Drinking the Chalice of the Lord: Facing Suffering, Struggle and Failure
There is an encounter between Jesus, James, his brother and his mother in the Gospel accounts. Here is the account as it was recorded by the Apostle Matthew:
“The mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom.”
Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.”
He replied, “My chalice you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers.
But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20: 20 – 28)
James was the son of Zebedee and brother of John. From faithful stock, we see in this encounter that some forms of zeal may indeed be genetic. In fact, the zeal in both of these brothers caused the Lord to name them the Sons of Thunder.(Mk 3:14-17)
However, human zeal is not sufficient, in and of itself, to become a disciple of the Master, Jesus Christ. Like all human virtues, it must be baptized and transformed by grace. It needs to be forged in the fires of struggle, suffering and sometimes even failure.
And, so it would be in James.
He followed the Lord on that way of life and discipleship. It would later be called Christianity for the first time in Antioch. (Acts 11:26) He was one of three disciples to witness the transfiguration. He fell asleep during the great instruction which Jesus gave them in that Garden called Gethsemane.
The Christian tradition tells us that after the Resurrection, James preached the Gospel in Spain. To this day, the pilgrimage path which bears his name is effecting conversion in the lives of many.
He returned to Palestine in 44 AD and drank that chalice with the Lord, in full. He was the first Apostle to be martyred by order of the tyrant named Herod Agrippa. The word martyr means witness. In both his life and his death, James was such a witness.
All of those who bear the name Christian are invited to follow the path of Jesus’ struggle, to walk along with Him on the way of His rejection. We too are invited to climb the mountain of His great saving act of unmerited selfless Divine love.
James, indeed all the martyrs, show us the way, the pattern, the lifestyle of surrendered love for God. They invite us to walk this way with Jesus, who, in His Sacred humanity, teaches us the path to our own transformation.
James may have missed the lesson of Gethsemane the first time around due to falling asleep,(Mt. 26) but he certainly learned to live it out in a lifestyle of discipleship. The agony in that garden called Gethsemane shows us a very human Jesus and instructs each one of us on how to face our own struggles.
Yes, Jesus was Divine. Because of that, He alone could do for us what we could not do for ourselves, restoring, through His passion and death, the broken relationship between God and the people whom He fashioned for love and communion.
With His outstretched arms, Jesus bridged the gap between heaven and earth. In His triumph over death in the Resurrection, he defeated the last enemy and began the new creation.
It is in His Sacred humanity that Jesus shows each of us how we are called to bear faithful witness and live differently. Sometimes we are invited to greet and embrace even that which we do not want, including suffering and struggle, failure and difficulties.
In the surrendered, voluntary embrace of this kind of love, offered freely by a disciple of Jesus, suffering and struggle, failure and difficulty can actually become a means of transformation; a path to conversion and holiness.
We have been given the grace to accept suffering, struggles, difficulties – and even failure. We receive this grace in and through the Savior who suffered on our behalf. He transformed them from within by His Divine Love and now gives us that same Holy Spirit.
When they are voluntarily embraced in love, and freely joined to Jesus Christ, they further the work of redemption. They can even lead to a fuller experience of interior freedom and flourishing. The Saints of the Church show us this way. They were so configured to the Lord that He lived his life through them. They joined their suffering to His and watched the very power of God released, in and through them.
The same can happen with each one of us. We are all called to be saints, with a small “s” at least. The word in its root means holy ones. We are all called to holiness, no matter what our state in life, age, situation or vocation.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament wrote “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 14:15)
The Christian tradition instructs us that even undeserved and unmerited suffering, when joined in love to the sufferings of Jesus Christ, can produce extraordinary fruit within us and around us. This is what is meant by the mystery of suffering in the Christian life.
Saint Jose Maria Escriva once wrote, “The great Christian revolution has been to convert pain into fruitful suffering and to turn a bad thing into something good. We have deprived the devil of this weapon; and with it we can conquer eternity.”
It is quite helpful at times to ask ourselves some questions – and then answer them honestly. How do we treat those circumstances that cause us to struggle?
How do we deal with what we find unpleasant? Do we practice an adult form of avoidance and run, acting as if it will all just go away like when children cover their eyes?
Or do we believe that even unpleasant things and difficult people can actually be gifts from the hands of a loving God who invites us to walk in the way of His Son?
How do we deal with unresolved conflicts or troubling relationships? Do we work toward resolution, making “love our aim”, or do we avoid them, thinking they will just go away if we pretend they don’t exist?
Now is the time to join the great Christian revolution of which that great saint wrote so insightfully.
All of us inevitably experience Gethsemanes in our own lives. We walk through times of difficulty, distress, fear and anguish. Friends may have betrayed us, or those whom we love may have rejected us. Maybe things about our lives are being exposed, brought into the light, and it is so very uncomfortable.
It is often those very times, those very people and circumstances, that pave the path to holiness if we learn to love as Jesus loves; to love with Jesus’ love. Our Christian vocation is to live as He lives, to love as He loves and to thereby become holy as He is holy.
“Can you drink the chalice?” the question Jesus posed to James and his brother echoes in this hour. What is the chalice we are being asked to drink? Let us decide today to make the choice and drink, saying as we do “not my will but yours be done”
When we learn how to live and love in this way, the Christian way, the people and circumstances that once seemed to be so difficult can lead us into a fuller experience of freedom and bring us the kind of joy which can never be taken away.
When we learn to walk the way of forgiving love, accompanying Jesus on the Way of the Cross, His redemptive mission continues through time and into eternity.
We also begin to understand what it means to drink His chalice.
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