One of my favorite things to do when I have spare time is to read a good mystery novel. My mother passed her love for that genre on to me, and to my sisters. I always used to love Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, and I’ve read and re-read my favorites from them many times. I also love to see mysteries played out in movies and on television, and some of my favorite shows are dramas along those lines. The thing that I’ve learned about mysteries as a genre is that the best of them are the stories that keep you guessing; they aren’t solved all in the first six pages.
During these Ordinary Time Sundays of the year, the Church presents two main topics for our edification and our growth in faith. One of those topics is instruction in discipleship; how do we live as disciples and what does it look like? We’ve been hearing that throughout the summer. The other topic is what we are seeing today: and that is instruction in who Jesus is. And this is where the mystery begins to play out. Just when the disciples (and, truthfully, we ourselves) think they have Jesus all figured out, it turns out they don’t really get it at all. Jesus is like an onion in some ways, every new clue just peels away one layer, and there is always more there to be discovered.
In the first reading, the figure speaking is commonly referred to as “the Suffering Servant,” a figure that is later identified with Jesus. Whoever the figure is, he or she has incredible faith. One might expect that faith to be rewarded, but it’s not. Instead, his back is beaten, his beard is plucked, and his face is buffeted and spat upon. Yet, he continues to have faith, setting his face, knowing that he will not be put to shame. Maybe you have met a person who has gone through incredible trials like unemployment, family strife, or serious illness, and has remained faithful. If you know a person like that, perhaps you have sensed a bit of Jesus working in that person.
In the second reading, St. James tells us that our faith must be living, or it is not faith at all. He has seen far too many people who will say nice things to people and claim to have faith, but refuse to help alleviate anyone’s real needs. “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well” are nice-sounding words, but are, of course, meaningless when spoken to people who have serious problems: no place to live and keep warm, and little if anything to eat. James’s faith is one that sees the great mystery of Christ’s presence in those who are in need. We have the same challenges today, of course. There are many who are needy among us, and we disciples are called to a living faith that reaches out to those in need. Perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to work at a soup kitchen or a shelter, or go on a mission trip. If you’ve done that, maybe you have seen the face of Christ in those you’ve served.
The Gospel continues the theme of mystery by asking the question point-blank: “who do you say that I am?” The people of Jesus’ time, the disciples included, were constantly trying to figure him out. Peter seems to have figured out one of the clues: Jesus is the Messiah. But he totally misses the boat on just what kind of Messiah Jesus is to be. When Jesus talks about the necessity of his suffering and death, Peter just can’t wrap his mind around it. Jesus’ response to Peter is that to really know who Jesus is, Peter needs to think like God, not like a human being. The strangeness of this mystery is so great that it applies not just to Jesus, but also to anyone who would want to follow him. Disciples like us must take up our cross: if we wish to save our lives, we must give them away. This is a very great mystery indeed.
The real mystery to this mystery of who Jesus is, is that the more we find out about him, the more we find out about ourselves. Because we too are called to be suffering servants: all of our good efforts won’t always be rewarded in this life. Sometimes standing up for what is right will lead to scorn and abuse. But we do it nonetheless, knowing that ultimately, we will never be put to shame. And we too are called to have faith that is living, faith that reveals itself in the works we do. We can’t claim to be people of faith if we don’t give of ourselves and extend ourselves in service. Faith that never says yes to the call of Jesus is not faith at all. Faith that is only evident one hour a week is not faith at all. And finally, we are called, by the very words of our Savior, to take up our cross and follow him. Following him will ultimately lead us to glory if we do it faithfully. But following him will also lead us to the Cross. Yesterday we celebrated that mystery in the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Yes, we will suffer in this life, yes we will die, but that death will release us to the glory of the resurrection, if we embrace it in faith.
The psalmist sums it all up for us today. Yes, the suffering in our lives leads us to experience the cords of death that encompass us. We often fall into distress and sorrow. But when we embrace that suffering and call on the Lord, we will find ourselves freed of death and able to walk before the Lord in the land of the living. We who have embraced and remembered and celebrated the mystery of Christ’s presence in our lives, in our Church and in our world, can approach suffering with great faith. There’s a contemporary Christian song that says “sometimes he calms the storm, and other times he calms his child.” God won’t always make our tears and pain go away. But he does promise that we will never go through them alone. We will probably never completely figure Christ out this side of the Kingdom. The disciples didn’t and we won’t either. But when we enter into the mystery, we can keep turning the pages and finding more and more clues. When we enter the mystery, we can look forward to the great unveiling of the solution when we enter our heavenly reward.