The Cross at the Heart of the World
Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant.
Christ had promised “Truly I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the tribes of Israel.” This promise the mother of James and John knew, but she had one further request; that her sons should have first place in that new world, sitting on the right hand and the left hand of the throne of the Messiah.
James and John stood with their mother, for it was to them that Jesus said: You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink? When they replied that they could Jesus acknowledged their future, for He knew both would die for His name, but He also warned that the privilege of sitting at His right and left was known only to the Father, which was consistent with Jesus’ repeated claim that He did not know the day or the hour.
Jesus did not rebuke directly the brothers for their desire, or better, the desire of their mother, but the other ten grew indignant that the brothers had made such a request, perhaps because they had their own ambitions regarding the right order in the new world. But then Jesus said in effect, This is not the question, for in fact authority in my kingdom is not the authority of place and power and security but the authority of sacrifice, self-giving, and adventure. Greatness comes from the gift of self to others, not from lording it over one another as the Greeks do, but from taking the lowest place and seeking to serve best.
The Lord offers Himself as the everlasting model. His was a unique vocation, to make atonement for the sins of the world. In this the Church participates, for we like Paul are called to fill up the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24), but no person but the Son of God can make the great offering. Yet each of us has an offering to make, an offering formed by our state in life, by our vocation, by our circumstances, and the heart of the matter is our ability to make a gift to the world of persons and projects and objects through which we move.
“The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve others and to give His life as a ransom for many.“ The power of that sacrifice was not in Jesus’ giving away His life, nor in His having it taken from Him, but in giving it for something great, the salvation of the human race, out of obedient love for His Father. This text is surely illuminated by Jesus’ action on the night in which He was betrayed, when He the Lord of All knelt before the disciples and washed their feet, saying, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example.”
These are words that while they gentle the world are addressed first to everyman as an invitation to humility. Fulfilling that vocation to the life of service is not in the first instance what we do or do not do to others, but about how we think of ourselves in relation to them. Part of conversion to the way of Christ is the ability to see everyman as a a fellow-pilgrim possessed of moral and other excellences for which we should praise God, to know ourselves as sinners, commanded to have a heart for the other, for this is surely what the command to love our neighbor as we love our selves means at the least.
The point of Gospel humility is not the sterile immolation of self but the good of the other or the object. If a grain of wheat dies, it gives much life, it is a gift to someone or to something that enriches life. Sacrifice, giving up one’s life, is not always or even often dramatic action but is bending the will to the duties of our state in life with love. It is not easy to see the cross behind the actions of faithful spouses, caring parents, all those fullfillers of obligations that may be onerous, but the cross is there; remove it and the resulting chaos will attest its power. And for every supernatural act there is an natural analogue. It could be argued effectively that the greatest human enterprises are those led by one who gives himself up to the enterprise and sees those who share with him in the work as objects of his care. The Greek “to serve” also means “to provide for.” Love, as Saint Paul says, “seeketh not its own.”
In this day’s Gospel Jesus told the Twelve that he was going to Jerusalem to die, “They will condemn Him to death, and hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and He will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 20:18–19). And indeed this happened; He was raised and ascended to His Father. And when the door opened in heaven and the Prophet John saw the Lamb, He stood in glory but as one having been slain (Revelation 4:1, 5:6). The sacrifice of love goes on while the world lasts.