I loved this Sunday’s Gospel reading so much.
[Jesus and His disciples] came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, He began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the 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.”
What struck me most was that Christ didn’t just pull in the poor child to stand before Him and the Apostles, but rather, He brought the child to Himself, “putting His arms around it.” The RSV translation expresses it as an even more personal and intimate action, thus:
And He took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in His arms, He said to them …
(For one thing, it refers to the child as a “him” and not an “it”!)
Today the image of Christ embracing and holding a child in His arms is sweet and often very sentimental. But as our priest taught us today, it was a very significant gesture and a very significant message. In the society in which Jesus and the disciples lived, children were essentially nobodies. They had no rights and no inherent worth. They were completely dependent on others, and their care was generally left to women and/or slaves. For a man to take a random child, not even his own child, and embrace and hold the child, and to do so in the company of other men, would have been quite out of the ordinary.
The portrait that paints in my mind is not sweet and sentimental, but rather, compelling and challenging. I see Christ holding the child lovingly and protectively, but looking out at us with a keen gaze and a gleam in His eyes that says, “This child is precious to Me… how are you going to treat him?” (I tried in vain to find an image that matches the one in my head.)
Christ was doing something no other man would do. He was showing the Apostles a new way. A way of loving service even to the smallest, the poorest, and the weakest. Loving service, not power. That is what He was demanding of them. It’s what He demands of His disciples today as well, and especially of the successors of the Apostles, our bishops and priests.
Doesn’t this passage have so much to say to us today? I look around at our society and at the Church, and I see lots of people who really need to hear Christ’s message and see His example. There are plenty of people who regard the priesthood in terms of power that should be up for grabs for everybody. There are also lots of people who regard children as objects, as commodities, to be used or disposed of as desired. There is a belief that getting stuck with a child is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. Conception of a child is considered a highly disruptive and undesirable side-effect of sexual pleasure. Pregnancy and childbirth are considered crises–pregnancy as an illness, childbirth as a medical procedure. There are plenty of wealthy, healthy, young married couples who would rather have dogs than children. Or, at their most generous, will only have one or maybe two children. In short, we regard the natural blessings of sexuality, fertility, and family-rearing as things over which we can, and must, exert our own power.
This is the world we live in. It’s all about power and putting oneself first. These attitudes are found within the Church as well as in society at large. Basically it’s as if Christ never walked the earth, or never taught us how to live. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard not to be depressed and discouraged by that! For all the claims that we are so much better and more enlightened than our ancestors, we certainly haven’t lived up to it. I say “we” because I’ve done my fair share of upholding those common attitudes. I decided a few years ago that I can no longer support them. I pray that I can make amends for them in this life (otherwise, I feel I shall have a long and severe season in Purgatory).
I pray that this Gospel passage got through to even a few people this Sunday, that it may prompt some serious examination of themselves and the world in which we live, and indeed that it may prompt some true and deep conversions. And I pray that we who have heard it will do our best to carry it out into the world through our words, our actions, and our lifestyles. We mustn’t let Christ’s life and message be in vain!