Thirty-seventh in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Zechariah 12:10-11, 13:1; Galatians 3:26-29; Luke 9:18-24
The comedian Lewis Black once remarked on the seeming craziness of Boston weather when he described experiencing thundersnow for the first time. “[T]there was thunder, lightning and snow – together! …[W]hen you’re lying in bed, and you hear thunder outside, and you get up to look, you have an expectation – and it’s not snow, with lightning behind it. That’s not right. They don’t even write about that kind of weather in the Bible!” True enough, that particular sort of weather pattern does not occur in either Testament. However, our salvation history – of which the Bible is our record – is filled with occasion after occasion of expectations defied. Our readings today, in fact, are a great reminder that faith in God’s word goes hand-in-hand with the defiance of our human expectations.
Our First Reading, written in the time after the exile when Judea was still rebuilding itself, speaks of a time when God will bestow on His people “a spirit of grace and petition,” and will open up “fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness” during a time of great mourning. The mourning would be as great as the ritual solemn mourning rites that would take place in the north. And the cause of all this mourning? The nations surrounding Judea actively seeking its destruction “shall look upon him whom they have pierced.” At the sight of the wounded Israel, it seems, there would be some sort of terrible recognition of what they have done, which would prompt God to open up his cleansing fountain to purify the leadership of Israel for the future. Christians believe that this prophecy was fulfilled in the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the One Who is both Israel and Israel’s God. In fact, the very line “they shall look upon him whom they have pierced” was said in John’s Gospel to be fulfilled when the Roman soldier thrust his lance into the dead Christ’s side, allowing the “fountain” of blood and water – the symbol of the Divine Mercy – to flow forth freely.
But our Gospel reading today does not take us to that moment. Instead it takes us back to the moment when the disciples first realized Who Jesus was and what exactly He was meant to do, and just how counter to their expectations it ran. The people regarded Jesus as everything from just another prophet to the next Elijah, sometimes conflating him with his cousin John the Baptist. But when Jesus asks His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” and Peter gives his answer – “The Christ of God” – Jesus does two unexpected things. First, He immediately shuts them up; He orders them not to tell anyone that He is the Christ. Second, He tells them that He has to suffer, be rejected, and die, and that anyone who wishes to follow Him needs to be ready to do the same. These two things confused His disciples so greatly that in another Gospel account of the same story Peter, who has just acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, openly rebukes Jesus for talking about Himself like this. He can’t understand it. None of them can. He’s supposed to reverse Israel’s suffering, not fall victim to it!
This counter-intuitive idea of the sharing of suffering, of which the God-Man is the model for us, is where trust has to come in. Faith takes us where the intellect dares not go. Saint Paul knew this when he wrote to his beloved yet stupid Galatians (yes, he called them stupid, we’ve been over this) that “[t]hrough faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.” When we received the spirit of adoption through our baptism and entered into this larger world where every human being can be a real brother or sister of the Son of God, no experience of our lives became a moment that was not shared. When we “look upon him whom they have pierced,” we don’t do it from the outside; we see the body of our Brother, and we feel His pain because it’s our pain up there too. When we “take up [our] cross daily and follow [Him],” we do it with the help of Someone Who’s already done it once – and for all – and so knows how to help us do it. “[Y]ou are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, because that fountain that purifies “from sin and uncleanness,” that fountain which flowed forth from the pierced body of Jesus, didn’t simply restore the house of David; it gave birth to the Church, the body of the brothers and sisters of the eternal and perfect Son of David, Who rules over a kingdom with no more boundaries.
“[I]f you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s children, heirs according to the promise.” When this promise was first made – a promise of descendants as countless as the stars of the sky – and when it was reiterated by both priests and revolutionaries at the time of Jesus, for this too there was an expectation. And it was not mutual fraternal compassion on earth, with eternal union with God behind it. That’s not right, people thought. How fortunate for us that God is not beholden to our narrow expectations. May we keep on trying to think as God does, not simply as human beings do – and maybe then, beyond the comfort of our own minds, we will start to see things as they really are.