When we think of the great men of history, who comes to mind? And what are the attributes of greatness? During the time of Christ, the Caesars were great men. They conquered a lot of territory and held the territory at great expense. In short, as great men, they spent a lot of money paid by their subjects as tribute – and spilled a lot of the ordinary people’s blood in battle.
Similarly, Herod the Great was also considered “great” because he built a magnificent Temple for the Jews and was ruthless in defending his power. He murdered the Holy Innocents in his twilight years, proving once again, the measure of earthly greatness may be measured by how much of his subjects’ money a ruler spends and how much of their blood he spills.
When the Apostles argued amongst themselves as to who was the greatest, they probably didn’t think in terms of spending the earnings of others or spilling a lot of blood. But they might have given some thought to the perks of greatness. After all, great rulers, before they think about accomplishing great things, need to give some thought as to what they’re going to get, personally, out of greatness.
Christ overhears the arguments and uses the occasion to teach them about true greatness: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” And, “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.”
As I read about the great men of history, this doesn’t seem to me to be the stuff of greatness as the world understands the term.
But Christian greatness cannot be measured in worldly terms. The greatest man born of woman (before the inauguration of the Kingdom), according to Jesus, is John the Baptist. He confronted Herod on the immorality of his marriage and he lost his head as a result. In worldly terms, he was a loser.
Saint Thomas More simply remained silent in the face of the Henry VIII’s adultery. But Thomas’ silence was witness enough and he also lost his head. Thomas More was a loser in worldly terms.
Saint Isaac Jogues preached Christ to the savages of the Great Lakes area and upstate New York. Tortured beyond recognition, he escaped only to request reassignment to America to preach again. He was butchered. And as far as I can ascertain in reading history, very few of the Iroquois Indians converted to the Catholic faith. Church collections remained very low. In worldly terms – and even perhaps in ecclesial terms – St. Isaac Jogues was a loser.
I can relate to that. During my first assignment as a priest, there was a period when I glowed with the good feelings that come from the delight people show when a young, newly ordained priest arrives in the parish. So imagine how disturbed I felt when I met with resistance proclaiming the Gospel. On one occasion, the Sunday Gospel was the account of Jesus teaching, “But I say to you, anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” The teaching of Christ is clear enough, of course, so my homily was on the first reading.
After Mass, I was confronted by an angry parishioner. Who was I to say, “He who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery”! I protested: “Hey, I just read the Gospel. Don’t crucify me! Crucify Jesus!” (OK, that’s just a smidgeon of literary license.)
It was among the first of many salvific lessons as a priest. If I aspire to greatness, I must aspire to take up my cross and suffer with Christ. “Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (John 13:16)
Greatness as the world understands greatness, I suppose, has always been measured by popularity and opinion polls. But if a candidate for president today would package his campaign around the Ten Commandments and the Gospel, how long do you think it would take before he would be surrounded by mobs screaming, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”? Jesus warns us – including those of us preaching the Gospel: “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)
There are reasons the greatest of Christian saints were murdered just as Christ was murdered on that sacred Tree. Had they chosen the way of the greatness of the world, they may have escaped dungeon, fire, and sword. But their greatness was not of this world. They chose the narrow gate of the Truth and the Cross, the only safe passage to the true greatness of the Resurrection.