Isaiah 53: 10-11; Hebrews 4: 14-16; Mark 10: 35-45
One of the central teaching of the writings of Thomas Merton, whom Pope Francis referenced when he spoke to Congress, is what he would call a tension between the true self and the false self. By false self he means, in simple terms, the illusion we create for ourselves of who we think we should be, who we want others to think we are, our ego, it’s a small self that we create that often protects us from being hurt, which itself is an illusion. By true self he means our deepest identity in Christ or as some have put it, the largest conversation our soul can have with the world. Now it’s not that the false self is bad or anything like that; it just is and isn’t all at the same time. He goes onto say that it creates a tension within ourselves that we wrestle with our entire lives and the more we become aware of it, the more we can let it go and recognize our greatest self, our true self, and live from that place. But it’s not just individuals. The community wrestles with this tension. I believe the country continues to wrestle with this reality. And for that matter, if you’ve followed any of the Synod of Bishops in Rome these weeks, it also happens in the Church, asking who we really are about, our truest and deepest self.
I thought of that when I reflected upon this gospel of James and John seeking something that they really aren’t versed in. Really, if they had found that place within, they wouldn’t even ask the question about places of honor because they would know it’s a moot question. But they do, and of course, Jesus doesn’t condemn or belittle them, but like the rich young man last week, continues to love them and lead them to that deeper place, to their true selves. When they stand in opposition to Jesus, it in many ways represents that interior struggle that we encounter in our lives. They too are living with this illusion and it stands face to face with Christ. They have an illusion of who they are in relation to him. They have an illusion about who they think Jesus is. You know, they have all the right answers as the gospels go on in naming his identity. He is the Christ; he is the Savior; he is the Son of God. They got it all right, but they look at it through this illusion of false power that they have created. They think he’s some leader to overthrow the Roman rulers or something of the sorts and they want a piece of that! Of course, it’s not just James and John. Mark reminds us that the other ten become indignant at the two of them for asking, probably because they too had thought about it, mindful that it was just a few weeks ago that they were arguing about who was the greatest! They spend their time fighting an illusion rather than seeking Jesus for who he really is and who they really are.
Merton would say that it is one of the greatest struggles that we must face as adults, letting go of these illusions. It will be an experience of the Cross like no other. It won’t be just what they see as they watch their friend Jesus die up there, nailed to a tree, but rather than interior crisis that they will face through that event that shakes them at their very core. Their eyes will be opened to the true identity of Jesus and for that matter, their truest self and essence as well. Their lives will be changed forever because they then know that not even the suffering of death can defeat life; they will have found what it was they had always looked for and yet always had, all at the same time.
We have a tendency to lump all suffering together and at times, even equate it all with sin. If we stay in that small self, that’s what usually happens because sin then becomes all about morality. Yet, Merton and others would stress that it has more to do with living in that false self and succumbing to someone less than we really are. We hear of the Suffering Servant in the first reading and a God who sympathizes with our weaknesses in the Letter to the Hebrews today. And yes, this God does stand with us in our physical pain and great suffering in that way, but this God also shows us the way to the fullness of life that we desire as individuals and as community. It’s not in seeking that power as James and John do in today’s Gospel. Jesus reminds them and us that when we seek it beyond ourselves, we end up abusing it and lording it over others. That’s not true power. He leads them and us into the recesses of our being. Through the suffering of the Cross, the illusions that we create for ourselves and others are broken open and our true self is revealed. We no longer have to hold onto something that isn’t real in the first place, although it sure does feel like it. We no longer have to live in such a small space but rather recognize the tension within ourselves, let it go, and live freely the life we have been given. We all know we have one chance at this and although this path and way that is taught to us can be very painful, smashing through our illusions, it’s the way to the eternal and the breaking in of the Kingdom in our own lives. Who of us wouldn’t wan that? We pray that the illusions of our own lives are broken open, we stop fighting and holding onto it, and allow ourselves the opportunity to live from a different place of power, our truest self in the depths of our hearts and souls.