The longings that fuel our daydreams can sometimes fall far short of what Christ has called us to become. We see this in the incident of James and John approaching Jesus and requesting for themselves seats on his right and left in the kingdom of his glory. Small wonder that this request caused indignation and division when it came to the attention of the other disciples.
Jesus had repeatedly insisted that his was a kingdom of selfless service, a kingdom in which the first would be last. A kingdom that would be established only through his own death and resurrection. The disciples had heard this many times. Their clumsy, self-serving request demonstrated how deeply the pull of selfishness runs in even the most committed disciples.
Jesus countered the request of his disciples with a challenge: “Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I must be baptised?”
The disciples readily agreed to this, and we are left with the uncomfortable feeling that they agreed to this only to advance their standing with Jesus. Perhaps they, like many of us, had committed themselves initially to the right thing for the wrong reasons, and later would be converted to doing the right thing for the right reasons. Jesus assured them that they would indeed drink the cup that he would drink, that they would indeed be baptised in his baptism. The cup and baptism to which Jesus had referred were clearly his own approaching death and resurrection. Here he understood baptism not as a single event, but as the whole of a life given to the Father, surrendered on the Cross and raised to glory in the Resurrection.
For us also, baptism can never be understood simply as a single event. It is for us, as it was for Jesus, a lifelong process. Day by day we drink from his cup. Day by day we are renewed in his baptism. We, like the disciples, struggle to set aside our unthinking selfishness. We, like the disciples, demand to be noticed and acknowledged.
We should not be tempted to discouragement when life confronts us with the shallowness of our imagined virtue. The insistence of Jesus that we, with his disciples, shall drink his cup and be baptised in his baptism, is the assurance that he will be our strength in every struggle and disappointment.
In the Letter to the Hebrews Jesus is described as the high priest who has felt our weakness and has faced our every temptation. We can be confident then, that even when we have faced the worst in ourselves, we shall find mercy in him, and the grace to grow in his likeness.
It might well take a lifetime, but the grace of our baptism is, as Jesus showed, a lifelong call to renewal.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (16/10/15)