The editorial of the month

Father Sebastian White, o.p.

by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom (Mt 20:21). Near the end of the month, on the feast of Saint James, we will hear this famous request in the Gospel at Mass. On the surface it seems like a good and holy petition. After all, the mother of the sons of Zebedee began by doing the Lord homage and she was not exactly asking to win the lottery. But what Jesus wants for those two sons of hers is even more than what she’s asked. The Lord desires not merely that they be next to him, but that they be one with him.

Scratching beneath the surface

First, it is worth noting that while in Matthew’s Gospel it is indeed their mother who makes the request, in Mark’s version (10:35-45) the two brothers ask for themselves. This should not suggest any tension between the two accounts, however. Saint Thomas Aquinas explained, “the mother asked after having been prompted by her sons.” (I suppose the brothers felt an older maternal figure would hold more sway with the good Rabbi.) Jesus evidently understood that the request originated with James and John, for even in Matthew’s account his response is addressed to them, not their mom: “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.”

More to the point, however, is what Christ reveals to them: he is not a mere means to something else, even if that something else is as noble as a place in his Kingdom. This is why, elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples not to look here or there for the Kingdom, for the Kingdom of God is among you (Lk 17:21). He was speaking about himself. What it means to be in Christ’s Kingdom is a matter of personal conformity to him, period. Christianus alter Christus, Saint Cyprian said. The Christian is another Christ.

My cup you will indeed drink, Christ tells the sons of Zebedee, but to sit at my right and at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father. I take this to mean, in effect: “Let conformity to me be the one goal of your life, let union with me and my cross be your only concern. The Father has prepared a place for all who are united to me, and I promise that you will not have any regrets in the end. Do not worry about how you compare with others. Your part is simply to remain with me and in me. Trust me when I say that I will not disappoint you or abandon you.”

What this means for us

Unyielding confidence in our union with Jesus and his love for us is the antidote to all our spiritual woes, but one especially: the expectation that being close to Jesus is supposed to make our problems go away and produce for us a self-satisfied and self-conscious sense of holiness. How ­easily we believe that the sign things are going well in our ­spiritual life is that we have no suffering, are entirely free from temptations, and just generally feel like a saint. Consequently, when we experience suffering, lack interior consolations, or (I’m going out on a limb here) find that we are still regularly having to drag ourselves into the confessional, we succumb to discouragement and frustration. Why do I still suffer? Why aren’t things getting easier? Why do I not feel more virtuous?

The answer to these questions is that the goal of the Christian life is not to get to a point where we can bask in our own sense of sanctity and affirmation from others. “How difficult it is for us as disciples,” Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis wrote, “to realize the truth that real growth and movement consist in staying where we are, that is, in our condition as disciples and servants! We naturally associate advancing and growing with ‘going up in the world,’ with ‘becoming someone.’… The Master teaches us not to equate success with self-exaltation…. [We] are invited to become like him by sharing in his destiny.” Real sanctity just is our union with Jesus, who did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

If Christ gave his life as a ransom for me, and I, as his disciple, am invited to share in his destiny, then crosses and sufferings just might mean that things are going well, not poorly. As we’ll hear from Saint Paul in the first reading for the feast of Saint James, we are always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. And even when the Lord permits me to experience my own weaknesses and failure, I do not become discouraged. Humbled, I give thanks for each new opportunity to be loved by God, renewing my confidence in the One who gave his life for me.

A Mother who petitions perfectly

These are themes, dear friends, that I will return to again and again. For now, let me say that, like James and John, we have a Mother who approaches Jesus, does him homage, and petitions him on our behalf. But we can be sure that her prayers are always granted, for her heart is perfectly attuned to his. Let us, then, surrender ourselves to Jesus through her: Mary, you who are the Mother of the Savior and of our interior life, intercede for me before your Son. Pray that I may be conformed completely to his image. Pray that I may have the courage to drink his chalice and share completely in his destiny.