I have loved the work of the great composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim for years. This is in large part thanks to my college roommate and best friend Andrew who, in addition to also studying theology, had two minors: accounting and theatre. The latter field of study was a passion of his and it was over the course of four years that I had a the view of a front-row seat to his dedication and commitment in studying the great works of the stage. It was he who really helped me to appreciate the genius of Sondheim (long before Johnny Depp played starred in the cinematic version of Sweeney Todd). He introduced me to lesser-known and under-appreciated Sondheim works, including my favorite: Assassins.
Whenever I hear today’s Gospel I think of Sondheim and perhaps one of his greatest, or at least most-loved, musicals: Into the Woods. I haven’t yet seen the Disney adaptation for the movies (you know the one, starring Meryl Streep, among others), but I’ve seen several iterations of the show on stage. The first time was when my college roommate was cast in our university’s (surprisingly impressive) student production of the show. For those who are not familiar with the musical, it is performed in two acts and features several famous fairy-tale characters — Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood.
In Act I everything seems to be coming together. From the opening narration with each character expressing what it is that “I wish” in song, to the end, it seems that when the curtain falls everything has finally come together. In fact, the chorus closes the Act with the memorable line: “Into the woods, and out of the woods, and happy ever after!” to great fanfare.
Yet, from the first moments of Act II — which begins with the narrator’s introduction “once upon a time…later” — it is clear that everything is not as it had originally seemed. The whole perfect scene in each fairy tale begins to unravel. Disarray ensues, confusion follows, feelings and persons are hurt, no one is happy, let alone for ever after!
And it is this structure, this performative framework that reminds me of Mark’s Gospel.
Those familiar with the structure of the Gospel know that our reading today comes from right in the middle of the book (Mark 8:27-35). Up to this point in the narrative, Jesus has been introduced, has performed miracles and preached, has invited the first followers, and it seemed like nobody was really getting it. The disciples, predictably clueless, are like the fairy-tale characters: they think they understand what they want and what Jesus is about and what they’re doing. But they don’t.
That is, until this moment of luminous clarity that comes in Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is The Christ! Alas, the disciples have indeed gone into the woods and came out of the woods, and perhaps things will be happy ever after!
And…that is, until their understanding of what Christian discipleship is all about unravels.
That is, until Jesus teaches them what we hear prophesied in our First Reading from the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 50:5-9), that the messiah will have to suffer and die.
That is, until it begins to appear that maybe things aren’t as happy ever after as they first thought. Jesus explains to them that:
He began to teach them
that the Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed, and rise after three days.
It has always struck me as harsh the way that Jesus refers to Peter as “Satan” in response to the apostle’s “rebuking” Jesus in talking so seemingly pessimistically. Who would blame Peter, right? Perhaps he was just trying to be optimistic and be reassuring in the face of Jesus’s ostensible “gloom and doom.”
But what was really going on is made clear when Jesus tells his followers: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” As John Martens reminds us, this distinction is really best understood as the need to move from setting our minds on “human things” toward setting our minds on “the things of God.”
The reference to “Satan” is a flashback to the temptations in the desert when Jesus was confronted with the choices we all have to face concerning comfort, wealth, security, power, and the like. The desire to hold onto comfort and safety, even to his own life, in the face of God’s call to serve the world made Peter appear a lot like one whose priorities were more in line the tempter in the desert than with the Son of God, whom Peter just proclaimed was the Christ.
As Jesus makes clear at the end of this passage:
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”
Which, is reiterated in a way in our Second Reading from the Letter of James (2:14-18) in that Christian discipleship demands something of us beyond what our expectations or personal desires may be.
So often we think we understand what Jesus is saying, what he’s asking of us, what it means to live the Gospel — but far too often we are just stuck in Act I of Mark’s Gospel. We still don’t realize that we don’t realize. We are like Peter and the other disciples, oblivious to our own delusion and misunderstanding.
May not project onto Jesus and the Gospel what we want or desire, but genuinely open ourselves to hear the call of the Spirit, whatever the cost.
Then, at least from the vantage point of God though we might not see it at first, we may truly live happy ever after, I wish.