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First Fervor – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith Nelson

Matthew 20:20-28

If you have kept a journal with any regularity at any point in your life, you’ll know that reading old journal entries can be a little risky. Whenever I meet people who journal, I like to ask if they read what they wrote a year, or two years, or ten years ago. Some visibly cringe at this thought. From the vantage point of the present self, that past self narrates a story that begs not to be revisited, either because it no longer rings true, or it still rings all too true. And all of it is expressed in yesterday’s language, bristling with a permanently adolescent awkwardness. But once, when I was leading a men’s retreat, I witnessed a man read aloud from a journal entry he had written thirty years ago – in his mid-twenties. He prefaced his reading by saying that he found most of it woefully embarrassing, decidedly cringe-worthy, but that revisiting that self – and the intensity of that self’s first desire for God – was crucial to reconnecting with God in the present. He was approaching a mellowed maturity, but sought an understanding of God that he could only arrive at by praying through the lens of his first fervor. A group of twelve men – myself included – listened with rapt attention and respect. 

When I imagine the apostles James and John overhearing this gospel passage each time we read it in church, I wonder if they cringe in embarrassment at a past self, still full of fervor but struggling to lay hold of understanding. I then realize that I am the one who is embarrassed on their behalf, as I conjure up my own moments of misguided zeal. I wonder if Matthew wasn’t a little embarrassed on their behalf. Mark places this audacious request in their own mouths: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Matthew presents it as a favor sought from Jesus by their mother: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” In her great love, a mother can be excused for saying embarrassing things in public on behalf of her children. 

Jesus is realistic with them. They have made a very adult request of him – too adult, in fact, too full of the world’s ambition and a worldly conception of privilege and prestige that colors their still emerging notion of the kingdom of God, where one must become humble like a child. But in reply, Jesus treats them like spiritual adults: “You do not know what you are asking.” I see his faint smile, completely free of condescension or judgement, turn into a look of utmost sobriety as he looks them both directly in the eyes, assessing their readiness, knowing that one is never ready. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus has seen their first fervor, the sudden zeal with which they stepped from the fishing boat of their father Zebedee into his tutelage and his care. He now honors that first fervor in their all-too-teenaged reply: “We are able.”

It is a grave moment of consent, to participate in their Master’s glory to some unknown degree, in some mysterious measure. It is at least clear that this will entail suffering. It is a statement of bold trust – even if its utterance is still ninety-percent aspiration, saturated with what a friend of mine who is both a priest and a mother calls an “over-realized eschatology.” 

James and John don’t know it yet, but “We are able” may well be the shortest, simplest, most direct, most honest prayer of their lives. It is not, as they believe in the moment, their consent to a condition that will fulfill and validate their first fervor. Rather, it is a prayer that expresses the truest, noblest, and holiest intention of their lives, a prayer that will never be fully translatable on this side of heaven; a prayer that fulfills their vocation in God. 

James and John have heard our version of their story many times. In the heart of Jesus, I imagine that they are held beyond first fervor or mellowed maturity, but in eternity, see through the lens of both simultaneously, and can say with the assurance of the saints, “We were never able. But because he took us at our word – our own impossible words – he made us worthy.” Blessed James and John, whom we remember today. 

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1 Comment

  1. Eben Carsey on August 13, 2019 at 18:34

    Thank you, Brother Keith. This is very helpful and timely for me.

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