I remember when each of my children were born, and placed in my arms marveling at the miracle God had rendered in human flesh. The tiny fingers and toes, the delicate complexion, soft lips, and feathery eyelashes simply filled me with awe and gratitude. With each bundle of joy, I also recall pondering the utter vulnerability of the newborn child. Cognizant of the limitations of purposeful fine motor movement, I’d often wonder how it must feel to be so completely dependent upon the goodness of another. When those little arms would flail without apparent rhyme or reason, I’d wonder if my child had an itch he or she desperately wanted to scratch, or some other discomfort that could not be expressed and addressed voluntarily.
Perhaps I was more sensitive to this vulnerability because as I was taking care of my newborns, I was also caring for my Mom throughout her battle with Alzheimer’s Dementia. I recall watching my first-born son, then only a few months old, gaining skill daily while at the same time I was caring for Mom as she was losing her abilities with equal rapidity. As God blessed me with more children, I found myself contemplating the inverse proportional relationship between the rate at which my progeny gained independence and that at which my mother lost hers. I recall feeding Mom spoonsful of aromatic pureed nutrition, while tapping an infant’s seat with my foot, and watching two youngsters quibble over a container of cheerios.
We all long to feel important and valued– to have our basic needs met with tenderness and consideration. Yet it is paradoxical that as our ability to have those most basic needs met independently is achieved, that our capacity to empathize with the vulnerable diminishes. When we are in the greatest position to help others, we are often blinded to their needs. Yet, we were once as helpless as they, and are an accident, an illness, a natural disaster or an age away from being equally vulnerable again.
Often we spend our lives posturing to distance ourselves from an awareness of our own defenselessness. We wrap ourselves in the false-security blanket of accolades, achievements, and material possessions in an effort to insulate ourselves from any true cognition of our own innate weakness. While we are conscious of the limitations of others, we quell any sense of personal frailty by striving for a sense of superiority over them.
Humility is the antidote for arrogance; meekness the remedy for pride. Our Lord Jesus Christ directs us to “Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart (Matthew 11:29).” He does not say: “Pattern your life after Me for I Am omnipotent and omniscient.” Rather, He directs us to “right-size” our egos, to become fully aware of our littleness, our utter dependence upon God and our fellow human beings.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord offers the Apostles an attitude adjustment, as He compels them to truly follow Him in humility. The disciples are journeying throughout Galilee with Jesus, and He begins to tell them that:
“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 (Mk 9: 31).”
He is explaining to them that His kingship is to be different than they anticipate. He has not come to over-throw the Romans and create a new political order. No, His ascent to glory will come via the cross rather than the crown. The Apostles cannot comprehend Christ’s words. Later, on the road to Capernaum, they engage in that all too human activity of posturing for power. As they enter the house, Our Lord asks them: “What were you discussing on the way?” To their silence and shame, Christ responds:
“’If anyone one wishes to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.’” 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 (MK 9: 35-37).’”
Like the Apostles we are also called to serve. To do so, we must “right-size” our self-perception, and follow the One Who is meek and humble of heart. From the greatest to the least, our call is to embrace our weakness and allow His Omnipotence to be our strength. As Christians, when we embrace Christ in each other, particularly in the vulnerable and the weak, we conform ourselves to Our Master, and resemble Him in grace. The call is universal, none of us is too great to excuse his or herself from the obligation of charity. Our Holy Father’s official title is “Servus Sevorum Dei” for he is truly the Servant of the Servants of God.
I struggle in my own personal efforts to “right-size” my ego. Yet, as St. Therese, the Little Flower said, “Humility is the truth (Thoughts of St. Therese, p. 40).” Authentic humility is seeing the reality of our weakness, and offering it to the Almighty to fill with His Greatness. It is only in embracing our frailty and seeking to meet the needs of the vulnerable in our midst that we achieve the greatness to which we are called. In contemporary society, the vulnerable, the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, the marginalized, and the weak, are often viewed as unworthy of attention. It is our vocation to address their needs with humble compassion if we are to be worthy of the name Christian.
Ad Jesum per Mariam,