Can you drink the cup that I drink?
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

In my ministry to those who suffer from mental illness, I very often find myself dealing with people who have a great faith and a very intimate knowledge of God. But sometimes I run into people who have just had a mental breakdown and are ready to begin calling out to God for the first time in their lives. Many of these are people who will have spent most of their lives living for everything except what is truly important, namely God Himself. One man I met in particular, who was ready to begin to pray for the first time, said that he wants nothing to do with Christ, or Jesus, just God. It was as if that name "Christ" was associated with all sorts of things he wasn't ready for.

I was suddenly moved to call his attention to the fact that if you truly love someone who you see is suffering, you will want to share their suffering in some way. You will not allow them to suffer alone. To allow someone to suffer at a distance, without entering into his/her suffering in any way, is not love at all. I asked him to think about the fact that God, who is Perfect in Himself, who is Unlimited Joy, loves us so much that He will not allow us to suffer alone. Rather, He chooses to join Himself to a human nature like ours and so enter into human suffering, to draw close to us in our darkness. And, so that no one will be left out, He chooses to undergo the worst of human suffering so that there isn't one person in history who will have suffered more than He. That's the kind of God we have. That's who Christ is: God the Son who joins a human nature, lives in relative poverty, suffers rejection and misunderstanding, and suffers extreme mental anguish on Holy Thursday night, and an inconceivably humiliating death the following day, all so that we could find him in the midst of our own suffering.

He tasted the fruit of the world's sin, the totality of man's rejection of God throughout history all condensed into that one moment on the cross when he cried out: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Now, we think of time as a horizontal line. But eternity is not time without end, but all time summed up in the present moment. A more accurate image of eternity would be to take that horizontal line and make it vertical. All history is present to God at once, as it were. He embraces and possesses all time in a single moment that is eternally present. And so when the eternal Son of God suffers extreme mental anguish on Holy Thursday night two thousand years ago, He is intimately present to all those who suffer mental anguish throughout history, no matter where they are on the line.

And that is why some of the holiest souls are those who are alone, unknown, institutionalized and have been suffering for decades with terrible mental anguish—they have found Christ in the depths of their darkness and they know intimately the love that God has for them individually, that He would choose to meet them there.

That's what the good news of the gospel is: that God the Son entered into human darkness and death, precisely in order to inject his own divine life into it, so that sickness, suffering and death will not have the final word over our lives.

That's what these readings are about today. James and John had their hearts set on a high and glorious seat in the kingdom of heaven. Christ called their attention to his own impending sufferings and inquired of their willingness to share in it: "Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" He was referring to the baptism of his own suffering.

Life is about Christ, it is about entering into him, taking up our cross and following him. He came to reveal the absolute and inexhaustible love of God, who loves us to the point of taking on flesh precisely in order to enter into human suffering, so that we would not suffer alone, that in our own suffering we would find him, so that in death we would find the divine life, that is, eternal life. It is a love that man cannot fully comprehend, because it is too great to comprehend.

But this is the love that burns in the hearts of the great missionaries of the Church, like St. Paul, St. Patrick, St. John de Brebeuf, St. Isaac Jogues, and all the other North American Martyrs. It is a love that is stronger than death. What would make these martyrs cross the Atlantic in the 17th century, to leave a life of relative comfort, to come to this country in the brutal cold of winter, go without food for days, or live on corn mush in the summer, and risk being captured and tortured by the Indians, knowing full well that this is likely how their lives will end, having their eyes gouged out and their fingers chewed off, red hot coals placed in their eye sockets, etc. I won't go into any more detail, but I ask the question: What is it that gave rise to such zeal? What did they have within them that enabled them to desperately want to dedicate their lives to the missions and live for years in such uncomfortable and arduous circumstances, knowing that they'd probably die in extreme torment? It was that love that appeared to them from the cross that has a hold on them. To be possessed by that love is to know real happiness, a joy that suffering cannot diminish, but only increase.

That's the love that is the life of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI said that the Church still sees herself as a missionary Church. That will never change. Christ said: "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."

The word Mass comes from the Latin Missa, which means "sent". Mass is a sending out, that is, we are sent out to be missionaries, wherever we find ourselves. On this day of World Missions Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI reminds all of us that we have a fundamental duty to evangelize. We are called to allow ourselves to be possessed by that love of Christ, to allow that zeal to rise up within us and not let it die. We have a duty to proclaim the good news of Christ's resurrection over death so that others may have the opportunity to embrace his life of grace.

Religion is not a private affair, as many of our Catholic politicians would like us to believe. Christ said all power has been given to him, and that means "all power", including political power, and he commands us to proclaim, to evangelize, to spread the good news, to be a visible lamp lit up for all to see. We may not be called to become full scale missionaries in the developing world, but we are called to be missionaries here, either in the schools, which is great missionary territory, or in the work place, in our hospitals, our offices, our coffee clutches, and we are called to support the overseas missions especially if we are people that the Lord has blessed with great economic wealth. Our life here is all about Christ and the good news he brought.

While on retreat this summer in New York, I heard a story of two brothers in Wales who went to the seminary together, both studying for the priesthood. The two of them were ordained together, but the one brother eventually left the priesthood. He became a complete atheist and there was nothing the other brother could do about it. Years later, the atheist brother suffered a brain aneurysm. He was in the hospital, in a coma, and he was not going to live. The brother who remained faithful to his priesthood was there next to the bed, praying the rosary. The graces of the anointing of the Sick must have gone to work, something was happening while he was in a coma, because at one point the dying brother sat up in bed, eyes wide open, turned to his brother and said: "It's all about Christ! Go and tell the whole world!" Then he lay back down and died.

He had the opportunity to say one last thing, to leave a final testament to the world. He could have said anything. He said what he finally came to learn, while deep in a coma: "It's all about Christ! Go and tell the whole world!"