Coming to Mass each week is the ultimate confrontation with reality. We begin every celebration of the Mass, not by recalling our achievements and high-points, but by ‘acknowledging our sins, and so preparing ourselves to celebrate…’
Not too many decades ago people were encouraged to ignore their feelings. The child was praised for not crying at the death of a parent. A teenage boy was called ‘a baby’ if he cried when experiencing pain. In that ‘stiff-upper-lip’ society, feelings were ignored. The consequences of this ignorance have been tragic.
It is perhaps an inevitable result of such a stoic attitude that has seen the ‘feeling-pendulum’ react to the opposite pole. Now feelings are given the central place in all aspects of behaviour and decision-making. We hear ‘do it if it makes you feel good.’
Each of these extreme attitudes is a serious misunderstanding of the real purpose of feelings in the human design. Feelings are important. We ignore them at our peril. But feelings are also fickle and often misleading. Feelings are easily manipulated by our random wants and irrational fears. If a child’s family convince her that in order to live happily she needs to achieve academically and marry money, she will not feel great (at least initially) when she scores only pass grades and falls in love with one who earns only a satisfactory salary.
When at Mass the priest invites the people to ‘acknowledge our sins’, our mind (if we are healthy) is immediately flooded with feelings of failure. We wrestle with secret struggles and are burdened with the unreasonable (and unachievable) pressures that weigh upon us.
Very often these pressures are caused by our failure to meet the standards that we feel are required of us. Somehow we have come to believe that it is the attaining of these standards (with others and with God) that makes us lovable.
So we can understand the disciples in today’s gospel. While walking along they arguing about which of them is the greatest. When they reach the house Jesus asks them what they were arguing about along the road. They must have been embarrassed because the scripture makes a point of telling us that they responded to Jesus’ question with silence.
Then Jesus teaches them that the way to be great is to seek to be the vulnerable servant of all. Perhaps now they begin to understand what they had failed to appreciate in the opening verses of today’s reading: “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.” We know they didn’t get what Jesus was saying because we hear that “they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him”.
It is no surprise that the disciples did not understand Jesus. In too many ways people 2000 years ago were pretty much like citizens of these early years of the twenty-first century. We (as our ancestors before us) have fallen victim to the false conviction that money and power, success and strength will bring us the happiness that we so desperately seek.
The pope notes this in his words to the young people of Lebanon during his visit there last weekend as he exhorts them to “Look for relationships of genuine, uplifting friendship. Find ways to give meaning and depth to your lives; fight superficiality and mindless consumption! You face another temptation, too: that of money, the tyrannical idol which blinds to the point of stifling the person at the heart”.
Jesus is giving us the inside knowledge that the world of advertising and consumerism is so desperate to hide from us: the method to achieving happiness is to seek to serve.
It is of the essence of human existence to seek to be great – even to be the greatest. But the greatest among us is not the one who appears to wield the most power, drive the fastest car, marries the movie (or sporting) star or lives in the biggest house in the ‘best’ street. Such worldly successes bring only fleeting and superficial satisfaction.
Yes, it is good and healthy to seek to be the greatest. But who is the greatest?
The greatest is the one who knows their need for Jesus most intimately. Jesus is not at all interested in how other people view me. The fact that I might achieve fame in the eyes of others, even through good works, is of no interest to the divine heart.
Human greatness is found in the one who humbly acknowledges their sin. This is because when I acknowledge my sin, I am revealing to God my capacity for His mercy and His love. I am giving God the space to take root in me and to overwhelm me. Such an experience is totally transformative. I now realise that all my efforts to satisfy the squeaks of my random feelings have failed. I need more. I need true greatness. I need the life that only God can give me. Now I am truly in touch with my reality. Now I am ready for God.
This is the life of the saint. And only when living as a saint is one able to experience true greatness.