True Greatness

In what does true greatness consist? Some might answer by pointing to political power and leadership; others might point to fame and celebrity; still others might point to wealth. No doubt, these attributes grab most of the headlines today (and perhaps in any age).

But are these same attributes at the heart of what makes someone great? For every George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, there is a Hitler or a Stalin. Some who have wealth are generous donors to charitable causes, but there are others who hold on to their riches. The celebrity lifestyle seems to be founded on how much attention one can draw to oneself and the satisfaction of one's ego. Is this really the model of greatness we should imitate?

The problem is not new; in fact, Jesus and His disciples had to face the issue squarely. This week's Gospel shows us Jesus speaking of His own approaching death and resurrection: “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.” Yet in the face of this tragic announcement, the Lord's disciples argued over who among them was the greatest. Instead of offering Christ some measure of comfort and support, the disciples fought about who was most important, who held the most prestige. The poverty of their thoughts and words was revealed when Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” and they remained silent. It was the silence of shame; they had no defense. So long as they thought Jesus was not listening, the argument about who was the greatest seemed fair enough, but when that argument had to be stated in the presence of Jesus, it was seen in all its unworthiness.

At this point, Jesus took a very solemn and serious step. The Gospel tells us that “he sat down” and called the Twelve over to Him. When a rabbi was teaching as a rabbi, when he was making a definitive pronouncement, he sat to teach. Jesus deliberately assumed the position of a rabbi teaching his pupils before He spoke. And then He told them, in solemn terms, “If anyone wishes to first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” In other words, true greatness in God's eyes and in His Kingdom consists in the willingness to serve, to be counted last rather than first, to give rather than take. It was not that Jesus abolished ambition. Instead, He commanded us to seek a new ambition: in place of the ambition to have things done for us, Our Lord substituted the ambition to do things for others.

Some may object that this is impossibly idealistic, that Jesus could not have really meant what He said. But is it so far beyond our capacities to give generously of ourselves in service to others? Is this not what husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, are called to do and pledge to do in their marriages? Is this not what teachers do in our schools, and volunteer catechists do in our parish religious education programs? Is this not what young men do when they answer the call to priesthood or young women upon hearing the call to the religious life? Is this not what so many of our parish social organization do — place themselves at the service of others, particularly the poor and less fortunate? In short, Jesus' prescription for greatness, far from being idealistic, is the most realistic prescription of all. If we never placed ourselves at the service of one another, life itself would lose its beauty, and we would remain trapped in our own solitude, loneliness and egoism.

Part of the reason for Our Lord's coming as man was to set us free from the terrible isolation of selfishness. By His death and resurrection, Jesus has indeed elevated us to a new life — a life meant to be lived for others, a life that will bear the mark of true greatness to the extent that we are willing to give of ourselves in loving service to God and to neighbor. In the end, we will be judged, not by the standard of worldly success, but by the standard of Gospel success. And this standard is really very simple: when we lose our life, we find it; when we make a gift of our self to others, we discover who we are; when we are willing to become last, we end up being first.

Fr. De Ladurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education, a professor of theology at Notre Dame Graduate School and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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