Homily: Spiritual Greatness

jesus-suffers-the-little-children-to-come-unto-himIn last week’s gospel, Jesus gave his disciples the first real insight into his mission as a messiah—not to overthrow the Romans by his victorious army of angels, but to overthrow Satan by his victorious crucifixion and resurrection. Peter rebuked Jesus for predicting his crucifixion and resurrection, and Jesus in turn rebuked Peter for thinking not as God does, but as the Flesh does.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives his second prediction of the cross. It says “He was teaching his disciples and telling them, ‘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.’ But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.” So after two out of the three predictions of His death and resurrection, and they still don’t understand. As St. Bede says, you can kind of feel for them, because Jesus often speaks in ways difficult to understand, and he speaks in parables and figures, so maybe this is a metaphor. But they’re afraid to ask.

I’ll point out here that when Jesus predicts his death, he always follows it with the prediction of his resurrection. Many people like to focus only on the resurrection—the empty cross—but in the mind of the Church, the two are inseparable. The cross by itself does not necessarily communicate the crucifixion, but the crucifixion absolutely leads to the resurrection. So we venerate the crucifix; first, as a sign that Jesus shares in our suffering, in our calling out when we feel abandoned in our darkness; and second, as the hope and promise that our suffering leads us, with Him, to the resurrection, and the grace of redemption, joy, and new life.

It seems in our Gospel reading that the disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching about the death and resurrection, and so they just changed the subject and started talking about something else. And maybe in their minds, that was true. But Jesus uses it to further explain what kind of Messiah he is, and what he’s ultimately trying to teach them. Jesus 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.’”

[The Greek word being used there for “child” (paidion) literally means “little child.” However, there is reason to suggest that the person Jesus drew their attention to was a new disciple, a “little child” in the faith; one whose faith was still young and innocent and impressionable; one who was very aware of their humble dependence on the more experienced disciples to guide them, to invite and include them; one who could be easily confused and scandalized; one who recognized their need to be helped a great deal in continuing to develop their faith to bear fruit in the challenging situations of life.

Whether Mark was referring to a little child in the flesh or a little child in the Spirit,] the point Jesus is making is that greatness in spiritual terms is different than greatness in worldly terms. If you want to be great, seek out the needy, the vulnerable, the wounded, and the lowly, show them God’s abundant love for them, and you will be great.

Of course, there’s the old proverb, “You cannot give what you do not have” (“Nemo dat quod non habet.“) You cannot show them God’s abundant love, if you don’t know what that feels like; if you haven’t experienced it yourself. And that you can only experience by seeking his love first and above all things; to put your time of scripture and contemplative prayer at the top of your list, each day, and make sure you do it, each day. And, if possible, participate in the Mass, each day. And then, with your heart filled with gratitude for God’s love for you, fill every moment and every encounter with others in your life with bringing that love to others—especially those who most need help in the way of encouragement, hope, and meaning in their present difficulties.

Reading Sacred Scripture is not about covering a lot of territory–a mile long and a half-inch deep. It’s about plummeting the infinite depths of the mystery of the Inspired Word, which speaks to every soul in every generation, for those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hearts to understand (Mt 13:15).


At this point in writing my homily, I still had about three pages left of white space. And I decided, instead of talking about the other readings as usual, we’re going to walk through an ancient approach to contemplative prayer with scripture, called lectio divina (divine reading), using the first half of the second reading, which is a good length of text for this kind of approach. Hundreds of years of Benedictines and Carmelites and many others have used and refined this approach to contemplative prayer with the Sacred Scriptures.

Lectio divina has four main steps.

1. LECTIO (TO READ)

The first step is lectio (reading), and so we read through the text, ask, “What does the text says in itself? What is its literal meaning as a text?” So we read our text: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.” So you would take a few minutes, five or ten (or fifteen if you’ve got a lot of patience), and ask, what is being said on the literal level?

For example, we might look at a commentary to give us the context of the letter, and some textual notes that help us understand any particular phrases or references. James (who is probably not one of the disciples named James, but another James) is giving correction to the Christian community (perhaps a particular city community, or to all the communities generally, who might be) torn by sins of jealousy and prideful ambition, which lead to disorder, distress, and tension in the community. But James reminds them that divine wisdom grants firstly purity of heart, then secondarily peace, gentleness, and mercy; and yields good fruit in those who consistently promote peace. So seeking and following divine wisdom in humility, respect, and order, is what will heal the division and tension that the community is suffering. That’s an example of the first step.

2. MEDITATIO (TO MEDITATE)

The second step is meditatio (meditation), and we ask, “What does the biblical text say to me? What jumps out at me from my experience, my perspective, my personality, my life, right now?” and we read through the text again: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”

Looking over the text, I might say, among other things, that I want to be peaceable, gentle, full of mercy and good fruits, so for that I need to receive wisdom from above, which is first of all pure, and constant, and sincere. So I need to practice these virtues if I want to bear those fruit in my soul.

