose it, and whoever lets go of his life for Jesus’ sake will save it. Yet people in a society that’s trying to be smokeless, low-fat, and caffeine-free seem to be attempting to save their lives all the time.
But – again paradoxically – saying is also good psychology. If we examine the varieties of meanings for the word “life” – from ordinary bodily life to eternal life in the kingdom of God – we see that, unless we live this life to eternal life in the kingdom of God – we see that, unless we live this life without seeking personal advantage, we never find true happiness. People who are always letting go of their life are like the lake of Galilee, which is constantly giving forth the water it receives – so its waters are fresh, wholesome, useful, and needed. People who are always clinging to their life are like the Dead Sea which, waters become stale, useless, and unattractive – a salty waste. It is through today’s paradoxes of Christianity that we find our freedom, joy, and fulfillment.
Now, Jesus asks the important question, “Who do you say that I am?” of every one of us. Our answer has to be a deeply-felt personal one. It can’t come solely from the Pope, or the Church, or anyone else. To be meaningful, it must come also from ourselves. And there is something wrong if our answer is the equivalent of saying that Jesus is something remote and strange, like an android; or only powerful, like Rambo; or, worse, a wimp.
Even though every age, every culture, and every person has been presented with the same question about Jesus’ identity, the answers have been as diverse as the cultures from which they arouse. For the early Greek Christians, Christ could best be understood in terms of the logos, the divine Word, the principle of wisdom, perfection, and harmony in the cosmos. For the first Jewish Christians, Jesus was the sacrificial paschal lamb, the reconciler, and the fulfillment of the Law.
For a feudal society, the notion of Christ was based on the idea of ransoming. Christ was the one who paid the price for salvation and ransomed us from the evil one. For the reformers during the beginning of commerce, Christ was tied in with justification. He was the one who satisfied the “debt” owed to the Father. For the neo- Scholastic philosophers, Christ was the king who ruled the universe and in whose total spiritual sovereignty the Church shared. For some in the early twentieth century, influenced by discoveries in new sciences especially psychology, sociology, and anthropology, Christ became the purpose and goal of the evolutionary process, the Omega Point.
Today, different scholars sketch the historical Jesus variously as a political rebel, an ancient magician, a maverick Pharisee, a thoroughly Jewish prophet announcing that God was about to restore Israel, or a Hellenistic gadfly with no mission beyond questioning the world’s conventions. For many of the well-fed and well-off, Christ has taken the form of a palliative, satisfying the hungry spirits of a sated consumer society; in this perspective, Christ satisfies people’s search for meaning and provides a remedy for the nothingness and despair of existence.
For those beset by fears of nuclear holocaust or a polluted earth, Christ becomes a principle of hope. In Latin America, where Christ had been traditionally the guarantor of law and order, liberation theology now sees him as the liberator for the masses – like his Father, setting the captive free, feeding the hungry, and sending the rich away empty.
Still others seem to find justification in the New Testament for their own personal views of Jesus’ identity. Aware of this, the Church, as a guardian of the deposit of faith, has over the centuries sought to define a minimal core that all Catholics must accept. Most often these ecclesiastical pronouncements have sought to declare what was “out of bounds”, rather than to settle arguments between opposing schools or individuals when both sides maintain these “core” beliefs.
The upshot of it all is that we must stress the primacy of the Christ of faith over the historical Jesus. It is only the Christ of faith whom we encounter in prayer, preaching, and the sacraments, who reveals the Father to us and enables us to journey to the heavenly father through the process of continual conversion.
May we realize Jesus’ full identity, use our freedom to follow him on his terms and, like him – paradoxically – grow to find life through death!