“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”1 James and John respond to this in the affirmative, with no further questioning. I wonder if this is an example of loving faith, or naïve foolishness, or both. Regardless, it is reasonable for us to ask, “What is this cup?”
The most obvious answer is that the cup Jesus mentions is a reference to his own death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in the hours before his arrest, Jesus refers to his impending death as a cup that he desires to pass from his lips.2 If this is the case, Christ’s assertion to the sons of Zebedee that, “The cup that I drink you will drink,” is a truthful one. James becomes a martyr, the first of the Twelve apostles to die, beheaded on the orders of King Herod in Jerusalem.3 John, the Tradition of the Church holds, lives on, the only one of the Twelve not to be martyred, instead spending his days watching his companions meet their deaths, each one a new nail in John’s own inner crucifixion.
But Christ’s death is not a thing apart. It is not some dissonant twang in an otherwise harmonious life. We are told that Jesus is our High Priest, who can meaningfully intercede on our behalf, because he has fully entered into our human weakness and affliction.4 Christ’s death is the humble, self-emptying revelation of his full entrance into the frailty of our human nature. That is to say, the experience of death at the crucifixion is the fullest expression of God’s embrace of what it means to be human. To drink this cup, then, to share in the cup of Jesus, is to enter into a human life fully embraced, and fully alive.
I’m reminded of a story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, those earliest of monastic spiritual texts:
It was said about John the Little that one day he said to his older brother, “I want to be free from care and not to work but to worship God without interruption.” And he took his robe off, and went into the desert. After staying there one week, he returned to his brother. And when he knocked at the door, his brother asked without opening it, “Who is it?” He replied, “It’s John, your brother.” The brother said, “John has become an angel and is not among people anymore.” Then he begged and said, “It’s me!” But his brother did not open the door and left him there in distress until the next morning. And he finally opened the door and said, “If you are a human being, you have to work again in order to live.” Then John repented, saying, “Forgive me, brother, for I was wrong.”5
Now, we are not created for endless toil. But we are created and given work, given vocation, by God.6 This does not mean that the call of being human is or ought to be an exercise in tedium or drudgery. But it does mean that work, real, challenging work, is not something we get to whimsically abandon out of some misguided piety. In the human vocation, it turns out, we don’t get to avoid the metallic tang of blood on our lips. We don’t get to avoid the salty sting of sweat in our eyes. We don’t get to avoid vision clouded by bitter tears. The blood, sweat, and tears of human work, of vocation, are somehow inextricably wrapped up in that to which God continually calls us. And in the work of Christ, the suffering servant, blood, sweat, and tears are all manifest.
But as I said, we are not created for work. Most truly, we are created for love, and our work is only vocation if it comes from the vigor and the fire of love. In her book on Marian devotion, The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander wrote:
Each saint has his special work: one person’s work. But [Mary] had to include in her vocation, her life’s work, the essential thing that was to be hidden in every other vocation, in every life. She is not only human; she is humanity. The one thing that she did and does is the one thing that we all have to do, namely to bear Christ into the world. Christ must be born from every soul, formed in every life. If we had a picture of Our Lady’s personality we might be dazzled into thinking that only one sort of person could form Christ…and we should miss the meaning of our own being.7
Houselander’s reflection on the Mother of God is a poignant entreaty for all of us: look to Mary and learn how to relate to God. Look to Mary and learn how to be human.
For when God desired to be incarnate, to be made flesh, to be human, he looked upon the humble self-offering of the Blessed Virgin Mary and saw a worthy cup from which to drink of the wine of human nature. From what I can tell, it is a dark wine, complicated and earthy; it’d be rank and acrid, if not for the favor of the divine lips through which it has passed. At the moment of the Incarnation, Jesus drank from this cup. In the womb of his mother, he drank from this cup. Suckling at her breast, he drank from this cup.
And Mary beheld her Son at the cross. And Mary held his body in her arms, clutching him to the same breast at which he had been nurtured, knowing that he had finally finished drinking from his cup. And John the Beloved beheld this, knowing that with Christ’s giving of Mary to John and of John to Mary, as mother and son,8 the cup of human life, fully alive, passed from the lips of Jesus to the lips of his followers, finally understanding what his Lord had meant when he said, “The cup that I drink you will drink.”
And here we are. Thousands of years have passed, and the same cup is held out to us. The same call, to be human, fully human, with all its incarnate intimacy, all its terror and tears,9 waits at the gate of our lips. So take heart, and drink, from the cup of vocation, of full human work, in all its joy and reward and blood and sweat and tears. Take heart, and drink, from the cup of the Spirit, and be drunk with love.10 Take heart, and drink, from the cup of humanity that points always to God and the life of eternal glory. Take heart, and drink, from the cup of death, and be fully alive, fully alive, fully alive. Take heart, and drink.
- Mark 10:35-45
- Matthew 26:39
- Acts 12:1-2
- Hebrews 5:1-10
- Nomura, Yushi: Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers, pp. 12-13.
- Genesis 2:4-15
- Houselander, Caryll: The Reed of God, p. 18.
- John 19:25-27
- Williams, Rowan: Response to Bishop Spong’s 12 Theses
- Song of Songs 5:1
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