One of the things I have always enjoyed is reading a good mystery novel. My mother was a big fan of mysteries, especially Agatha Christie, and she passed the love for that on to me as I was growing up. I still love to read mysteries today, and when I’m not reading them, I’m usually watching shows like Law & Order or CSI – I enjoy these because of the mysteries that unfold just watching them. I remember in high school, the theater club was staging Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, and they checked the books out of the libraries around town so nobody would read ahead and find out who did it! I had already read the book, of course, but it was great fun to see it on stage. I think what I love about mysteries is the opportunity to keep guessing at the solution right up to the very end, and the process of learning new things about the characters all along the way. If you like mysteries too, then you know a really good mystery is one that isn’t solved all in the first six pages.
Today’s readings are a wonderful source of the mystery that still is part of our Church. 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, don’t you just sense a little 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 actually meaningless when spoken to people who have personal 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 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.
We Catholics believe that the mystery all started with the Incarnation: with Jesus’ coming into the world. The mystery continued with his death, resurrection and ascension. We all know the situation well. Throughout history, our ancestors turned away from God time and time again. As a result, there was a great chasm of sin and death that separated us from God, and we had no hope. But then Jesus was born among us. He did not come with great fanfare and splendor, but as a poor little baby, born to an everyday couple. He grew up and walked among us; he lived our life and experienced all of our joys and sorrows, all of our happiness and pains. He eventually died our death, but that was not to be the end of the story. He rose from the dead and appeared to many believers. Finally, he ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us in his kingdom, where sadness, death, and pain are forever banished. We call all of this the “Paschal Mystery.”
But here’s what makes this even more mysterious. We don’t just believe that this happened at one time, two thousand years ago. We believe that it happened and is happening in all time: the Incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus are happening throughout all time, for all of us. And every single celebration of the Eucharist does not just remember that great mystery that happened once upon a time, every single celebration of the Eucharist makes that great event present once again, right here among us. That’s why it is so important to gather every week for Mass, and not just when we have time to work it in. What could possibly be more important than celebrating the Eucharist, which makes the presence of Christ and his Paschal Mystery present in our lives?
The Church teaches that, when we gather for Mass, Christ is present in four ways. First, he is present in the gathered community. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that “wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name, I am there among you.” We are the face of Christ for one another. We bring his presence to one another by greeting one another, by worshipping together, and by serving with and for one another. Second, Jesus is present in the Word proclaimed. Literally. The words we hear are not just words about Jesus, those words are Jesus. When the community gathers and retells the story of our salvation, Christ is present. Third, Jesus is present in the minister. The priest stands in persona Christi Capitas: that is, in the person of Christ the Head. The priest makes Christ present by administering the sacraments and proclaiming the Gospel. Also, whenever any of us takes on a ministry and serves others, that person makes Christ present to others in some way. Fourth, Jesus is present in the sacraments, but most especially in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ our Savior, body and blood, soul and divinity. When we come forward to receive the Bread of Life and Cup of Life, we receive our God who is life itself. The mystery of the Incarnation, of the presence of Christ, is experienced every time the community gathers, proclaims the word, ministers to one another, and receives the Eucharist.
This presence of Christ among us is a true mystery, but also a great gift. It is the presence of Christ in us and around us that enables us to embrace suffering. Children embrace suffering every time they refuse to join in making fun of another child, or when they reach out to another person who’s having a bad day, or when they share with those who don’t have the things they do. Teens embrace suffering when they choose not to take part in a gathering where there will be alcohol or drugs, even when their friends are all going. Adults embrace suffering when they give up a promotion in favor of spending more time with their family. Seniors embrace suffering when they sit at the bedside of a spouse or friend in the last days of their lives together. Our lives are filled with all kinds of suffering, and suffering is not good in and of itself. It is only when we choose to go through it with faith, a faith rooted in the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery of Christ, a faith that comes from Christ being in us and around us, it is only then that suffering is redemptive. Because it is only God who can give us the grace to make it through the suffering, and only God that can help us to find life in the death of our pain.
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.