Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

Paul F. Morrissey, O.S.A.
Church of St. Augustine
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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

September 11th – Horror, agony, destruction, death: the attack on the World Trade Centers

in New York City twenty years ago!

And at the same time – as though the one gave birth to the other – an unbelievable, indomitable desire by so many to reach out to help others in the midst of catastrophe.

Firefighters, police, ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors, and the people in the World Trade

Towers themselves. They stopped their own frantic escape effort to lift up another person

gasping for air, or to help someone down the 100+ floors. Even the unthinkable – to step aside

and let someone else take their place on the elevator. This included thousands of New Yorkers

who lined up to give blood that day as their way of saying, “You will not defeat us…We are

human beings…We will survive!”

A message scrolled onto the bottom of the television news that night said it all: “We have

enough blood!” Tears of gratitude welled in my eyes at this great sign of hope. Fellow dazed

New Yorkers wanted to do anything to help each other in the face of extreme cruelty, suffering,

disaster and despair. So, they lined up to give blood. When life becomes dark, our mutual human

need for each other often rises up through the ashes to say: “We will not die! We will live in the

Light! We will not let you die in the darkness either! We will give our blood for you!”

This September 11th anniversary finds us surrounded by different threats to life. Whether

it is trying to end a twenty-year war in Afghanistan, the hurricanes and floods in New Orleans,

endless fires in California and the West Coast, torrential rains and tornadoes on the East Coast,

or the Covid-19 pandemic spreading around the world – we human beings huddle together,

vowing we will not give up or give in. This “suffering love” is the backdrop today for the

Scripture readings. It is the Good News that gives us hope for the many troubles we endure

today.

First of all, we have to recognize that the Scriptural Word of God wants to speak to us

today. Not just in general, but to this specific time, and to your cries and prayers. As the Psalm

says today, “I love the Lord because he has heard my voice in supplication…I fell into distress

and sorrow, and I called upon the name of the Lord, ‘O Lord, save my life!’” How do today’s

readings show God answering this prayer?

In the first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, we hear the prophet enduring much suffering.

“I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.” It is one of

what the Jewish-Christian tradition calls the Suffering Servant passages. The prophet continues

his prayer saying, “The Lord God is my help; therefore, I am not disgraced.” We might echo

these prayers ourselves when we feel overwhelmed, either as an individual or as a whole

neighborhood, country, or world. Think of the nurses and doctors who risk their lives to tend to

the Covid patients in overcrowded hospitals across the country and world. I fell into distress and

sorrow, and I called upon the name of the Lord, “O Lord, save my life!”

The key to today’s readings is the meaning of suffering. Suffering is portrayed as an

intrinsic part of Jesus’ identity. In the conversation he has with Simon Peter, Jesus asks, “Who do

people say that I am?” (Mark 8, 27) The people seem to think he is someone who has risen from

the dead. They answer, “Elijah? John the Baptist?” Jesus quickly pivots to the deeper question of

his identity, “But who do you say that I am?” It isn’t as though Jesus doesn’t know who he is. He

wants to understand how his disciples experience him. Peter jumps in, “You are the Christ.”

Notice what he says – not simply “Christ,” but The Christ. In other words, you, Jesus, are the

Anointed One, the Messiah we have all been waiting for. Surprisingly, Jesus tells them not to tell

anyone about him. But from now on he has a last name!

Why not tell people such a momentous discovery? There are quite a few theories of why

Jesus wants his disciples to hide this. But the key point, I believe, is that this “Christ,” who Jesus

calls “The Son of Man,” is going to have to suffer. This is why Peter says, “No.” This is why

Jesus rebukes him, “Get behind me Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human

beings do.” Jesus concludes this whole teaching by saying that those who want to follow him

“must take up their cross and follow him.” In other words, being The Christ, being the Father’s

Beloved Son, being the Son of Man does not mean that he is going to have a sweet, peaceful and

trouble-free life. A life like we all want, right? Rather, he is going to be more like the Suffering

Servant whom Isaiah describes. Is it possible that Jesus might actually want to hide from this

suffering path himself, or at least stall its coming as Peter and we often do?

Who wants to go through another winter of Covid? Who wants to hear another phone

beeping: “Flood Alert!…Tornado Alert in your area during the next fifteen minutes,” or “Get into

a shelter now!…Do not drive.” We instinctively shrink from suffering – at least initially. Yet

often another force from within us overrides this, as it did with the firefighters who entered the

North Tower of the WTC after the South Tower had collapsed. They knew they were climbing to

their likely death, but they went up anyway to try to rescue people stranded one hundred plus

stories above them. This is what Martin Luther King called “creative suffering,” and urged his

followers on by telling them, “unearned suffering is redemptive” (“I Have A Dream,” August 28,

1963, Washington, D.C.). Parents know this. Lovers know this. Teachers know this. It’s called

sacrifice.

In his book The Questions of Jesus, John Dear examines the very question Jesus asks in

today’s Gospel: “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus knows who he is, explains Dear: “He is

first and foremost not a violent Messiah. Rather he is nonviolent. He is the embodiment of

nonviolence, the incarnation of the God of love and compassion. Jesus will save humanity not

through military might but through peaceful, loving means. He tells Peter that, contrary to an

all-powerful, imperial, war-making Messiah, he will suffer. Soon, he will be betrayed, arrested,

tortured, and brutally executed. He is the Suffering Servant described by the prophet Isaiah (in

Isaiah 53). He will save humanity through his suffering and forgiving love on the cross. He will

redeem the whole human race. He is the ransom paid to rescue us…His innocent suffering will

melt every human heart and win over the entire human race to himself, to the truth, to God’s

reign of nonviolence, to God” (Dear, p.15). We can only hope that more hearts will melt.

To return to our opening image of the crashing World Trade Center towers, the impulse

to strike back in revenge is real and understandable. But the deeper impulse, like Jesus’ call to

carry our cross if we want to follow him, is to “give blood” and the love that our blood

represents. It is to give a hand up to those in need like refugees from Afghanistan, Haiti or Latin

America. We can’t save everyone of course, but we can save some.

With St. Paul, we believe with that we are “in Christ,” and that this Christification is our

hope of glory (Col 1:27). Even more mind-boggling, Christ is in all of creation as it “groans” for

redemption (Rom 8:22). So let us not be paralyzed by the threats around us. In the midst of

catastrophe, the indomitable desire by so many fellow human beings to reach out to help others

should give us hope. With Jesus, “The Christ,” as our Lord and model, we can bravely and

confidently say, “We have enough blood.” It is his blood. With him and in him, it is ours too.