Ambition and Death

You do not know what you are asking. (Mark 10:38)

Lord Jesus told James and John that they did not know what they were asking, when they requested thrones adjacent to His at the coming of the kingdom.

The two Apostles did not know what they were asking. Probably the greatest understatement ever. After all, as we confess in our Creed, Christ, risen from the dead, sits at the right hand of the Father. To sit at Christ’s left, then, would mean taking the place of the heavenly Father Himself. Even a zealous and holy Apostle cannot possibly do that.

But the Lord did not despise His friends’ request. He recognized their love for Him, the love that moved them to want to sit close. If it’s wrong to want to be close to Christ for all eternity, then we’re in big trouble.

participant trophyNo, the Lord did not despise James and John for their ill-informed request. Nor did Jesus pedantically point out that He had put St. Peter in charge, not them.

No, in responding to James and John, Jesus did not get into the matter of hierarchy at all. Rather, He said: Yes, you will share my baptism and drink my chalice.

The Church has her hierarchy, just as the world has hers. We all have our particular lot in life. Envying someone else’s position never really did anyone any good. But, by the same token, ambition for success is hardly a sin in and of itself. Like the football dad in the Kia ad who changes his son’s trophy to ‘champs’ instead of ‘participant,’ because the boy’s team won every game. “Are we gonna end football games with hugs? No. No. No.”

It’s no sin in and of itself to have ambition. It’s no sin in and of itself to want to compete. But the Lord has provided a great leveler, when it comes to success in this world. Almighty God drives a kind of existential bulldozer, which always moves towards us, drawing closer with every passing day. Someday this great leveling bulldozer will knock down all the hierarchies of this world. Right now, the angels see the heavenly hierarchy; they can see the holiness of people’s souls. Someday the hierarchy of holiness will be the only pecking order left, because the great bulldozer will have plowed us all into the grave.

One of Christ’s shortest parables: A man grew rich and planned to expand his barns to hold all his vast treasure. That night, he died. And the Lord had only two words for the smug, successful entrepreneur, who had been on top of the world: “You fool.”

Even after Jesus told James and John that they would share His baptism and drink His chalice, the brothers still did not fully grasp what the Teacher meant. After all, the Jewish rituals of that period involved a lot of ‘baptisms’–ritual cleansings prior to religious observances. And the Passover Seder involved the drinking of multiple ceremonial chalices.

speed bump reaperJames and John did not grasp that Christ’s “Baptism” was not a ritual ablution. The Lord meant His entire Paschal Mystery. Christ’s ‘chalice’ was the shedding of His Blood during His bitter Passion and death.

To try to understand what Jesus meant when He said that James and John would indeed share His baptism and His chalice, we ourselves have to grasp that the word “Passover” does not fundamentally mean a ritual meal involving unleavened bread. No. The word “Passover” means: Christ passing over from mortal life to immortal glory. The true Passover is made through the door of death. None of our self-importance in this world ever fits through that door.

“You do not know what you are asking.” Quite the understatement, because: We do not know the glory that has been prepared for us. We do not know the joy and peace that even the lowest place in heaven affords. We do not know what resting for good really means–what it means to cease from striving, from struggling, from competing. We do not know what it means simply to flower fully forever. Heaven lies beyond our knowledge.

But not completely. Because Jesus has revealed heaven to us. We cannot see heaven from the inside, so to speak, but we can see it from the outside. Because Christ’s Sacred Heart is full of heaven. In Christ, we see what heaven does to the human soul. The Lord’s Jesus’ heavenly interior life made Him mild, humble, ready to serve. It made Him love others. It moved Him to give His life for the ones He loves.

It’s not that Christ didn’t fight during His pilgrim life; it’s not that He had no ambition. To the contrary, at crucial moments in His journey, we see His stern determination. He just doesn’t fight for low stakes. He doesn’t fight for the silly trophies of this world.

No. Christ’s ambition always was and always will be: life, eternal life. He has fought not for earthly glory, but for the everlasting glory of God. Let’s strive for a share in that glory. We can leave it up to our heavenly Father where exactly we ought to sit.

Want a Seat? Stand. (Also, turn on the tv)

Most exciting sporting day of the year, my friends.

Why do you tarry here? You should be watching ESPN.

