“The Son of man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise”. But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid top question him.
A week ago we had listened to the invitation to look to the Cross of Christ, sign of God’s love and of man’s salvation. Once again, in this twenty-fifth Sunday, the liturgy raises before our eyes the figure of the Son of Man, suffering, crucified and forsaken. In the First Reading we see him as someone whom his very own people had plotted against: “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training”. The cross of Christ does not merely stand as a sign of God’s love, the instrument with which our ransom was paid and our redemption was one. It is also the arena in which the decisive battle between good and evil was won. Indeed, the suffering of the Just One of God, the Lamb without stain, all the more emphasizes the evil and the darkness that lie in the heart of sinful man. Jesus’ love, humility and obedience on the cross stresses all the more the ugliness of sin and of the one who has chosen to reject God’s love out of pride, the devil in the first place, and then sinful man, who is the victim of his treachery.
The cross of Christ (and by this I also refer to the whole saving work of our Lord) is far richer in wisdom than any other lesson-book in history. It does not merely teach us things; it impresses on us things that are really important, essential to attaining our main goal in life: to achieve happiness eternal, only possible in union with God. The message of the cross provides an interesting paradox. St. Paul expresses this in what could be termed as the “scandal of the cross”: Christ crucified presents a message that appears as something scandalous and foolish to a world that is engrossed in its own values. But for those who believe, the cross is reveals the wisdom of God and the power of God. This is something that the world—a sphere in a certain sense separated from God—would never understand. It would take the special grace of God and the teaching of the Savior that would allow us to realize that it is in the Cross of Christ that which is perceived as weakness is actually power and greatness, and that which is thought of as absurd is actually wise.
In the Gospel we see the disciples arguing among themselves about who was the greatest, something which we do quite a lot among ourselves as well. It is observed that each of us has that inclination to go up, to be great, to excel. I think this is quite natural. If we had been created by a God who is of an excellence more supreme than anything that our limited intellect could ever conceive, who would blame us if we yearn to excel. I believe that this drive to go up (Excelsior! Ever higher! a known motto says) is but another of those marks imprinted by the divine hand of the Creator upon us. But the question here, however, is not based on the fact that we were meant to aspire for the heights, but on what we understand greatness to be, and how must one aspire and achieve that greatness. It is true that we were all born for greatness, the question here in what does man’s consist? Through what road should man pass in order to reach the heights to which he is called.
In the same Gospel account, we hear of Jesus’ words: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all”. These were words followed by something which the Lord did: Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me; and whoever receives me receives not me but the one who sent me”. What had been said and done must have perplexed the disciples in the midst of their undoubtedly heated discussion about who was the greatest among them. Jesus had mentioned something about a servant holding the exalted position of the First among others; of the child being the depository of greatness. This perplexity could be understood in a culture where both the servant (or the slave) and the child amounted to nothing, and yet the Lord had mentioned these two insignificant elements of society in his teaching about greatness.
We have this predictable and yet at the same time misguided notion that human greatness is about getting what we want as we want it; power as something that enables us to possess, to claim what is ours, even with the use of force. Sometimes we may think that true power is having dominion over others, and that oftentimes we may have the notion that pressure and violence is an ingredient to power.
But then Jesus teaches his disciples that power and greatness is not all about possession and dominion. Not at least in God’s way. That God is powerful, that God is omnipotent is not due to the fact that he can do everything that he wills. God is most powerful because he can humble himself in assuming the weakness of human nature, accept and suffer pain, and die. He is powerful because he can give everything that he has. The cross, thus, is the highest manifestation of power: it is the sign of God’s never ending and infinite generosity, a love that gives everything of itself, a power that does not seek ultimately to possess, but rather to give of itself. It is more difficult to give generously of oneself than to take something by conquest. It takes more mastery over oneself to be humble than to conquer seven kingdoms, for there is wisdom in saying that the hardest thing to conquer is oneself. Jesus on the cross manifests the true meaning of power, the power to love, and what it means to love. In this is also contained true wisdom. We live in a world where admittedly knowledge is power, but knowledge in itself cannot give what man craves the most: love. We are not Gnostics, who believed that man could attain salvation by knowledge. Man has been saved by the love of a God who hung on the Cross, and it is only through love that man can accept the gift of salvation that is being offered to him like a fruit, hanging from the tree of the Cross of Christ.
In our daily, Christian life, this generosity of God, this power, this wisdom is lived through our commitment to service. Service is one thing that likens us to Christ. Christian service, which mirrors the generosity of God on the Cross, is something that does not seek to possess. Sometimes we offer service in order to noticed, applauded and praised by people. We do so in order to be recognized. But service according to the style of Jesus Christ is nothing like that. At the heart of service is generosity, a total and unselfish offering of the self; it is an offering that is oftentimes best kept hidden. It is something done out of love for our neighbor, not so that we may receive something in return primarily, but to work for the good of the other.
Service is not a thing of slaves; rather it manifests the nobility that lies in the heart of the one who serves. Contrary to what the world may think, only those who possess greatness of heart could truly serve. The one who asks that he be served relays the symptoms of a heart that is shrunken, unable to expand. The one who is ready to serve has a heart that is magnanimous, just like our Lord. It is easier to command that others serve oneself; it requires great humility, selflessness and love to forget oneself and turn to attend to the needs of the other. At the root of greatness is a heart that is disposed to serve. In fact, this even goes beyond human greatness: when one chooses freely to serve, out of generosity, in humility and in love, that person is imitating the life of the divine Master, who, in showing his love for his followers, the evening before he suffered and died, bent the knee and began to wash the feet of his disciples, whom he did not call servants, but friends (cfr. Jn 13:4-15).
If only this generosity, this commitment to service in the style of Christ (who came to serve and not to be served) were to be made flesh in our families, in our communities, among the leaders of our community—both religious and secular, how many conflicts would be averted! How wise and exact was the observation of the apostle James when, in writing to the Christian community, he commented that envy and selfish ambition (the mistaken idea and the wrong road to greatness) were the cause of disorder and evil in the community: Beloved: where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. These are words that we have in the Second Reading. A disinterested servanthood based on the example of Christ yields to peace in the community; egoism and the selfish drive to possess tears a community apart.
Considering these words, my thoughts turn toward the example of the saints, these true servants of God. It is not a coincidence that at the start of that long process that leads to beatification and eventual canonization, “servant” is the first title that they receive. In proposing these persons as example of human greatness tempered by divine grace, the Church points out that at the heart of this greatness is the will and the obedience to serve. My thoughts lead me to the example of Maximilian Kolbe who, in perfect imitation of the King of Martyrs, offered his life generously to a stranger. In offering to exchange places with a condemned man, St. Maximilian shows that for a person who serves, nobody is a stranger: everybody is a neighbor and a brother. St. Maximilian is a shining example of human greatness, tempered by the divine.
May these spiritual considerations lead us to be servants, knowing that herein lies true power and dignity. “It is an honor to be of service”, we so often hear and say. Looking at the Crucified, contemplating his words, and on their confirmation in the example of the lives of so many saints, may we realize in our lives that true greatness comes in knowing how to give generously, not only something that we have, but ourselves most importantly. AMEN.