In today’s Gospel, the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples recognizes His greatness and authority. She asks Him to command her sons to sit at His right and left hand – presumably, in Heaven. Like most mothers, she has no qualms about pushing her sons to be achievers, to do good, to make her proud.
But the greatness she sees in Jesus is short-sighted. Seeing only the high place he is entitled to in Heaven and on Earth, she wants the same wisdom, abilities and honor for her sons…
But, she has yet to understand that in Jesus’ paradigm, honor is earned by service – and by the severe suffering he predicts, in very precise language, at the beginning of the reading.
Further, the kind of honor she seeks for her sons is conferred by God as the final judge of how they have served.
These days, most of us are blessed with the luxury of belonging to this robust Catholic Church of over 1 billion members worldwide. The Mass, liturgical cycles, sacraments, and local customs carry us along, year after year, and we celebrate with each other in freedom and comfort.
But we should not lose sight of the fact that the greatness of this Church is built on the blood of its early martyrs and pilgrims. These people – some celebrated saints, but also many lay people whose names are known only to God — carried forward the Word of Christ at extreme risk at their own peril.
Nor should we lose sight of the fact that even today, there are some places where to be a Catholic means to be judged, shunned, mocked, or to know that to live one’s faith puts one’s life in very real danger.
There is high honor to be gained in defending the faith in such extraordinary situations, but thankfully, not all of us are called to do so. The example of our brothers and sisters who carry their faith forward in unfriendly or even dangerous environments reminds us that even in more “cushy” circumstances, we are likewise obliged to uphold and defend our Catholic values. In fact, to do so is to face a different and much more nuanced layer of difficulty.
May we be strengthened by our community in truly understanding the full scope of what it means to live as Catholics in word and deed, wherever we are.
Art above: The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer by Jean-Leon Gérôme