Today’s Gospel reading comes from the middle of the Gospel of Mark. As Dominican Father Wilfrid Harrington observes in his commentary, “Throughout the first half of the gospel the question of Jesus’ identity had been repeatedly raised and had met with various answers” (Michael Glazier, 1985). Jesus was rejected by the Pharisees and scribes yet many others believed he was a true prophet, even a new Elijah. However, his own disciples often struggled to comprehend Jesus and his message. Ironically, those most clearly aware of Jesus’ uniqueness and divinity were the demons. “I know who you are,” cried a man possessed by an unclean spirit, “the Holy One of God!” (Mk 1:24). The scribes cynically claimed he cast out demons because he was possessed “by Beelzebul,” the prince of demons — an argument debunked by Jesus (Mk 3:20-30).
Today’s reading, Father Harrington writes, “is the hinge of Mark’s work, at once the climax of the first part, the secret of the Messiah (the identity of Jesus), and the transition to the second part, the mystery of the Son of Man (his destiny of death and resurrection).” The second half of Mark was written to answer the Big Question posed in the first half: Who is Jesus? This might seem strange, however, since the first verse of the book states, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Keep in mind that Mark didn’t write his Gospel as a mystery, as if his first-century readers didn’t know the ending, but as a proclamation, challenge and commentary for his readers. Yes, they knew Jesus was the Messiah, but were they also tempted to renounce his Passion and death as Peter did? Were they really willing to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow the Lord?
These questions have not faded over the centuries; they are ever with us. And all three titles found in this reading say something essential about Jesus’ person and mission, especially since each points toward his passion and death.
The first is Christ, or Messiah. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” — and then he asked them directly, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers for the disciples succinctly: “You are the Christ.” That title appears more than 500 times, and it possesses many interwoven ideas. It refers often to an “anointed one,” representing God’s divine election of a man to a specific office or task, as with King David, who was called to rule according to God’s law. The Messiah, in short, was a royal deliverer and a liberating king who would establish the everlasting reign of God.
The second title, used by Jesus to describe himself, is Son of Man; it appears 90 times in the New Testament. It emphasizes the humanity of Christ, but it also refers to the prophet Daniel’s vision of final judgment, when the heavens open and “One like a son of man” appears (Dn 7:13). This dazzling figure is also royal, a suffering king who is vindicated by God at the end of time and history.
The third title comes from the prophet Isaiah and Jesus’ teachings about taking up the Cross: the Suffering Servant. He is described in today’s Old Testament reading as the man willing to endure torment and mockery for the sake of God. Jesus referenced this passage again when he said that the Son of Man came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). And it is the Cross that fully reveals who Jesus was and is.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.