Words not enough to explain Paschal mystery

by Fr. Mike Stubbs

How do you tell someone that they have to die? Do you beat around the bush? Do you blurt it out all at once? Do you gradually build up to your point?

In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 16: 21-27, Jesus shares with his disciples the fact that he must suffer and die. That message also points to the fact that they also must die. Let us investigate how he goes about that.

Matthew repeats almost word for word the account of this exchange between Jesus and the disciples provided by Mark’s Gospel. But at the very beginning of his account, Matthew introduces some small changes.

Where Mark writes: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things,” Matthew instead writes: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly.”

Setting aside for a moment Matthew’s omission of the phrase “Son of Man” and his insertion of the word “Jerusalem,” I direct your attention to Matthew’s switching from the word “teach” to the word “show.”

Admittedly, Matthew is making basically the same point as Mark. At the same time, Matthew is introducing an interesting nuance, the difference between teaching and showing. One teaches a doctrine. On the other hand, one shows, or reveals, a mystery. Matthew’s use of the word “show” suggests that Jesus wishes to point to a mystery, rather than to state a simple fact.

After all, in a few days Jesus will take Peter, James and John up the mountain to reveal himself in glory, in the transfiguration (Mt 17:1-8). In doing that, Jesus will show them the mystery of his divinity.

In Jesus’ conversation with the disciples, shortly before Jesus predicts his suffering and death, Peter confesses Jesus’ messiahship. Jesus acknowledges Peter’s insight with the words: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

Once again, it is a question of mystery; in this case, the mystery of Jesus’ identity. While words help us to grapple with the mystery, it is impossible to reduce the mystery to mere words.

When Matthew’s Gospel writes that “Jesus began to show the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly,” Matthew is telling us that Jesus is introducing his disciples to a mystery that goes beyond the mere stating of a few words, a mystery that cannot be immediately absorbed, a mystery that must be explored and probed through faith.

Theologians call that the “paschal mystery.” Jesus introduces his disciples to that mystery by means of his teachings. But later, they experience it through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection to new life.

Ultimately, they will penetrate that mystery to its deepest level by their own martyrdom and entrance into eternal life. Only then will they realize the full meaning of Jesus’ words on that fateful day in Galilee.

That holds true for us as well. The words of Jesus in the Gospel reading introduce us to the paschal mystery, the mystery of death and resurrection. But that mystery goes far beyond words.

Only as we experience suffering and death ourselves — not only biological death, but the little deaths we go through every day — will we penetrate to the heart of that mystery.

And in that we will find new life.

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