From time to time during my life I have been able to meet some admired or well-known people. These occasions were most often work or ministry related, but sometimes it was from having attended an event in the arts, a lecture, or a book signing. I am sure many people have had similar opportunities. Sometimes the experience of meeting such a person was a good one. However, in many cases I walked away feeling that they had lost a sense of connection with their admirers. Even if their work was sincere, in person they often seemed aloof or disconnected from the audience for whatever reason. Somehow, to a greater or lesser degree, the entire encounter was disappointing because the person was not the person I thought he or she would be.
In retrospect, one reason I felt this way at the time may have been my own unrealistic expectations regarding the person. ‘Celebrities’ are only human and I may have elevated them unwittingly to a level they did not intend. I probably confused the person with their artistry. The disappointment was because of me, not them. But even in recognizing the effect of expectations, I have also encountered renowned people who exuded a ‘greater than thou’ aura; they were in the limelight and they knew it. They may have gotten so used to being in the spotlight that they unconsciously thought their giftedness somehow entitled them to being treated specially; or they may have come to believe that their work was something that put them in a realm above those who came to hear them speak or view their work.
Recently I had a refreshing encounter with someone whose work I have admired over the last few years. I knew she was a sought-after speaker and had great talent in her field, but I reminded myself that she is only human and that I can still admire her work even if she is different in person than I might hope. I was pleasantly surprised when I found her to be very down-to-earth, welcoming all those who came as if we were old friends. It was not at all disingenuous, but it was real, sincere connection. The joy of our encounter has stayed with me as a real gift from God.*
The speaker’s demeanor reminded me that one can be the center of attention and still be humble. For her it was about the message, not the messenger, (herself). I observed that she made it easy for all those who came that night because of her humility and her understanding that she, (like the rest of us), has feet of clay. She helped her admirers enjoy being with her because she shared who she is, and did not approach us as an adoring audience. In short, the difference was that she treated us with Christ-like humility and love. She truly wanted to encounter the people who came to her presentation, and in her sharing she ministered to us.
In the gospels we see that Jesus met with all sorts of people in His years of ministry. There were the rich and the poor, the high and the low of society, the learned and the uneducated, men and women, Jews and Gentiles. They were fishermen, shepherds, the poor, alien, those with ‘fallen’ lifestyles, and those with every manner of illness and infirmity. There were powerful officials, Roman soldiers, Pharisees and Sadducees. But in all the encounters Jesus had, He was always disarmingly (and almost shockingly) Himself. Everyone could approach Him, and they did. Even detractors were able to approach. He denied no one and He accepted all efforts to make contact with Him, even with those who sought to do Him harm.
According to one gospel writer, (Mark), Jesus sometimes tried to hide who He was as Son of God. He did this in order to be on equal footing with those who came to Him, but also to avoid temptation. It would have been so easy to fall prey to the lure of earthly power and authority. Jesus did have power and authority as Son of God, but the power He used was the power of mercy and love, always giving the glory to the Father rather than to Himself. He came to be one with His people in order to teach them in ways they could understand, and also to be with them in their pain and suffering. He knew the time to be worshiped would be after His death and resurrection, but while He was on earth He wanted to fully immerse Himself in the human experience. He did not want to be caught up in Himself, but in us.
The gospel for this Sunday is a great example of this. A leper came to Jesus, knelt before Him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus immediately reached out His hand, moved with compassion so deep it moved Him to His core. And He said, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leper knew he was breaking all the laws forbidding him to approach Jesus and that Jesus also knew this. The danger was that he would make Jesus ritually impure, a crime which had serious consequences, yet he bravely went near and asked Jesus to cure him. He had faith that Jesus would not ‘shoo’ him away, or recoil in horror at the hideousness of his disease. He approached Jesus as he was. And Jesus accepted him as he was, (and as He was.)
Jesus was fully human, but He was also fully God. He had the right to act as if He was important, because He truly was! But that is not in the nature of Love. To have come to earth at all was such a huge act of the humility of God that it should not surprise us that humility was one of Jesus’ qualities. In reality, humility is inseparable from love; humble acts are loving acts. So while Jesus was tempted by the devil out in the desert to be worshiped before it was time, He never acted upon that temptation. Jesus was beloved by many sinners and outcasts because He could be in their presence without any thought of anyone but the person or people He was with.
Anyone who wishes to be a follower of Jesus needs to pray for the same radical humility by begging the Holy Spirit for that grace. We are sinners, and therefore are above nobody. We have no right to ‘lord it over’ anyone given the things we have thought, said and done, or omitted. But God knows we are imperfect and that we struggle, so when we do fail He is quick to forgive us when we sincerely ask for it. True servants recognize that we are so broken we cannot ever think of ourselves as better than another, no matter how different the other may be. We cannot make people into who we want them to be, as if we know better or as if our way of thinking or acting is best. Therefore what we can do is to be like Jesus, loving people just as they are. This does not mean we like everyone or condone everything people do. We can love the sinner, but hate the sin, as the saying goes. But we respond with love, and we should not judge or act as if we are somehow better than the other.
Suffering is all around us, and we are all called to be a source of healing simply by being who we are. If we are in a position of even the smallest amount of power or authority we have the great responsibility of using it properly. That means we must pray about our actions and choices, and it means we must act with compassion and mercy, even if that means challenging the other. So long as we have done our ‘homework’ using our talents, resources and best decision-making grounded in prayer, and act with love as our intention, we can know we have done our best. If we let Jesus and His teaching become the model out of which we live, we can grow in holiness as servants and disciples. That is who we are. No servant is greater than his master, as Jesus said. Therefore if we want to serve, we need to imitate Him recognizing that we are nothing without Him. We need to approach others with humility. No matter if we are a person noticed and admired by others, a person of power and authority, or someone quite ordinary, we are all called to the same thing and we all come from the same origins as children of God who are loved sinners. As messengers of Christ let us approach those we meet, with dignity, love, and humility. Let us make this our one goal and desire, which in truth is the desire for holiness.
May we enter into Lent with a desire to grow in prayer, generosity, and gratitude! May we have the courage to recognize our own weakness and the faith to approach God asking for forgiveness! May we desire to have the gift of humility, trusting in the Holy Spirit to give us this grace! May we let go of our desire to be noticed, replacing it with a desire to notice Christ in those whom we encounter! May we be instruments of healing and comfort for those who suffer, and may we recognize the presence of God with us in our own suffering! And may we be true servants, imitating Jesus in love and compassion! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* The person I mentioned is Heather King. If you have not read her work, please do. She writes a blog called Shirt of Flame and her work can also be found in various other publications, including Magnificat. She is one of my favorite Christian writers and is indeed, a wonderful person. If you want to read her blog it is found at http://shirtofflame.blogspot.com/
The top photo is one I took in a church in central North Dakota. The stained glass depicting the entire Holy Family at work is an example of humility; the Son of God is seen working as any other youth would have done during His lifetime.
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Mother of God Vatopedi. The tenderness and love of the gesture shared between mother and Son is very beautiful. If you are interested in a copy of this icon for purchase you can do so at the following site: http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/224-mother-of-god-vatopedi.
Next is one of the continuous mosiacs at the Cathedral in Monreale, Sicily. It is Christ healing the leper.
Finally the last series is from photo I took of a rose while in Ireland. The original photo is the color version, but I altered it to black and white for the purpose of symbolizing the healing love of Jesus.
Heart Speaks to Heart