A Spiritual Triptych: Jesus the Christ, Son of Man, Suffering Servant

On the Readings for Sunday, September 13, 2015


Is 50:5-9a

Ps 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
Jas 2:14-18

Mk 8:27-35

A triptych—from the Greek word meaning “three-fold”—was a form of artwork that emerged in the early centuries of Christianity and became popular during the Middle Ages. It consisted of three panels, which folded together and were often used as altar paintings, usually depicting the Crucifixion, with artwork of Christ on the Cross featured on the middle panel.

Today’s Gospel reading is a sort of spiritual triptych, for it naturally divides into three small sections, each of which features or alludes to a name or descriptive of Jesus. Each tells us something about his person and mission; each is oriented toward his Passion and his salvific death on the Cross.

The first name or title is Christ, or Messiah. In a well-known scene (described in more detail in Matthew 16), Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” After hearing the various answers, he asked them directly: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers for the disciples succinctly: “You are the Christ.” While his answer may have been verbally short, it was long on meaning.

This name appears some five hundred and thirty times in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word has a complex history; it refers to an “anointed one,” as well as to a royal figure, often associated in some way with King David, who will come at the end of time to establish God’s reign. In the Old Testament, anointing with oil had a deep religious significance, representing God’s divine election of a man to a specific office or task.

From the time the prophet Samuel had anointed Saul as king, each king of Israel had been an “anointed one.” But there hadn’t been an Israelite king for nearly six centuries prior to the time of Christ; the Israelites had instead been ruled by foreign rulers, often cruel and unjust.  As Dr. Mary Healy notes in her commentary on the Gospel of Mark, “For Peter to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah means, ‘You are the one through whom God will accomplish all that he promised!’” (Baker Academic, 2008).

Jesus then began to teach them about his approaching arrest, Passion, death, and Resurrection, using the second name of our triptych: the Son of Man. This title was one used most often by Jesus about himself (it appears ninety times in the New Testament), especially when foretelling his Passion. On one hand, it emphasizes the humanity of Christ. But it also refers to the prophet Daniel’s vision of final judgment, when the clouds of heaven open and “came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him” (Dan. 7:13). This mysterious figure is also royal, a king who suffers for the sake of the people and who is then vindicated by God at the end of time and history, a dramatic event described by Jesus (Matt. 25:31-34) and John the Revelator (Rev. 1:12-18). Paradoxically, “Son of Man” refers to both lowly humanity and dazzling power. 

The third title is one drawn from the prophet Isaiah and from Jesus’ teachings about self-denial and taking up the Cross: the Suffering Servant. He is described in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah as the man willing to endure torment and mockery for the sake of the Lord. The most famous and full description is found in Isaiah 52-53, which is read on Good Friday. 

Jesus again made the connection to Isaiah’s prophecy later in Mark’s Gospel, “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Reflecting on the Cross, St. Augustine wrote, “There is no other way for you to follow the Lord except by carrying it, for how can you follow him if you are not his?”

The Christ. The Son of Man. The Suffering Servant. Each name is a work of theological art, revealing Jesus and his love to us. 

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 13, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.