(I do not approve of playing hooky for the ridiculous NCAA tournament. But for the Big East tournament? Um…)

…I don’t see how we can find fault with Mrs. Zebedee. When the Lord originally summoned her sons to go with Him, she let them go. They left home, and no one knew if they would ever come back again.

When the mother came to Christ, she approached Him with admirable faith. She acknowledged that He would reign one day as king.

What loving mother doesn’t want her children to succeed? What Christian mother doesn’t want her children to succeed in getting to heaven? May they reign with You, O Christ. May they be close to You, closer than anyone else.

What mother doesn’t go to the Lord every day and make this very request for her beloved children?

What kind of priest would I be if I didn’t pray every day that all of you would be on Christ’s right hand in the kingdom of heaven—with all my dear parishioners who don’t know how to turn on a computer on His left hand?

But the Lord laid down a condition. Be baptized with the baptism with which I will be baptized. Drink the chalice I must drink. Submit to the will of the Father. You want to get to heaven? Don’t worry about where you will sit when you get there. You will sit where the Father wants you to sit.

Don’t worry about when or where you will sit at all. Worry about where the people who spend all day on their feet will sit. Offer your favorite chair. Stand up and wait on someone who spends the day waiting on other people.

Just stand up and take care of everyone in sight. The Father will let you know when to sit down.

The Ambition of James and John

As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the Twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” He replied, “My chalice you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:17-28)

I think the most remarkable thing about this famous exchange is the gentle way in which the Lord deals with the whole situation.

We know that James and John were as close to Christ as any of the Apostles were. Along with St. Peter, James and John accompanied the Lord up Mt. Tabor, as we read on Sunday. And, as we will read in a few short weeks, these three accompanied Christ into the Garden of Gethsemane. And, of course, it was St. John, alone among the Apostles, who stood with our Lady at the foot of Christ’s cross.

We can assume from all this that the desire which James and John had to sit beside Jesus in His kingdom was not crass ambition. James and John were not worldly men. They had heard their Master declare that He was going to assume His throne by way of a cruel and ignominious death. When Christ asked them if they were prepared to drink from the same chalice, they proclaimed that they were ready to do so. We have no reason to doubt that they meant it.

So I think what we have in this episode is not so much the jockeying of advantage-seekers as it is the craving of genuine love. James and John loved their Master; they wanted to be close to Him always. Christ recognized the love that motivated their ambition.

When the other Apostles became understandably angry that James and John were seeking preferment, we see not just the sons of Zebedee, but the whole lot of the Twelve, in a state of confusion. The Lord Jesus had to calm them all down and set them all straight.

The truth is, it is perfectly natural for us to want to be preferred by those whom we admire. The more we look up to someone, the closer we want to be, and the more we long to be special in his or her eyes.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be at the right hand of Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary: It is the best thing for anyone to want.

What Christ teaches His Apostles is not to want something other than this. Rather, what He teaches us is how we can actually get what we want.

“Your places have been prepared for you by My Father, just like My place has been prepared. You long to sit at My right hand; I long to sit at My Father’s right hand. How will I take my place there? By hanging on the cross.”

Introduction to John 6

Like all the chapters of all the gospels, the sixth chapter of John proclaims that the Messiah has come, and it is Jesus.

Moses
Moses

It will help us to understand this chapter if we recall some of the great deeds the Lord did through His prophet Moses in ancient times. Through Moses, the Lord taught His people a lot about how to hope for the Messiah—about how to hope for freedom and salvation.

Let us recall the Exodus of the Israelites. By the power of God, Moses brought plagues upon the Egyptian slave-masters. Then he parted the Red Sea and led the people across it. Later, Moses turned the desert rock into a spring of water.

Moses also demonstrated the power of God when he brought the Law down from Mt. Sinai and then consecrated the people in a covenant of obedience to it.

Continue reading “Introduction to John 6”

Words of St. John the Baptist

st-john-baptist-grecoThe mission of St. John the Baptist is to call us to repent of our sins so that we will be ready to welcome Christ.

This is what St. John said, as recorded in the New Testament:

Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matthew 3:2-3)

Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, and do not presume to tell yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:8-10/Luke 3:7-9)

To King Herod: It is against the law for you to have your brother’s wife. (Matthew 14:4, Luke 6:18)

Continue reading “Words of St. John the Baptist”