Lent is here and already I am behind. I simultaneous long for these seasons and the spiritual gifts that blossom from introspection, and I fear them for the very same reason. Several weeks ago I was very excited about this series on Viktor Frankl and the meaning of suffering, but as challenges mount in my life, I feel less inclined to think about suffering at all. There are days when I think, "Enough of suffering, enough of heartbreak, enough of the macro-suffering of violence, torture and corruption, enough of the micro-suffering from my own anger, judgmentalism and unwillingness to face the truth about myself. But Lent is here and the spiritual tasks of this season are clear. It is the season of reflection, repentance and facing the truth within.
Most important spiritual journeys begin with a question
and a search for an answer. The Gospel
Lesson from Mark hits us with a profound question from Jesus, "Who do you
say that I am?" This is a peak
moment in Mark’s narrative about Jesus. Before
this chapter lies a series of miracles and triumphs. Jesus feeds 5000 people, heals the sick, and
wins theological arguments with the Pharisees. He is definitely on the rise, his fame
stretching throughout the small region of
Palestine. After this question is answered, he sets his face toward
I have ever sympathy with Peter in this text. He is caught up in a very exciting moment. He is the first to speak an important truth. “You are the messiah, the Christ,” he answers Jesus. Peter senses the long-awaited moment when the world will be made right, he is witness to the turning point of humanity, he is a part of history being made. But he quickly becomes uneasy as Jesus begins to lay out the future. Jesus says he’s going to suffer, the religious leaders are going to unite against him and kill him, and after three days he will rise from the dead.
When Jesus finishes, Peter pulls him aside and acts as
campaign manager. I imagine him in the
modern context reminding Jesus that this strategy isn’t going to attract the
swing voters and it is hard to make things happen if you’re dead before you get
in office. Ok, so a dead guy once got
Plenty of leaders
tried to follow that script. Many scholars
think that Mark’s Gospel was written about time when the
So the question comes again, “Who do you say that I am?” How might I go about answering this question today? I have empathy for Peter, for like him, I can be quick with the correct theological answer, but stubbornly slow at realizing the implications of the answer. Some questions require so much more of us than the correct answer; they require a reassessment and rearranging of our very lives. I wish the Christian faith could be an intellectual journey and then I could do my research and write about who Jesus is. I could even put together a list of important moral imperatives and ethical implications of Christ’s life. I wish the Christian faith could be an assurance of happiness and success. I like the comfort of the Protestant work ethic, so that I could believe any comfort of a nice home and financial security was a sign of God’s blessing, that I am one of the chosen. I wish this journey was therapeutic, that I could talk to a wise counselor who would help me resolve all my issues, and that with some daily yoga and meditation I would be happy and at peace.
But I think there is more to answering Jesus than any of these paths. Jesus chose to enter into the fullness of human life, including the immense suffering, agony and travails of tears. He answered these great trials with his life. I do not merely mean that he died on the cross. Jesus was in agony and filled with compassion for the suffering long before the reality of the cross. Jesus was with the lepers, the hungry, the demon possessed, the widows, orphans and adulterers long before the cross.
Anyone who has walked among the suffering knows this kind
of agony. When I was in
To be honest, some days I hate this work. I am tempted to hopelessness and cynicism. It is so easy in human services to guard the heart from peoples’ suffering. I start to blame them for their suffering, I get caught up in the enormity of work (including paperwork) and become impatient with my clients, and some days I just want to close the door and hide. So why do I do this? Is it atonement for my sins or does it make me feel virtuous?
You may be wondering when I was going to get to Viktor
Frankl. He comes now at the end with his
own question. Frankl endured the hell of
several concentration camps, including
"Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible." (Man's Search for Meaning, p.131)
Frankl shows us the journey we must take to answer Jesus’ question. To say who Jesus is requires us to answer with our lives. It is a challenging question, but it is also an invitation. Our greatest need is for a meaningful life. Too often we make the path of compassion for those who suffer a struggle of grim determination. We take on challenges hoping to endure and win our prize at the end. Faith is not a path of endurance, but a path of freedom, hope and peace. When we choose to follow Christ, we experience our greatest freedom. Yes, there is a freedom to picking up the cross and following Christ, for we then know who we are and why we are here.