This Sunday, in the liturgical readings of the Catholic Mass, believers continue to accompany the Lord Jesus on his southern journey to Jerusalem. The course for the Holy City was set after the Lord took his apostles to the region of Caesarea Philippi, some thirty miles north of Galilee, and asked them who they thought he was. It was an immediate invitation to the apostles to see who he was, to abandon their own small worlds, and to follow him more intimately.
This inquiry, contained in Mark, Chapter 8, is noted as the decisive turning point in the life of the apostles and the ministry of Jesus Christ. From this pressing question – and its summons to discipleship – Saint Mark has the Lord begin a descent from the northern region down to the capital city, Jerusalem.
The trek is indicative of the Lord’s own spiritual preparation for his Passion and Death, which will begin when he arrives in the City of David. But for Mark, the journey is also the culmination of the Lord’s call to his followers to assent to his principal teachings on love, self-surrender and trust.
On account of this Markan priority, the specific teachings given by the Lord Jesus on the way to Jerusalem take on a heightened prominence in the life of the believer and of the entire Church. These teachings are Mark’s little book of discipleship.
And so, what does the Lord talk about on his way to the Holy City?
Not surprisingly, the Lord Jesus addresses critical areas of human life, namely, those areas of our lives where we truly define and show who we are as persons and members of a community. These areas include authority, service, purity of intention, the treatment of vulnerable people, money, marriage, and the welcoming of children.
Those last two are taught again in the Gospel Reading this Sunday. The Lord returns to the welcoming of children: “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” This follows his admonition on the indissolubility of marriage. Based on the complementarity of the teachings, one can see that the Lord Jesus is connecting the unity of marriage with the welcoming of children.
Both of these pivotal teachings of Jesus have been debated, redefined, and rejected through the ages by both his followers and inquirers alike. And yet, what is the Lord calling for in these teachings?
In these exhortations, and all of those teachings that are a part of his journey to Jerusalem, the Lord is showing the very heart of what it means to follow him. He is revealing to his disciples the hard truth: Your life is not your own. He is telling us, his disciples, that if we desire to follow him, we must imitate his selfless service. We must be willing to take up our cross.
If marriage and family life are to be stable, they must be grounded on something beyond mere emotional fulfillment or transitory, often incomplete notions of happiness. If marriage is to survive hardship and difficulty, and if children are to be generously welcomed, then the foundation upon which they stand must be a shared faith and the dynamic workings of God’s grace.
For Christians, marriage and family planning is to be imbedded in their discipleship. These are not separate or self-contained entities. They reflect aspects of the Lord’s own Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
For those disciples who are called to these vocations, the Lord calls them to fidelity, trust, and self-abnegation. While not popular among unbelievers and those who are “hard of heart,” these teachings are given by the Lord as a call to his own way of selfless love and generosity. Incidentally, these very teachings will be used by Saint Paul to explain the Lord’s own faithfulness and fruitfulness to his Church.
In contrast to this way of life, the unbeliever runs the risk of living forever as a juvenile, seeking what Pope St. John Paul II described as “immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being.” In the great paradox of the Gospel, the overriding truth is proclaimed: If we refuse to die to ourselves, then we become strangers to ourselves and to those around us.
In these admonitions on marriage and family life, and the others recorded by Saint Mark on his way to Jerusalem, the Lord Jesus is reminding the human family, and especially his community of disciples, of the importance of self-emptying love in knowing and becoming who we are called to be. It is this love that the Lord Jesus has for each one of us, and it is the love that he wants to form in each of our hearts.
Without any question, Jesus Christ will manifestly show us this love when he reaches Jerusalem. It is a love that forever shines from Calvary, and it is one that can shine from our own hearts, if we listen to the Lord Jesus and allow his gospel to transform us and to teach us how to love.