“The truth is,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “that all genuine appreciation rests on a certain mystery of humility and almost of darkness … Blessed is he that expecteth nothing …” We might not think of humility as a “mystery,” but there is a profound truth to such a description, if only because humility can be so hard to define. One of the most beautiful definitions I’ve read is from 17th-century French theologian Bishop Jean-Pierre Camus. “Humility is a descending charity, and charity is an ascending humility,” he wrote in his book “The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales.”
That definition is worth pondering in light of today’s Gospel. Jesus had just explained, for the third time, why he was “going up to Jerusalem”: to be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, condemned, mocked, scourged and killed (Mk 10:32-34; see Mk 8:31-33; 9:30-32).
In other words, God the Son has shown humility by becoming man, and would demonstrate it again as the suffering servant written about by the prophet Isaiah, becoming “an offering for sin.”
The disciples, rather understandably, struggled to grasp all of it. When Jesus first told them of his approaching Passion and death, Peter rebuked him, thus earning the dubious distinction of being himself rebuked by the scorching statement: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mk 8:32-33). On the second occasion, we read that the disciples did not understand Jesus’ prophecy but “were afraid to ask him” (Mk 9:32). And no wonder, as being called “Satan” by one’s Master is not the sort of incident any of them wanted on his resume!
But James and John said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” There is a startling mixture of impatience and naivety in the remark, further expanded by their subsequent request: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” They had been told three times, at least, of the coming arrest, suffering, torture and death — but they were fixated on glory.
“Ponder how profound this is,” remarked St. Augustine, perhaps with some wry humor, about this conversation, “They were conferencing with him about glory.” But did they even understand what that glory was, or what it required, or how it would be obtained? No, as Jesus made clear, they did not. “You do not know what you are asking,” he replied to them, yet not with anger or frustration. Rather, he was intent on preparing them for the harsh demands of discipleship. “He intended,” wrote Augustine, “to precede loftiness with humility and, only through humility, to ready the way for loftiness itself.” James and John were looking for glory, but they did not know the way. Or, better, they had lost sight of the way. “In order that they might come to their homeland in due order, the Lord called them back to the narrow way. For the homeland is on high and the way to it is lowly.” And, adds Augustine, the “homeland is life in Christ; the way is dying with Christ.”
Recall that the rich young ruler refused to die with Christ because he could not relinquish his trust in riches (Mk 10:17-25). Each of us struggles, in different ways, to accept that the path to glory requires the Cross. “Can you drink the cup that I drink,” asked Jesus, “or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Our “yes” to this question is the entrance into the mystery of humility and eternal glory.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.