The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, Book III Chapter XXVII: ”How Self-love Greatly Withdraws Us from the Sovereign Good” (first entry)
These opening words that Kempis puts on Christ’s lips are an appropriate way to begin a chapter on not being attached to worldly honors and not being zealous for profane ambitions. The disciple later responds with a plea for heavenly wisdom in dealing with the harmful allure of this transitory life.
|Today’s first reading: Mt 20:20-28
For the Feast of Saint James (the Greater), Apostle, we are presented this episode in which this man and his brother, John, ask their mother (apparently) to intercede with Jesus on their behalf regarding their desire to sit on thrones astride their Master in heaven. Jesus cannot promise them these posts, but He does ensure that they will suffer for Him in this life. Understandably, the other apostles are fuming at these two for their boldness. Jesus uses this opportunity to tell them all that they must be servants, even slaves, of others, to be considered “great” and to be ranked “first.”
Kenosis: literally, the act of emptying; in Christian theology it is “the voluntary renunciation by Christ of his right to divine privilege in his humble acceptance of human status” (from Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary). No one emptied himself more than the Second Person of the Trinity (see Phil 2:6). God became man. He became our servant by giving His entire self to us so that we might be able to give our entire selves to Him and to each other. Further along in Matthew, Jesus says,
Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me. And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Mt 25:45-46)
These are the last words of His public ministry (although one could certainly argue His cries from the cross were for all to hear as well). It is always good to note, in a special way, the message of the Gospel at the beginning and end of scenes or stories for particular insights. That is certainly the case here. Jesus leaves the public scene with the demanding call to love others and, in doing so, loving Him. Not doing so, as indicated in the passage above, has eternal consequences.
It is difficult to give up pieces of ourselves: our attachments, our goods, our time, our selfishness. The Divine Artist chips away, though, seeking to reveal the true beauty of the person made very good in the beginning. It is only in submitting to the chisel of the Heavenly Sculptor, though, that we may attain those great paradoxes of Christianity: becoming great entails becoming nothing; becoming first means becoming last; attaining fullness of life requires emptying oneself. James certainly learned this lesson: he was the first apostle to be martyred (Acts 12:1-2).
St. James the Greater, help us and pray for us!