In ancient days, kings would extend their friendship through the sharing of a chalice. The king would drink and, then, he would offer that chalice to those close to him. By extension of that friendship, those who drank received the trappings of his kingdom.
But this came, of course, by oath: those who drank were promising to be the king’s friends—in good times and in bad. It was a chalice of blessing and a chalice of promised fidelity in love.
And so Jesus asks James and John, those who asked to sit at His side, “Can you drink the chalice which I will drink?”
They respond that they can. It seems easy enough: by the oath of friendship with this Messiah-King, James and John not only gain a powerful friend, but also all of His trappings. To drink of the chalice is, for them, a total benefit without any cost; nothing will be asked of them. Or so they think.
The chalice which Jesus will drink is not what they think it is. Jesus’ chalice is the Cross. This is why, on the night before He died, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed: “Father, take this chalice from me. But, not as I will, but your will be done" (Lk 22:42)
Note the contrast: what Jesus was crushed to drink, James and John were willing to gulp down. Truly, as the Lord Himself said, “You do not know what you ask.”
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Jesus is not a king like the world’s kings. He is not interested in controlling others or amassing power through blind ambition and vengeance and war. What Jesus is interested is in love, a love that is poured out like a libation (Phil 2:17), a love whose kingdom-rule is self-donation and “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13)—and even one’s enemies (Mt 5:44).
James and John, this is your King. This is the one by whose throne you are asking to sit. Do you realize what you are asking? that you are asking to become like Christ who serves so as to exalt others? who suffers so as to bring mercy and consolation? who dies so as to bring eternal life?
Do you believe that suffering with your King, Jesus Christ, will really bring about the salvation of mankind? that your Good Friday with Christ will bring about an Easter Sunday for yourself and others?
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“Come down off of that cross!” people will say to you, just as they said to your King. Don’t enter into long-term commitments, they will say. Make yourself comfortable and don’t get tied down, they will advise. Have a couple kids, fine, but don’t have any more—“come down off that Cross!” Because for the world, fidelity, generosity, perseverance in suffering, chastity—these fruits of the Holy Spirit—are scandalous and a "folly to the Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23), precisely because the world does not see the royal King in the Suffering Servant’s chalice.
Jesus chose to drink of the chalice, to embrace the suffering and pain of the Cross. And for love of you.
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On the night before Jesus died, He took a chalice and blessed it and gave it to His disciples saying, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it. For this is the chalice of my blood. The blood of the new and eternal covenant…” Do we understand what this means? The king was offering friendship and a share in His heavenly kingdom to them: He loves them even unto death and the proof is in the chalice.
This chalice is now offered to you at Holy Mass. It is a chalice of the deepest friendship, of love, and of a rule whose power is found in the Cross. And with it comes an oath: that God loves us, but that we promise to love Him even unto the Cross (cf. 1 Cor 11:27).
So, let us ask Him: Lord, how are you inviting me to suffer for love? Is it cancer? Is it humiliation? Is it in a commitment? poverty? generosity? others being preferred over me? hurts from the past? the falling away of family and friends from the faith? the evil of the world?
Let us approach the chalice in trusting love and in confident faith—that Jesus, who invites us to suffer for the world and in love, will transform our sufferings, just as His were transformed, into grace, into redemption, into salvation for our human race.
“Can you drink of the chalice which I will drink?”
James and John replied, “We can.”