But they did not understand this saying;
its meaning was hidden from them
so that they should not understand it,
and they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
In today's gospel, Jesus has been telling his disciples, "The Son of Man will be handed over." and they cannot understand it.
Some intellectuals and many pseudo-intellectuals of the ancient world belonged to "mystery religions." Because they were secretive to start with, and later suppressed by the Christianized empire, we know little about their rituals and beliefs. Members were invited to join and there were probably certain social, political and economic incentives to join; much as today's Masons, BPOE, and Woodmen of the World offer benefits to prospective members.
Entering through arcane rituals they were told certain secrets of a religious nature. These mysteries probably had as much to do with real life and everyday experience as some New Age notions do today, but knowing them gave one a sense of superiority.
Saint Paul would use the word mystery to talk about the cross. There is something inexplicable here; it makes sense only to initiates.
The gospels recall the dumbfounded confusion of the disciples when Jesus told them what would happen at the end of their journey. As they approached the Holy City, it should not have taken a weatherman to tell which way the wind was blowing, but the disciples apparently hoped against hope that the inevitable wouldn't really happen.
To this day, believers and non-believers alike try to avoid the truth of the crucifixion. We would rather think that good will be rewarded and wickedness will be punished. That sounds like a rational system and life sometimes works out like that. We all know of criminals who went to jail and generous persons who were honored with banquets. Didn't the Cowardly Lion receive a medal for his courage?
Can there be any reasonable explanation for innocents who suffer and the guiltless who are punished? But Christians cling to the cross as our greatest treasure. We keep our eyes fixed on this mystery like a light shining in a dark place. If the thinking mind cannot interpret it the faith-filled heart embraces it. We are drawn to the cross as iron to a magnet.
In the beginning the cross teaches us simple things. We learn "To have a friend you have to be a friend."; "It's not about me."; and "There's no I in team." We learn, "The first shall be last and the last shall be first." and "Take the lowest place."
Later, the cross will teach us more mysterious lessons: "If you think you can do well by doing good, be careful. Be very careful!" and "Make friends in this world with dishonest money."
Finally, the cross will lead some of the elect into the black hole of martyrdom, an apparently senseless sacrifice with no obvious reward. The Church celebrates these mysteries, saying, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church." But to the rational mind it is nonsense.
The Holy Spirit will never permit the Church to lose the cross. Another word for mystery is sacrament; with these rituals we teach each generation to "follow him", and "Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus." The faithful are identified by their fascination with the cross.