You might read this and see the word, “compliant,” and that might stir up some resistance in you. I’ll give you a great piece of wisdom: if you encounter something in the scriptures that really rubs you the wrong way, or really goes against what you think or feel, that is a great part of the text to zero in on. I’ve found that something in the divine word that is most not like me is often where I can score a lot of growth—in understanding the scriptures, in growing in virtue, or growing in humility, and for having a piece of scripture rattling around in my head for a good bit of time while I wrestle with it. So, for example, if seeing that word “compliant” stirred up something in you like, “nah, that’s not me,” then here’s your sign.

3. ORATIO (TO PRAY)

The third step of lectio divina is oratio (prayer), and we read through the text again, with the question, “What do I say to the Lord, in response to His Word?” “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”

Maybe I say, Lord, you have revealed that it is the gift of your wisdom from above that grants these qualities—and so the gift is first from you, and so I ask you to grant me the gift of your wisdom, and then help me to respond to it fruitfully, and be a good steward of it. You know I get angry quickly, and I’m reminded that I need your help to be gentle, which is more of the kind of person I want to be.

4. CONTEMPLATIO (TO CONTEMPLATE)

And the fourth and last step in the traditional lectio divina is contemplatio (contemplation). Now we ask, “What conversion of mind, heart, and life is the Lord asking of me?” And we read the text again, building on all that we’ve picked up through the previous steps, and listening for our call to deeper conversion: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.” We sit with the text, and chew on it, listening and discerning, zeroing in on God’s personal and particular guidance to us in this present moment in our lives.

And this is contemplative prayer—we’re not rambling with our words, but listening with discipline and desire in our hearts for God speaking to us through his Word, inviting us more deeply into relationship with Him, helping us to be more like Him, inviting us into a greater share in His life.

When we reach this step, we can simply sit, wordlessly basking in God’s love for us, and our communion with Him, growing in love for Him, and our experience of His love for us. It won’t necessarily happen every time, especially at the beginning. But that’s an unmerited gift—contemplative prayer—and the goal of the spiritual life.

I might be receiving the word, “gentle” in a special way. That God, who is the gentle, Good Shepherd, is calling me to chew on that word, “gentle,” as God reveals to me his desire for me to share in his virtue of being gentle, patient, and peaceful; slow to anger. What would that look like in my life? What change(s) do I need to make? How do I avoid failing to be gentle, reacting with my habitual, hair-trigger temper? What upcoming conversations might I go into preparing and reminding myself to work on being gentle? I ask God to help me to remember to ask for His intervention, especially when I most need it.

[I purposely used the phrase of “chewing on the Word,” to make reference to the “Bread of Life Discourse of the Gospel of John, chapter 6. One of the things that Catholics will often point out (but which I don’t believe is a strong argument), is that Jesus says, “whoever eats (phago) this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:51). Here, Jesus uses the common Greek word for “eat.” It’s also the word used in the Greek for Ezekiel 3:1 and Revelation 10:9 for “eating the scroll” and then prophesying. But phago can be taken loosely, like we use the word, “eat” (e.g., “eat your heart out”). Then Jesus goes deeper: “Whoever eats (trogon) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” (John 6:54). Jesus changes the word for eat from the common phago to the very explicit trogon—to gnaw, crunch or chew. The argument is made that this proves Jesus means to eat his flesh, and thus his real presence in the Eucharist.

I don’t think this argument is as effective as many Catholics think it is (and clearly most Protestants don’t either). Now don’t get me wrong—I absolutely believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist! But lectio divina is a great example of taking the time and “chewing, gnawing” on the Word of God, and diving deeply into God’s truth for our salvation and abundant life. Jesus is both the Word on the altar and the Word on paper. We eat Him with both our minds and our bodies, by the Truth of Heaven in our ears and the by the Bread of Heaven in our mouths (the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist).] 

5. ACTIO (TO ACT)

Some approaches to lectio divina add a fifth step, actio, action, in which we ask, “How can I put this into practice in my life, in love of God and my neighbor?” And we would read through the text again, and pray about it the rest of the day, asking for God’s guidance in incarnating in our flesh the spiritual growth he has granted to us.

  1. Read – What does the text say in itself?
  2. Meditate – What does the text say to me?
  3. Pray – What do I say to the Lord in response to His Word?
  4. Contemplate – What conversion of mind, heart, and life is the Lord asking of me?
  5. Act – How can I put this into practice in my life, in love of God and my neighbor?

So this (lectio divina) is probably the most common way for beginning the practice of contemplative prayer, for growing in gratitude and joy for his blessings and his call to you as his beloved child. Grow in the discipline of doing this every day, and there is no measure to how it will change your life, because there is no measure to God’s love for you, and for the path of holiness.

You cannot show them God’s abundant love, if you don’t know what that feels like; if you haven’t experienced it yourself. And that you can only experience by seeking his love first and above all things; to put your time of scripture and contemplative prayer at the top of your list, each day, and make sure you do it, each day. Acquire this habit of contemplative prayer (particularly if it is united with the habit of daily communion), and you will be brimming over with God’s love to share joyfully with others. Do this, and you will be great.


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