Three times, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus prophesies his coming Passion, Death and Resurrection. In St. Mark’s Gospel these prophecies follow one another quite closely, in Chapters 8, 9 and 10. Like a recurring theme tune in a film, they punctuate the journey Jesus makes with his disciples, from gentile territory North of Galilee, down through Galilee itself, and finally on to Jerusalem. Jesus, and the Evangelist with him, insists on this point, because it’s the heart of our faith. Reading the Gospels, we learn many other things about Jesus. From them we know that Jesus was a wonderfully good man; that he was wise, kind and generous; that he called God his Father, with a familiarity no one had ever expressed before; that he had power over nature, and performed many miracles of healing and exorcism; that he was an outstanding religious and spiritual teacher. All that is true, and we need to know it. The essential message of the Gospel, though, is that Jesus died and rose again. As St. Paul puts it, he died for our sins, and rose again for our justification (Rm 4:25). It’s here, in the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, that we discern the meaning of our lives, and of the Universe we inhabit. From this we derive our dignity as redeemed children of God, and our destiny to eternal happiness with God in heaven. From this we draw our ability to forgive, to endure difficult things with patience, to pray, to love - in a way that exceeds natural human capacity. It’s here that we receive the definitive revelation of Divine Love. From this I know that God loves me; that God is love.
“But they did not understand what he said, and were afraid to ask him.”
That is, the disciples had rightly understood that Jesus is the Messiah; as we heard last week. They rightly understood that he had come to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, and that they would have a prominent share in that. They understood that in him, Israel’s destiny had found its fulfilment: that in him God’s plan of salvation had come to its completion. Already they were beginning to grasp the necessary implication, that this salvation must reach not just all Israel but all of humanity, and even all of Creation. And precisely because of that, they failed to see how Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour, could possibly be rejected by the official representatives of Judaism; how he could be given up to the gentiles, and brutally killed. Refusing to accept the death of Jesus, obviously they could not comprehend any talk of his resurrection from death. They were afraid to ask, because they could not bear to face what he said. Surely they were afraid also of causing Jesus possible further pain by probing its meaning.
So they got on, instead, with their dispute about which of them was the greatest.
The utter inappropriateness of that, especially in this context, is almost comic. When Jesus asked them what they had been talking about, they remained silent, like a lot of naughty schoolboys who have been caught red handed in some illicit prank.
And I think we can feel quite a lot of sympathy with them at this point, because we know so well our own weaknesses and inconsistencies; our capacity for wilful blindness, and the temptations we too have surely experienced, to avoid thinking through realities that make us uncomfortable, and to escape instead into silly fantasies and self promotion.
So he said to them: If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all. And he took a child, and set him before them.
According to an ancient tradition, the name of that child was Ignatius. He went on to become Bishop of Antioch. By his writings he remains a most important witness to the faith of the sub-Apostolic Church, and he died a martyr in the Roman Amphitheatre. St. Ignatius is an outstanding example too of one who truly understood the significance of Christ’s death. He rejoiced in the glory that is ours, if we should be privileged to suffer and die with him, and he boldly aspired to inherit the greatness we are promised, when we share in his resurrection!
Today’s Gospel ends with a comment by Jesus about welcoming little children in his name. Rather oddly, this doesn’t seem to fit its context very well. I wonder if you have ever noticed how the episode with children in the next Chapter also ends with a comment that is somewhat awkwardly placed; yet if we were to swap them, they would both fit perfectly?! In Mark Chapter 10, the disciples try to prevent children from coming to Jesus. Jesus responds by insisting: Anyone, who does not welcome the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it (10:15). That would follow on seamlessly from the comment from today’s Gospel passage about being the servant of all, because in Aramaic, and Greek, and plenty of other languages, the same word for servant or slave is used also for child. You have to make yourself, as it were, the lowest of all: and if you fail in that, you cannot enter the Kingdom.
Try now putting the saying with which today’s Gospel ends onto the episode of the disciples chasing children away from Jesus, and see how well it fits! Anyone who welcomes one of these little ones in my name, welcomes me. And anyone who welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.
We could be forgiven for thinking at this point that we have jumped from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of John. Jesus who is one with his Father has been sent to us by his Father. To be allowed to welcome him then must be an inconceivably great blessing. We do that of course in the Holy Eucharist, which is why we are here now; and we do indeed welcome in the Blessed Sacrament with love and joy and gratitude without end. But it would seem that a marvellous opportunity is to be given us soon to welcome Jesus in another and very concrete way. If we are able to give a home, or at least help to give a home to a family of refugees, to people who are powerless, who have nothing, who are innocent of any crime, and who turn to us for help, then we stand to receive ourselves a very great blessing. In them, if it is given us to receive them, we can welcome Jesus himself; and in Jesus, we welcome into our lives and our hearts God who is the Father of all mercies (2 Cor 1:3).