Greatness in God's Eyes
What is greatness?
Jesus told his followers in today’s Gospel story: “We are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to religious leaders and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him.” Does that sound like greatness?
Greatness is when you win! Greatness is when you have control and power over others. Greatness is when you live a comfortable life and have many material possessions and money so that you can do whatever you want. Greatness is surely NOT when people mock you, spit on you, beat you, and then violently and unjustly kill you.
So, what is greatness?
Saint Mary of Egypt was a woman who lived a broken, confused, and lost life. At 12 years old she left her home back in the 6th century and ended up in the great city of Alexandria, but she lived her life as a sex-addict. She lived a decadent and profligate life, sleeping around with literally countless men and so confused about where she could find love and peace. Maybe her distorted passions and confusion came from a traumatic past and those scars of her memory led her to her broken life. Does that sound this greatness?
Wait a minute. Greatness is when you have the perfect upbringing and when you have no problems in life. Greatness is when you don’t have a dark, embarrassing past filled with lots of skeletons that you are ashamed of. Greatness is surely NOT living a checkered past and being known as an immoral, wild woman.
So, what is greatness?
I often preach that following Jesus Christ and living a life of faith seem paradoxical and often reflect a counter-cultural perspective. We go against the normal standards of our society. Our understanding of life, of faith, of greatness appear enigmatic compared to what the world values.
Imagine, Jesus is a week away from entering Jerusalem in a victorious entrance, with crowds praising Him and shouting out Hosanna, yet He focuses on the fact that people will reject Him, betray Him, mock and despise Him, torture and kill Him. What seems contrary to greatness, however, is actually only part of the story. Christ’s greatness comes precisely in that He voluntarily accepting this path of suffering in order to help others and save the world. Greatness comes in a love that willing sacrifices for the other; greatness comes in a love that willing dies for the other.
The life of Saint Mary of Egypt doesn’t seem great in the darkness of her Alexandrian days, yet that is not the end of her story. She responds to the Holy Spirit knocking on the door of her heart. She is open to understanding and admitting her brokenness – a brokenness that may have come from trauma in her childhood, a shattering of her life that may come from her being a victim, a lostness that expressed itself in her sexual abandonment – and her greatness reveals itself in her extreme humility, in her deep and ongoing repentance, on the new life of asceticism and struggle she accepts in order to find healing and to open up space for her to discover a new life.
In both cases, divine greatness seems contrary to worldly prominence. It has nothing to do with power, money, possessions, comfort, and ease. It’s all about discovering divine love, a love that willingly sacrifices for the other, a love that humbles oneself before God, a love that is always ready to serve the other.
The disciples seem confused when Christ reveals the path of the Cross; and surely many who hear the life of St. Mary of Egypt will be puzzled by her radical pursuit for God through a life of extreme repentance.
Maybe we can better understand by focusing on our Lord’s words to his followers: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave of all.”
In this single explanation, Christ turns the values of the world upside down! The rich and arrogant and powerful often think greatness revolves around positions of dominance, being adored by the crowds, and basically controlling the destiny of others. Many in the world consider themselves important if others wait on them and serve them. Jesus says that Christianity has a fundamentally different perspective. We find greatness in serving others, not in being served, in humbly submitting to others, not in dominating them. Why? Because the root of humble service is selfless love.
Many people talk about love, yet concrete actions of love reveal what lies hidden in one’s heart. Greatness, Jesus showed, comes through feeding the poor, visiting the sick, sharing our material blessings with others less fortunate, bringing good news to the troubled, washing the feet and caring for one another. Ultimately, greatness comes through sacrificing your life for the other. “No greater love can one have than this,” Christ taught, “to lay down your life for one another.”
And if we fail in this path, then we follow the greatness of St. Mary of Egypt in repentance, in turning back toward God, in never despairing but seeking after the grace and mercy of God.
When we learn that greatness lies here, how many of us still desire such distinction? To become great in the eyes of God implies a readiness to sacrifice, to deny oneself, to humbly serve one another, to repent and continuously turn back toward God, and to willingly offer our lives for the other!
Jesus Christ and Saint Mary reflect the greatness of God. “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
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