Deep in the Middle Ages wave after wave of Christians went on crusades to the Holy Land to liberate the holy places from the Moslems. These crusades went on for several centuries and failed in the end. But in the meantime there were vast numbers of casualties: many thousands killed or injured in battle, tens of thousands including a king of France cut down by disease on the way, and thousands more including a king of England held captive for ransom. Whole religious orders of priests were founded with the sole purpose of ransoming captives and liberating prisoners from the clutches of the heathens. And sometimes those priests would even offer themselves in exchange for the prisoners!
Just an isolated moment in history long ago and far away? We might think so, but today's Gospel disagrees. For, as we heard so clearly, Jesus defines his whole mission as ransoming captives. "I have come to give my life in ransom for the many." In defining himself in that way, Jesus also defines our vocation as his followers. So we'd better figure out what this business of ransoming captives and rescuing prisoners is all about.
First of all, what it's not about for us is dashing off to Lebanon or Iran or Iraq to negotiate with terrorists. Our task is more subtle than that, and our opportunities are much closer at hand. Jesus is asking us to do for one another what he tries to do for us. He's asking us to invest our very best energies in the task of setting one another free from whatever holds us captive.
To understand that vocation we have to look closely at the kinds of things that enslave people. Just think of the fears, and angers, and grudges that hold people captive. Think of the bad habits of a lifetime that are trapping so many. Think of the bad ideas that imprison so many. And think of the compulsive need for things, the need for stuff, which holds so many of us hostage and forecloses the possibility of a happy life. Just call up in your mind's eye the face of anyone you know, friend or foe, and you'll see there, even in the very best of people, the hints of prison walls, the need to be set free.
So how do we go about helping one another escape our prison walls? Tons of free advice will rarely do it we've already learned that! The most powerful, liberating gift we have to give is our steadfast, compassionate presence. Our strength, our goodness, and our willingness to continue walking at the side of our friend can, in time, become strength and goodness and freedom for our friend.
That is a wonderful gift we have to give: strength, goodness, and freedom. What a sadness it would be if we failed to give it!
Wednesday May 25, 2005 Eighth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (Sirach 36:1, 4-5a, 10-17) Gospel (St. Mark 10:32-45)
In the first reading from the Book of Sirach, we hear this beautiful prayer as Sirach pours his heart out to God, asking for the Lord to intervene. What is important about this prayer is the humility with which it is prayed. Sirach, remember, is one of the wisest individuals in ancient Israel, and therefore he is someone who could easily get caught up in his own sense of greatness. But instead he turns humbly to the Lord and he prays.
Now contrast that with what goes on in the Gospel. We have James and John coming to ask the Lord if they can sit one at His right hand and the other at His left in the kingdom. Then we have the other ten getting angry because James and John want to be above them. Well, the only reason they would be angry at that is because they wanted to be above James and John. So we have this whole fight going on about who is going to be the greatest. The Lord, Who is the greatest, tells them that the one who will be the greatest among them is the one who is the servant of all, the one who makes himself the least, the one who is willing to serve. And He tells us, regarding His own self, that He came not to be served but to serve, and He came to give His life as a ransom for many.
So if we are going to follow in His footsteps, the same has to be said. He told James and John that they would drink of the chalice from which He would drink and that they would be baptized with the same baptism with which He would be baptized. They would have to drink the cup of suffering. They would be killed, just as He was killed. That was not enough to be able to obtain for them that position they desired. The only thing that is going to obtain it is humility, to be a servant, to be the least, because when that is our attitude then charity can fill in.
The only one who is going to be the highest in heaven is the one who loves the most. That, of course, is Our Lady. But, as I like to point out, we know who has the top spot we do not know who has the next one. It could be for you. There is no reason why it could not be. We are not going to get anywhere near to where Our Blessed Lady is, but beyond that, for God all things are possible (as we heard yesterday in the Gospel). So it is possible for God even to make us saints, great saints. But we have to cooperate. It means we have to be small. It means we have to be willing to be humble. It means we have to be willing to serve. Saint Paul says of Jesus in his Letter to the Philippians that He humbled Himself and took the form of a slave. Jesus was God. If that was not beneath His dignity, to humble Himself and take the form of a slave, why do we think it is beneath ours? He came to serve, not to be served. In our turn, we must do the same.
We have to be humble, we have to be small. Otherwise, we can spend eternity with the one who thought he was great, one whose motto is I will not serve. That is the opposite of where we want to be. But the way to get to each place is clearly laid out. One is where people who are arrogant and want to be served and want to be selfish are going to be. And one is where the humble, the servants, are going to be. The choice is entirely ours. God will make us great saints if we are willing to allow it, but He will not force us to be. We have to cooperate. We need to pray for humility, we need to pray for charity, and we need to pray for the grace to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, Who humbled Himself, became a slave, and served.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording with minimal editing.