Acts 12:1-2 / Mt. 20:20-28
The last sentence of the Chapter on Life Profession in The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist reminds us that “The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.” (R.L. SSJE, Ch. 39, p.79)
This Feast of St. James and St. John is one of the many feasts throughout the Church year that helps us to remember both the fact of martyrdom and the meaning of martyrdom.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, our 2nd lesson, we heard, “About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.” We do not know for sure what happened to John, his brother, the other son of Zebedee. We can only assume that he experienced some form of martyrdom.
As I think we all know the word Martyr derives from the Greek word for witness. The themes of the readings for today’s feast can help us to keep the meaning of martyrdom in the forefront of our minds today.
For many centuries it was assumed that John, the brother of James, was also the author of the Fourth Gospel, John the Evangelist. It was also thought that the same John wrote the 3 N.T. letters that bear the name of John, and the Book of the Revelation as well.
It is now thought that these N.T. books were written by different men with the name John. In any case, whether there were four, three, or two, or whether it was one man named John; those writings under the name of John have given us much important witness for Christ. From the shadows of history we can recognize that all those men named John were witnesses for Jesus Christ.
In early Celtic spirituality there were three kinds of martyrdom; the white martyrdom of exile, the green martyrdom of the hermit, and the red martyrdom of blood sacrifice. (Cf. Sea-Road of the Saints, John Marsden, p.14.) From lack of scriptural or other evidence we have to assume that the martyrdom of John was either red martyrdom, or perhaps the white martyrdom of exile.
Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew tells us of an incident that occurred when Jesus and his disciples were starting on their way up the long and winding road from Jericho up to Jerusalem. In the reading we heard that the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus, and kneeling before him asked a favor of him. This favor was that those two sons of hers would sit one at Jesus’ right hand and one at his left in his kingdom. Mark tells us that it was the two sons themselves who asked this favor of Jesus. (Cf. Mk 10:35-45) In either case, Jesus addressed his reply to the two sons of Zebedee. “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” Their reply was, “We are able.” Jesus answered them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (Mt. 20:22-23)
Our Gospel reading today teaches us the importance of willingness to accept martyrdom in whatever form it may come. “We are able.”
There are numerous references to “cup” through-out the Bible, referring to what life has in store for a person, either as good fortune, or as suffering and woe. Most of those references are in the Psalms and the Prophets, with a few in the N.T. None can be found in the historical books of the O.T. Jesus used that figure of speech in his reply to James and John to test their willingness to follow steadfastly no matter what might be the circumstances. Like most eager young men impressed by the charism of a leader, they answered, “We are able”.
I find myself thinking back well over 60 years ago to a time when at the Spokane Diocesan Summer Camp I was talking with one of the priests of that diocese about my sense of a vocation to the priesthood which began about the time I as 14. I think I was about 16 years old at the time of that conversation. That priest began to tell me in very general terms about how difficult the life of a priest could be. My response to him was “I think I am able.” Many years later, during my novitiate here, there were times, more than once, when I faced the question, “am I really called to this life?” “Can I continue to follow the call?” At the beginning it sometimes took several days of mulling over the question, later it became a matter of a few hours, and ultimately, whenever that question entered my mind, even in the years after I was professed, I was able within a matter of minutes, or even seconds, to answer myself, “I am able.” Now, if that question ever flies by me it doesn’t even get time to land. I think that many of us have had this same experience.
It could well have been like that for James and John, and the others of those first Apostles of Jesus. At the time of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion the disciples seem to have scattered. But after Jesus appeared to them and reassured them of his resurrection, they found that they were able to follow his call, even when it meant facing death by a sword, or other cruel forms of martyrdom.
At the end of today’s Gospel reading, perhaps sensing the anger of the other 10 disciples, Jesus turned and spoke to all 12 of his disciples together about the servant ministry to which he was calling them. In the very last sentence Jesus gave himself as an example of what he meant. “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mt.20:27-28) On one level this was calling the disciples to humility and service to others. On a deeper level, I think, it was a call of preparation for whatever was to come, even martyrdom. This is the call given to all of us in our Baptism. I hope that we can answer; “With God’s help, we are able!”
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