Today’s reading indicates a turning point in Mark’s gospel. For some time now, the disciples have been faithfully following Jesus as an extraordinary preacher and a powerful healer. Although they do not yet know him fully, they have an inkling that he must be more than just a great prophet. At the calming of the storm in the lake, they are awestruck and ask each other, “Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him.”
When Jesus asks his disciples at Caesarea Philippi who they say he is (after hearing what others say of him), Peter replies in their name, “You are the Christ (Messiah).” This is the moment of truth for the disciples, a moment of clarification about their hesitant guesses, and a moment of confirmation of their long suspicion that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. With Jesus’ approval of Peter’s answer, they are now certain of Jesus’ identity.
However, immediately after Peter’s confession, Jesus tells the disciples not to reveal his identity to anyone. Why? Because although Peter’s answer is correct, it is incomplete. They do not understand its implication. Yes, he is the Messiah, but not the kind they expect, who will be served and honored, but one who is “to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45)
Like the rest of Israel, the disciples’ dream of a political Messiah, who will liberate them from Roman occupation and triumphantly re-establish the Davidic kingdom. Jesus tells them, however, 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.”
This has been foretold by the prophets from of old. In the first reading, Isaiah tells of God’s promise to send a servant who will bring justice and salvation to all the nations. However, in contrast to the popular image of a mighty deliverer, the Messiah God will send is a Suffering Servant, despised, rejected and without power. “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” And he takes upon himself the punishment that is due to the world.
It is no surprise then that Peter vehemently reacts and persuades Jesus not to proceed to Jerusalem. In turn, Jesus rebukes Peter by saying that he is “thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Truly, how inscrutable are the thoughts of God, and how different his ways. St. Paul speaks of the foolishness and the scandal of the cross, which is in fact is the wisdom and power of God that brings salvation. It is by taking the road to death that Jesus becomes the victor of life and whoever wishes to be associated with him must go the same way.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Here we enter into the heart and essence of discipleship. The way of discipleship is the way of the cross.
Indeed, the call to discipleship is daunting. But come to think of it, the way of the cross is the only way to life. In fact, it is the law of life. Nothing is achieved without sacrifice. No pain, no gain. No cross, no crown. Man’s greatest act and deepest joy is to love. To love is to give oneself (self-denial) as a gift. It seeks the good of the beloved even at the expense of the lover. Hence, “greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13)
With Christ, the cross becomes an instrument of salvation. Without Christ, the cross is simply an instrument of torture and death. That is why Jesus asks us not only to take up our cross and follow him. He invites us to take on his own yoke (cross), so we can find rest in him. (Mt 11:29) He invites us to unite our suffering to his, so we can bear it with his strength.
Most of all, the cross allows us to experience God’s intimate and personal love. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “At times you come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you. Suffering, pain, humiliation — this is the kiss of Jesus.”*