Father Donald Senior, CP

Sept. 16: 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

One for the many

Is 50:5-9a; Ps 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; Jas 2:14-18; Mk 8:27-35

There is always something of a time warp when I prepare these reflections, because what is happening in the world around me when I write this might be old news when the column is in print.

Today, for example, I have been watching the very moving memorial service for Sen. John McCain in the Washington National Cathedral. As everyone is aware, there are several subtexts involved in this event, but one common thread was the eloquent appreciation for Sen. McCain’s sacrifice on behalf of his country.

He spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and was tortured and isolated. That spirit of courage and sacrifice was not momentary but accompanied him throughout his life, including his final bout with cancer.

The spirit of today’s readings for this Sunday also emphasizes sacrifice, a notion that is at the heart of our Christian faith, yet one that is important to understand properly. The notion of one person sacrificing his or her life for the sake of others is found not only in Jewish and Christian tradition but was something that the wider Greco-Roman world also prized. 

The warrior or leader willing to sacrifice his life for his people was considered a hero — the one for the many. Scholars debate the precise identity of the person spoken of in the reading from Isaiah, one sometimes called the “suffering servant,” who in this passage and in other places in Isaiah is willing to endure suffering on behalf of the people.

Clearly Jesus is portrayed as the embodiment of this sacrificial spirit throughout the New Testament and certainly so in the Gospel selection today from Mark. In a climactic moment, Jesus asks his disciples the key question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter acclaims: “You are the Christ.” Jesus is the “anointed one,” the royal figure who will liberate Israel from its oppressors.

But Jesus immediately begins to speak of his suffering and death — the sacrifice of his life that will ultimately bring redemption to God’s people. Peter balks at this and Jesus strongly confronts him: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Jesus sacrifices his life, facing even terrible death on the cross, not because of some divine edict or morbid sense of self-immolation. Jesus is willing to face death because he is committed to his mission of healing, his compassion for the poor, his willingness to be in solidarity with those pushed to the margins, his courage in telling the truth and confronting the deadly attitudes of his opponents. 

This giving of life in so many ways defines what sacrifice means for Jesus. In his ultimate triumph over death, in his solidarity with all of us who struggle, Jesus, truly human and truly divine, offers us the power and the path to experiencing true life.

Thoughtful Christians today warn us of a false and toxic notion of sacrifice, such as when someone who is being abused is told to “offer it up” and remain silent. Or when someone who is oppressed and exploited, is told he or she should be willing to be “sacrificial” and uncomplaining, to not stand up for his or her rights. These are false notions of sacrifice.

As those who honored Sen. McCain understood, true sacrifice is done out of love and devotion, a willingness to put one’s life at the service of something greater than ourselves. This is the Gospel notion of sacrifice as well.

There are hosts of Christians who make these kind of life-giving sacrifices everyday; parents on behalf of their children, laborers pouring out their energy for the sake of their families; police and firefighters and other first responders for the sake of the common good, or for those in desperate need of protection; and, yes, priests, religious and lay ministers who are true to Christ’s example and are faithful in their service to God’s people.

At the heart of authentic sacrifice is the paradoxical wisdom of Christ that concludes our reading today: “Whoever wishes to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it.”


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