How do we look at our sufferings as Christians? Do we see them as pains simply to be avoided or ended as soon as possible? Do we see them as the unjust results of poor fortune? Do we see them as deserved punishments handed down from God for our sins, real or imagined? Do we see them as trials to be endured with silence and dignity, as proofs of our strength of character? While each of these ways of understanding and bearing trials may contain some element of truth, to greater or lesser extent, none of them represents a complete Christian understanding, and over-emphasizing one or another of these might well lead to servile fear, self-pity, resentment, discouragement, or pride. Christ in this week’s Gospel passage offers to us a more complete way of understanding the trials that come to each of us.
When James and John ask for glory, Christ, speaking of His suffering and death, asks them if they can drink from His cup and undergo His own baptism. He is challenging them with the reality of sufferings, calling them away from any preoccupation with worldly prestige, but He does so by asking if they are willing to share more of His life with Him. He presents the sufferings that they, and every Christian, must undergo here in the world as a path to greater intimacy and friendship with Him. He invites us not simply to follow at a distance as hearers and students, but to drink from the same vessel as Him, and enter the same baptismal waters with Him. To embrace in humility the sufferings of this present life is, at least for a Christian, not just a way to pay for one’s sins or prove one’s virtue, but also and especially a way to closer friendship with Christ who suffers. The teachings of our Christian faith do not simply aim at creating a world of sufficient penance or mere good behavior. The sacrifices present in Christian living also represent an invitation to a share in Jesus’ own life, extended to us as an act of divine love and mercy.
We may also note that Christ does not tell James and John that they must not seek glory at all. He instead tells them that the condition of receiving glory is sharing with Him His own trials. If they remain faithful, they can expect a glorious reward, and in fact, the Lord says elsewhere in the Gospels: “you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones…And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold.” (Matt 19:28-9). This friendship with Jesus that we find as the treasure hid within our crosses and privations, leads through this life into the glory of the next. We do not suffer without the reward of the Lord’s own glory in the presence of the Father.
Thus, the old Catholic advice to “offer it up” does not mean that we must grit our teeth in trials, give up our desire for that which is pleasant, and live painful lives without complaint. It means that we, like the Apostles, must look for and believe in the presence of Jesus with us in our sufferings and love Him there, where He is sharing His wounded heart with us most intensely. It means that we must have the courage to step forward and follow Christ through the trials we experience in this life, trusting that if we follow Him in His death, we will in fact follow Him into His glory as well.