10/21/12, Can You Drink the Cup

 Isa 53:10-11,Heb. 4: 14-16,Mk 10:35-45

While in Washington DC last week,  I had time to visit some of the many monuments and museums.  Among others, I toured the Native American and Holocaust Museums, shared the Mass with an African-American Catholic Church, and attended a play at the Jewish Community Center called, “Our Class.”  It memorializes 1,600 Jews who in 1941were marched by Polish Catholics, not invading Germans,  into a barn that their attackers locked and set afire.  Looking back at these things that impressed me most, I realized that they added up to a message about life and suffering and death. It carried me right into the readings for today.

During the past month or so in our readings from Mark, Jesus and his disciples have been journeying towards Jerusalem.  Along the way, three times Jesus has told his disciples that what awaits him there is suffering and death.  The disciples just don’t get it! They do not understand at all his mission as messiah. They think he will become the victorious leader who overcomes the Roman Empire in order to put Israel back on top.  Each time Jesus teaches by word and demonstrates by his action about the need for humility and sacrifice and vulnerability, the disciples fall into some form of denial of the need for suffering.  Today we see this denial once again as James and John approach Jesus and boldly ask him to give them the seats of honor when he comes into this glory they are anticipating.  Can you believe it? All along the way Jesus has been showing them that life is about the willingness to yield oneself in humble service for the sake of elevating the downtrodden. Yet here they are again, seeking positions of power and honor.  Is this not the common temptation of human beings, to escape suffering and seek glory?

Jesus told them, “You know not what you are asking.  Can you drink the cup I will drink or be baptized in the same baptism as I?”  “Yes,” they replied.  Jesus said to them in response, “From the cup I drink of, you will drink.  The baptism I am immersed in, you will share. But as for sitting in a place of honor, that is not mine to give.  It is for those to whom it has been reserved.” 

The cup is an image used throughout the Bible. In the Psalms we read about the cup of wrath and suffering, but also about the cup of joy and happiness. The Passover meal tradition calls for leaving a cup of wine on the table, reserved for the prophet Elijah upon his return. At the Last Supper, Jesus took that cup reserved for Elijah, and he drank from it, and then said, “This is the cup of my blood. Take it and drink.” 
Later in the Garden of Gethsemani, Jesus prayed, “Lord, let this cup pass me by.” This final cup of suffering Jesus did not want to drink, yet he said, “Not my will, but your will be done.”  A little later when soldiers came to arrest Jesus, he rebuked Peter for defending him, asking again, “Am I not to drink the cup God has given me?” The image of the cup, then, is a symbol of life and suffering and death.

Can you drink this cup?   What has that meant for people ever since the time of Christ?   What does that mean for us who follow Christ in the 21st Century? 

I found myself pondering those questions in the light of those experiences I had in Washington.  The sufferings borne by generations of Native Americans, African Americans and Jews were part of the cup of life from which they drank.  The contents of those cups of life for them provide examples of how human beings, in their desire to occupy places of domination over others, became the instruments of suffering and death for fellow human beings.  It’s very troubling to admit that our Christian ancestors, in the name of the Christ who showed us how to love others, have dominated and placed into servitude and even killed other human beings.  Untold others have drunk the cup of suffering that was served up to them by their fellow human beings, and that still goes on today. 

We cannot undo the past of human history.  We can only try to live faithfully the one little life that we have to live in this time and this place.   Jesus says to the disciples that they WILL drink his cup, they WILL be immersed in his baptism.  The Eucharistic cup of blood and the baptismal immersion in water represent human life and death.  We all have a life to live and a death to die. As a human being, so did Jesus.  His life on earth was made up of daily experiences common to all humans:  experiences of love and hate, joy and sorrow, plenty and want.  Some days are good, some are not so good.  Jesus allowed his humanity and his human experiences to shape him so he could be completely responsive to God’s call. 

Our call, like Jesus, is to serve humanity with trust in God and with grace towards others.  We give ourselves over to be shaped by whatever the cup of life holds for us.  Whether rich or poor, what God requires of us is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.  If position or acclaim comes to us in the wake of our service to others, that is God’s business, not ours. 

The example that is most familiar to me is my own life.  I think of the sips of the cup of life that have shaped me, many of which I did not choose but swallowed anyway.   Being the oldest of 11 children in a Protestant family that faced economic hardship and the stigma of my mother’s mental illness wasn’t my choice, but not becoming bitter in those circumstances was my choice.  Having cancer twice wasn’t my choice, but facing it with hope was my choice.  Becoming Catholic was my choice, but what has unfolded in the wake of this choice continues to be a complete surprise.  It has had its painful consequences of being judged and abandoned by others, but also had the deep satisfaction and joy of finding my true call within this unique community of courageous seekers.

Each of us is already partaking of life and death each day.  Jesus says we WILL drink of his cup of life and be baptized into his death.  The real question posed to us by Jesus is how we will live and die in the face of what that cup holds for us. We don’t get to choose the contents.   The cup is served to us.  The meaning of each of our lives is ultimately shaped by our response to what is served up to us. 

I believe each of us here wants to know the meaning in life that is found when we give ourselves over to living as Christ lived. Our willingness to drink the cup Christ offers means we accept a share in his sorrows and joys, in his death and his resurrection.

Each time you come to altar and are offered the cup of life, ponder this question from Jesus: can you drink this cup?  Our yeses mark the decision, once again, to share the life of Jesus, to acknowledge that he lives in us, that we will follow him no matter what.  We can trust that one day, the cup of life which holds our own suffering and sorrow and difficulty and struggle and pain will be transformed into the cup of joy, and even- the cup of resurrection.

By Sandi DeMaster