And up to Jesus come James and John, saying to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask you… Grant us that we should sit in your glory, one on your right and one on your left.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink?” But they told him, “We can.” But Jesus told them, “The cup that I drink you will drink. But to sit on the right or on the left is not mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (cf. Mark 10:35-40, adapted from Fr. Nicholas King’s translation of the Bible)
It may seem strange to begin a reflection on the Eucharist with a passage about the Apostles’ pettiness and jostling for honour. Indeed until recently, I had often felt a sense of injustice on behalf of James and John whenever I read this text: they got the shorter end of the stick, didn’t they? They accepted the pre-requisites in exchange for what they desired, but they are then told by the Master that they might not get what they want after all. In our legal system, they might prevail if they sued Jesus for misrepresentation.
There is one line in the gospel that always puzzled me though: “You do not know what you are asking” (v.38). They wanted glory for themselves at the expense of the others, and they wanted it so much they were willing to suffer anything to get it. They may be selfish, they may be prideful, but surely they knew full well what they are asking? And the response of the other disciples suggests this – they were angry and annoyed with the two brothers (cf. v.41).
After 4 years of plonking myself before the Lord through the ups and downs of formation and ministry, I think I am beginning to understand what the Lord meant. We like to think that we suffer here on earth, in the hope of enjoying the crown of glory in Heaven – we separate glory from suffering. And perhaps the radical truth which Jesus wanted to teach His Apostles, and us also, is that glory is precisely in His suffering, His kenosis, His self-emptying. Hence, Jesus chides James and John – they only saw the cup of suffering as a pathway, a criterion to be checked and done away with, before glory; Jesus tells them, no: glory in God’s Kingdom is as we follow the Son of Man in drinking His cup of suffering, even as it will reach its fulfilment in Heaven.
What has this got to do with the Eucharist? As Catholics, we believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood, humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ our Lord and God; it is also the living memorial of Love’s sacrifice on the Cross. So, when we participate in the Eucharist, whether by attending Holy Mass or by the reverent reception of Holy Communion, we do not just enter into deep communion with God, we enter also into God’s own suffering, dying and rising to new life. And the early Christians probably were familiar with Proverbs 23:1-2, which reads in the Septuagint (LXX) translation that they used: “If you sit down to dine at the table of rulers, reflect carefully on what is placed before you, and apply your hand, knowing that you must prepare such things”.
Reflect carefully on what is placed before you and know that you must prepare such things! At the table of our King, we participate in the gift of God’s own self – His Body and Blood – and we hear His words of self-donation, “This is my Body… given up for you; this is the chalice of my Blood… poured out for you and for many”. So we too must prepare the same with our lives! We who eat Christ’s Body at the altar must complete it by also drinking His cup of suffering in our lives. How much more this must be so for us, seminarians and Priests? Shall we imitate Jesus as shepherd (pastor), teacher, healer and friend, but shrink from imitating Jesus on the Cross? Woe am I if I accept the honour of being called “Father” of the faith community, but flee from or am bitter over the sufferings God allots me! The words of Venerable Fulton Sheen are apt here: “Satan will have no scars on his hands or feet or side. He will appear as a priest, but not as a victim” (The Priest Is Not His Own) – the Eucharist remind us that we are victims!
Suffering come in many forms: it can be inflicted on us from without – sickness, calumnies, broken relationships etc, but it can also come from within – that I am not perfect, that I am limited, that I am weak and wounded, and that my healing can take longer than I would have liked. In a culture that glorifies strength, abilities, achievements and instant fixes, we instinctively hide our weakness and pain in order to appear good or strong – especially for us, men. And I have to admit that it is very difficult to genuinely offer my sufferings to the Lord and allow Him to heal others precisely through the pain of my wounds. We all like to help through our strengths despite our weaknesses, not serve through our weakness and sufferings. But the paradox of ministry that I have come to discover is that it is right through areas of my own weakness and wounds that others are being touched and healed by God.
This was driven home to me in a talk by a visiting Jesuit priest from the USA, and he said that our wounds and weakness point to where we can receive and give more love, that when they are filled they become a gift and a healing to others. This is just what I was beginning to realise from my own experiences. In quite a wondrous, hitherto unimagined, way, I am starting to rejoice through my downs and pains (at least some of it), because God is moulding me through these to become a better, more fitting minister for His people.
The Eucharist is the pre-eminent sign of Jesus’ work of redemption in His embrace of suffering and total gift of Himself. Cultivating a genuine Eucharistic spirituality for us seminarians and Priests must include recognising glory in our suffering – not the sadistic kind that exults pain as a false badge of manhood, but the kind that Jesus, the true Man, revealed: the glory of salvation – redemptive suffering. The Eucharistic Sacrifice is the more fittingly offered on the altars of our Church when the Priest-Victim is also offering himself, with his wounds and sufferings, to Jesus to use in whichever way He chooses for the salvation of the world.
Jesus gave us the Eucharist so that we need not be bystanders and spectators to His work of redemption on Calvary. As we partake of the Eucharist, may all of us grow also to embrace our own sufferings and allow the Lord to turn these also into conduits of grace and redemption for others. This is the great glory that is our calling as Christians – not to flee from suffering, not simply to grin-and-bear and cope with the unavoidable, but the joy of finding Jesus, in the midst of our suffering, healing ourselves and others through it.
By Br Simon Ho