I’m Latin Rite all the way, but I do enjoy an Eastern liturgy from time to time. The drama, the choreography, the fluid movement in and through and around the iconostasis—it captures the mystery of the Eucharistic miracle in a stirring, graphic way.
However, my favorite part of the Byzantine rite—and my kids’ favorite part, too—is a particular phraseology that pops up here and there in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: Be attentive! Wisdom! Let us be attentive! It’s striking because it’s so foreign to Latin rite ears, but it also elicits a visceral response—something like, “Yes, my attention. You’ve got it. These are serious, dangerous matters.”
That’s what I had in mind this morning as I listened to the first reading about the Maccabees being tortured and slain for their refusal to eat pork.
When he was near death, he said, ‘It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him.’
Be attentive! It was their own choice—they could’ve caved and avoided all that unpleasantness. Wisdom! But they refused. Let us be attentive! And it cost them.
Those same Byzantine liturgical exclamations came to mind at Mass this past Wednesday. It was a tough Gospel—the one where Jesus spells out the cost of being his disciple in stark terms:
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus, and he turned and addressed them, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
Monsignor began his homily by mentioning Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the German Lutheran pastor who gave his life resisting Hitler. Bonhoeffer wrote a book, The Cost of Discipleship, in which he contrasted cheap grace—grace without the cross, without suffering, without price—and costly grace:
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Bonhoeffer wrote that in 1937 when the Nazis were solidifying their power, and he was essentially drawing a line in the sand for himself and other German Christians: If they were getting along alright, if they were comfy and smug and going with the flow in Hitler’s Germany, then they were selling out. The grace of salvation in Christ, Bonhoeffer insisted, should cost something—everything, actually. “It is costly because it costs a man his life,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” Jesus said it more directly: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
These days, most of us won’t have the chance to prove our mettle in the same way that Bonhoeffer did—or the Maccabees we heard about in today’s readings for that matter. There is no Hitler, no Antiochus Epiphanes on the horizon, and Christians qua Christians won’t be jailed or executed any time soon ’round these parts. That’s good of course, but we don’t want to get soft and give full rein to easily obtainable cheap grace. Our choice to embrace the Faith and Grace may not cost us what it cost Bonhoeffer and the Maccabees, but it will cost us. It should, anyway. And, if it’s authentic faith and real Grace, it will cost us dear.
Enter Mabel Williamson. Unlike Bonhoeffer, who is well known among Protestants and Catholics alike, Mabel is pretty obscure. She was a Protestant missionary with the China Inland Mission, and her one claim to fame is her 1957 book Have We No Rights?—a manual for missionary trainees preparing to travel to the Orient.
It’s an overlooked little book, but an important one, as James M. Boice pointed out in his 1973 Foreword to a reprinted edition:
I do not believe it will be cited by many Christian leaders as ‘one of the ten most influential books in my life.’ But even though no one will say that, I believe that is precisely what Have We No Rights? is. If you buy it and take it to heart, I think you will find it to be most influential in your life, as it has been in mine.
Me, too. I first read Williamson as an aspiring Evangelical missionary on my way to the Philippines with Wycliffe Bible Translators, and I’ve returned to her over and over again as a Catholic—first as a Catholic Worker in Chicago discerning the priesthood, and then later as I adjusted to marriage, fatherhood, and family life.
Here’s a handful of Williamson’s chapter titles to give you an idea of the kinds of entitlements she thought missionaries had to surrender:
- The Right to What I Consider a Normal Standard of Living
- The Right to the Ordinary Safeguards of Good Health
- The Right to Regulate my Private Affairs As I Wish
- The Right to My Own Time
- The Right to a Normal Home Life
- The Right to Run Things
I don’t know about you, but those are the very rights I struggled to relinquish after God started blessing me with children. In other words, even though Mabel wrote for missionaries, her thoughts and insights apply to all Christians, regardless of vocation or state in life. And her frank, simple wisdom is captured in her book’s title, for to ask Williamson’s question is to answer it: Have we no rights? In a word, for Christians anyway, no. Sure we have civil rights, and the U.N. declares that there are such things as Universal Human Rights, but those of us who choose to follow Christ surrender any real claim on anything resembling rights.
After all, we choose the cross when we choose Christ. To choose the cross is to choose death, and dead people have no rights. Here’s how Mabel put it:
On the mission field it is not the enduring of hardships, the lack of comforts, and the roughness of the life that make the missionary cringe and falter. It is something far less romantic and far more real. The missionary has to give up having his own way. He has to give up having any rights. He has, in the words of Jesus, to ‘deny himself.’ He just has to give up himself.
Williamson’s book is a warning to would-be missionaries: Count the cost; weigh your courage; know what you’re up against if you follow this call. It’s the same message we hear from Bonhoeffer, the Maccabees, and Jesus Himself: Choose wisely; consider your options; know what you’re getting yourself into.
Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?
But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.
In the same way, everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.
Let us be attentive!