Today’s second reading conjures up the great I6 century debate between reformers and the Catholic church. Following Paul, the reformers contended that salvation comes from faith; quoting James, the church argued it comes from works. Historically, the debate ended shortly after Vatican II when members of a joint Lutheran/Catholic dialogue concluded both elements are necessary for salvation. Today’s other two readings presume such a combination.
Reflecting on his prophetic ministry, Deutero-Isaiah begins his third Song of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh with the Bible’s best definition of a true disciple: “Yahweh God opens my ear that I may hear. . . .“ God’s followers don’t memorize; they listen. “Each morning,” the prophet tells us, “Yahweh wakes me to hear.” A person of faith is a listening person. If one isn’t conscious of the voices of those in need, one doesn’t even know a need exists, much less know how to face it.
Mark’s Jesus couldn’t agree more. Today’s pericope is the first of three predictions of his passion, death and resurrection. After each prediction Mark provides us with the same sequence. First, someone either says or does something which shows they have no idea of what it means to die with Jesus. Then Jesus clarifies what dying with him actually entails.
In this narrative, Peter has the privilege of being the first disciple to “screw up the works.” He insists Jesus not speak about death and suffering. It’s not the way to attract converts to his cause. The Rock certainly merits Jesus’” Get behind me, Satan!” remark. The Greek word for disciple is literally translated as a “go behinder.” Peter has unwittingly changed places with Jesus. He’s assuming an in your face position. As the title implies, disciples are expected to follow behind their leaders, not stand in front of them.
Jesus now clarifies what dying with him means. “Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Scholars agree the historical Jesus didn’t originally employ the word “cross” in this situation. It wouldn’t have meant the same before his death and resurrection as it did after those twin events. Prior to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, “carrying your cross” would have been parallel to carrying your electric chair, or your gallows.
Jesus probably said, “You must carry your “tau.” The tan - a T - is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. When people were committed to going all the way in doing something, they often said, “We’re going to do it to the tau.” People of faith employed this same idiom to show they were totally dedicated to following thru on whatever Yahweh asked of them. (St. Francis of Assisi often used the tau as an outward sign of his determination to imitate Jesus completely. That’s why it appears on many Franciscan coats of arms.)
It’s easy to see how cross eventually replaced tau in this Jesus saying. Tau was a common nickname for the instrument of capital punishment, and the cross certainly was part of Jesus’ commitment to God. But it conveys something much broader than just some single aggravation in our lives that we patiently endure in order to get into heaven.
In this first stage of dying, Jesus demands his followers be totally open to whatever God asks of them, no matter the consequences; the kind of daily openness Deutero-Isaiah refers to in our first reading. Those who have that kind of faith never have to choose between faith and actions. Their faith is rooted in a constant giving of themselves to God and others. We need only look at Deutero-lsaiah, Jesus, and Francis to surface that kind of faith in action.