At this time in September many of us are beginning to see changes that remind us Fall is near. The leaves are changing to glorious colors, but this bit of pleasure is merely a reminder of the dying that is happening in all of nature, a reminder of the bleakness and deadness of winter. Nature moves relentlessly in a rhythm in which the lushness of life gives way to the starkness of death. Today’s gospel is a pivotal one, not only in Mark’s account but also in the liturgical year. It marks a clear change in the unfolding story of Jesus.
Immediately in the very opening line of the gospel today clues us to a shift. Jesus sets out with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi…moving towards Jerusalem. We all know what happens in Jerusalem. For St. Mark, the disciples are still clueless. From now on Jesus openly begins to teach his disciples what is in store for him (he spoke this openly)…but also what is in store for those who follow him (the disciples).
Jesus turns the conversation – to begin informing his followers towards the real demands of discipleship. Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say I am?” He asks about his identity. Peter responds: “You are the Christ.” Peter indeed recognizes Jesus as more than the prophets: Jesus is the long awaited Messiah. Messiah means the anointed…Peter’s understanding of anointed…most likely was that of a king who would restore Israel as a great nation.
Jesus’ meaning of Messiah was quite different. He “warned them not to tell anyone about him” since he did not want the disciples to raise false expectations of what was to come. Jesus’ reign – his kingdom, would be something quite different from power and wealth.
And so he began to teach them: he would suffer, be rejected, killed and rise after three days. Jesus’ identity as the suffering servant (the First Reading) has implications for us as his disciples. We too must deny ourselves; we too must take up our cross and follow Jesus. This is telling us that the first image of the cross in Mark’s Gospel is not in relation to Jesus’ cross but to our cross – our own difficulties, our own commitments, our own choices, in following Jesus as the Messiah.
Our denying ourselves, our taking up our cross and following Jesus is not about a showy response. Rather it is about how we live every single day: dying and rising in our ordinary simple circumstances. In other words we must die to our way of thinking, and embrace how God thinks, meaning, carrying the cross of goodness, righteousness, justice, integrity, wholeness, fullness of life. It means as St. James puts it, in todays Second Reading, demonstrate your faith by your works. Faith of itself – if it does not have works – is dead.