Along the way, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" They said in reply, "John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets." And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" (Mk 8:27-29)
I have my work cut out for me this morning. I want to connect today's Gospel with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 that we observed yesterday, this year's Marist Way theme: "Living our Faith in Simplicity and Humility, and the titular feast day of the Society of Mary, The Holy Name of Mary, that occurs today, September 12. Of course, all of this needs to take place in under 10 minutes. I am up for the challenge though you have the greater challenge of staying with me and not getting lost as I attempt to guide your thinking through this spiritual maze.
With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 as a backdrop, I want to reference a book, A Rabbi Speaks to Jesus, written by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus, respects and referenced in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. Rabbi Kushner imagines himself sitting in the crowd as a first-century Jew and listening to Jesus. There is much about what Jesus says that Rabbi Kushner can affirm. Yet, he is frank about where he disagrees with Jesus. He rejects Jesus' claims to be divine and the long-awaited Messiah. Rabbi Kushner lays out his arguments as to why both claims would be unacceptable to a pious Jew then and today.
Rabbi Kushner addresses the expectation that the Messiah would bring universal peace and well-being. He was to usher in an age of righteousness. Rabbi Kushner and many others argue that Jesus brought neither universal peace nor an age of righteousness. Consequently, Jesus cannot be the Messiah and is certainly not divine.
Rabbi Kushner offers a very contemporary response to Jesus' question to his disciples in today's Gospel, "Who do people say that I am?" The disciples answer with what they have been hearing. "Some say, John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets." Jesus was an enigma then as he is today.
With the others not wanting to risk giving the wrong answer, our students know that feeling; Peter steps forward and says, "You are the Christ." In Matthew's Gospel, Peter is even more forthcoming, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."… (Mt 16: 16) Here Peter is not only speaking on behalf of those disciples with him. He is also speaking for the Church in asserting Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and the Son of God. We ratify Peter's response with that of our own when we stand, for the entire world to see and recite the Nicene Creed.
Seemingly giving more ammunition to his critics who were convinced he is either a false prophet or out of his mind, Jesus says, "…that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days." Then Jesus makes carrying our cross in imitation of him a requirement for being his disciple. That is not what people wanted to hear then and is not what people want to hear today. Jesus remains the Messiah and Savior, but on his terms and not ours. However, we still need to address the question of how Jesus can be the Messiah and savior without ushering in an age of righteousness.
What happened when Jesus died on the cross? Jesus took on all the sins of the world. He experienced hatred, injustice, slander, betrayal, meanness, and violence. He absorbed the worst we human beings do to each other and did not respond in kind. It stopped with him. Now, you may say, so what, since Jesus still died on the cross. Yes, he did, but he also rose from the dead. Remember, Jesus came to battle Satan, the ruler of this world. By absorbing sin and death, Jesus disarmed the ruler of this world by showing that sin and death, the devil's two primary weapons, were now powerless. Jesus did what we human beings were powerless to do: save ourselves from sin and death that had us in its grip. You may ask why is there so much sin and death in the world?
Here is where I look to Mary to help answer that question. Today, September 12, the Church would ordinarily celebrate the Holy Name of Mary were it not because this year it falls on a Sunday. This is the titular feast day of the Society of Mary whose name we Marists have been chosen to bear by a gracious choice of hers. The Church regards the mother of Jesus as being his first disciple and model of what it looks like to carry our cross daily.
What does that look like? Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, in his reflection, "Mary under the Cross,"[i]
comments that the next important person in the Gospels to watch, after Jesus, is Mary. She is the model of discipleship because she gets it right. Moreover, he says, "she gets it right under the cross."
He reflects on the significance of her standing as opposed to lying prostrate. "Prostration, in this situation, is weakness, 'standing" is the opposite, a position of strength." He goes on to say, "While standing at the foot of the cross, Mary could not stop what was happening. But she could stop some of the hatred, bitterness, jealousy, heartlessness, and anger that caused it. While it is important to throw ourselves in the face of injustice and to try to prevent it, the reality is that there will be times when darkness will have its hour, and all we can do is stand under the cross. Mary helped stop the bitterness by refusing to give it back in kind, by transforming it rather than transmitting it, by swallowing hard and (literally) eating bitterness rather than giving it back…."
That is what righteousness looks like when it becomes incarnate in a fallen and sinful world that is slowly but surely losing its grip though not without a fight. Marists see themselves engaged in this mopping up action and fighting the Lord's battles under the banner of Mary. To engage in that fight, believing that ultimate victory is assured, is to think, judge, feel, and act like Mary, whose name she has graciously chosen Marist religious and laity to bear.
We are faithful to the name Marist, whether as a religious, layperson, or school when we stand under the shadow of Christ's cross in which our crosses participate and do so in the spirit of Mary that I just described. Often it will mean doing little things with great love when doing them brings us nothing but hardship, misunderstanding, ingratitude, rejection, along with any of the other sins that put Jesus on the cross. It might mean resigning ourselves to when darkness will have its hour, nevertheless standing in defiance. We can do this because Jesus rose from the dead. We can do this because Jesus promised not to leave us orphans. We can do this because the risen Christ will come again in power and glory. Then our deepest longing that Jesus made his own will finally be fulfilled, and we can shout in triumph, "Thy will IS done on earth as it is in heaven."
For now, we must be content with those little victories of righteousness that hint at what is to come but on a grander scale. The Church unites with people of goodwill everywhere. The Peace Pole in Alumni Plaza reminds us that the Church stands in solidarity with all the peoples of the world who, too, cry out for peace and justice in languages we do not understand but whose plight we surely do. We unite with them to form a resistance movement that waits for the Messiah and Savior of the world to come again. Until then, we do not retreat or cower in response to the trials and tribulations of this world. No, we are on the march, and not even the gates of hell shall prevail against us. We advance God's kingdom inch by inch with every kind word and good deed, no matter how simple or humble, including standing defiant when darkness will have its hour.
We also stand with St. Peter, who, in response to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am," replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."