As Jewish families sat down to eat, the patriarch, either the father or the eldest son, would pour the cups of wine for all who were gathered at the table. He decided just how much wine each person would receive, and no one ever suggested that his or her portion was not enough or fair.
When Jesus asked James and John if they could drink of the cup that he had been given by the Father, he was referring to the fact that the Father always decided how much an individual should be allotted. Jesus’ Father had given him a cup of suffering. As his passion began, he asked the Father to let the cup pass from him if possible. However, even as he made the request, he knew that the Father had the last word when it came to how much the cup would hold.
When James and John insist that they were able to drink the cup which had been given to Jesus, Jesus revealed that they would indeed be asked to drink that same cup of suffering. Each of the apostles would be called upon to drink deeply; each would be asked to give his life for the sake of the Gospel.
This passage from the Gospel of Mark is part of the rich tapestry which the sacred author has placed before us when considering the mystery of suffering. The Gospel of Mark contains more references to suffering and persecution than the other three Gospels combined. Scholars offer a possible reason for that by focusing attention on the intended audience for this Gospel. Written for the Jewish converts to Christianity who lived in Rome around the year 70 A.D., the Christian community was facing the beginning of the Roman persecutions which would claim many lives and which would yield many martyrs whose blood would become the foundation of the Roman Church. The sacred author writes to bolster the community as the cup of suffering is about to be tasted by these converts to faith in Jesus.
When Jesus gathers his apostles around him, he reminds them that true glory comes from suffering, that there is no Resurrection without first enduring the cross, that each human life will experience some sort of suffering. Perhaps it will be the emotional suffering of losing a loved one. Some will be asked to endure the pain of physical and chronic illness. Others will bear the burden of mental illness. We are all called upon to drink of the cup of suffering. However, let us not forget that the sacred writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus, our High Priest, knows what we are asked to endure because he himself has gone before us and has drunk deeply of the cup of suffering.
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul tells us that he rejoices in his afflictions. In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear that the apostles rejoiced when they were scourged or imprisoned. They reasoned that since God had asked Jesus to suffer, being asked to suffer was an endorsement of their preaching and their lives.
I am not suggesting that we should seek suffering or that we should create situations that cause us to suffer. However, it goes without saying that suffering will be part of all of our lives. It is simply part of the human experience. When we bond our sufferings with the sufferings of Jesus, when we accept the cup which the Father pours for us, we are assured of finding the same approbation that God gave Jesus in the Resurrection – life eternal.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator