Holy Week is a time when we are acutely aware of the lengths God goes to in order to save His people. Midway through Holy Week, Lent ends and the Triduum begins, which is the holiest time of year for Christians. This year Lent was punctuated by the election a new pope, Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Among the many pictures and the scores of stories we have been hearing about the new pope was news of his choice of a motto for his pontificate, "Miserando atque eligendo." This has been translated "lowly, yet chosen" and is a quote of a homily given by Venerable Bede* which originally read: "...because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him." Venerable Bede was referring to the gospel story of Jesus choosing Matthew as a follower. Obviously, this pope sees himself as having been chosen by God for his ministry, but yet, he sees himself as lowly. Given that the office of the pope is the highest in the church, this seems like a huge departure. But it really is not. Pope Francis clearly sees himself as a disciple of Christ, who came to serve, not be served. This is what Jesus taught the apostles to do at the Last Supper. St. Peter came to understand this, and so far this pope seems to have humble service first and foremost in his mind.
Jesus was indeed lowly in His humanness, and yet He is the Son of God, greater than any other human could ever be. The paradox of who Jesus is and how He chose to become lowly and die a humiliating death is nothing short of astounding. The readings for this Sunday, which is Passion Sunday, are all about who Jesus is and why He came into our world. The first reading, Isaiah 50, and the 22nd Psalm (which Jesus quoted from the cross) were prophesies about what the Suffering Servant Messiah was to be: He would willingly suffer abuse, taunts, and humiliation for His people. He would choose to serve His people, but would be ultimately rejected by them.
But the most powerful of the readings (and which even explains the Gospel), is the second reading, a most beautiful hymn written in the letter of Paul to the Philippians. In it Paul explains that Jesus was indeed God, but He chose lowliness over royalty and pageantry. That is, He could have come to earth on a cloud, crown on His head and scepter in hand, taught us His message, explained what we had to do, and then gone back to Heaven. Or he could have revealed His divinity when He was arrested and told everyone exactly what was what, and then arisen back to Heaven in glory for all to witness. Instead, He entered our human condition as a vulnerable baby, stayed 30 years in obscurity, and then after serving and teaching, He let Himself be arrested and tortured and killed. "... He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." That God would enter into our world as a lowly human is amazing enough, but that He allowed Himself to be abused and killed after working so hard to help us understand how greatly we are loved, is beyond comprehension. That is why "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth!"
When the time came, Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem; He left Jerusalem, so to speak, on a cross. He allowed Himself to be given acclaim, maybe to bring attention to the starkness of what was to come. But I think it was so we could see the greatness of His love for us. He entered the city as the center of attention, with shouts of "Hosanna” but only a little later the shouts turned to "Crucify Him" while all His friends betrayed Him, running off and leaving Him to die alone. The hardest part for us to swallow may be that He saw it all coming and still went into the city to let it be done to Him on our behalf. That is to say, He chose to die as He did. He chose to come into the world for this purpose alone!
It is important to recognize that all of us are seen by God through the eyes of mercy, and yet are also chosen. We are chosen to be His. It is Mercy who came to earth as a man, Jesus, and it was Mercy who was nailed on the cross and who died for us. It is Mercy who continues to choose us. It is Mercy who empowers us with grace. It is Mercy who accompanies us in our sufferings, and it is Mercy who forgives us when we sin over and over. It is also Mercy who continues to guide us to Heaven. There is no greater mercy than that, since none of us deserves it. But as I say over and over, our true identity is that of the loved sinner. It is only through the mercy with which Jesus Himself lived, died, and rose that we can attain Heaven. We do not deserve it any more than we deserved the Son of God to leave the glory of Heaven to come among us and to get very messy in order to save us. All that we have is gift, and the gift is totally beyond the magnitude of our ability to earn it or even think we deserve it. He chose us and He chose to give us the gift of His love and mercy.
Luckily we do not have to earn this gift of love and mercy, as gifts are never earned, they are given. But we could never repay this one even if we wanted to. The only thing we can give back to Jesus is acceptance of the gift, which means we offer our lives back to Him. All we can give, in other words, is ourselves. We can love Him back by honoring Him through our own love. That means loving those who are difficult to love, be they strangers or family. It means offering our work, as paltry as we may think it is. It means offering our prayer, our intentions, our actions, all that we are, back to Him, not worrying about our lack of perfection, but giving all that we can give of our heart to Him. He gave the perfect sacrifice in place of our imperfect one when He went through His Passion and death, so He will continue to accept our imperfect offerings with mercy and love because that is who He was, is, and always will be.
I think it is no coincidence that we have a new pope at this point in Lent and that he reminds us of the beauty of humility. Humility is the attribute that opens the door to love and mercy. Without it, there cannot be the greatness of love that enables one to have solidarity with another human being and to truly be a man or woman of visible love. Everyone has noticed the humility of Pope Francis, let us be inspired by it: let us act the way he does, as a servant of the Lord. May his humility be contagious, especially to those in power! He also seems to be a man with a quick smile and a sense of humor, which is another attribute of humble people. But do not be fooled: he also knows what it is to suffer because he has seen it in the people he has served and he has often suffered with them. Suffering breaks open the heart in order for love to enter. Humility comes from understanding the nature of the gift of Love we have all been given, which comes through the Son of God's own suffering in and through His people.
Let us offer our full attention to Jesus during this upcoming Holy Week. May we be amazed at the magnitude of His self-offering on our behalf! May we be humbled by the depth of His Love and Mercy as He goes through the Last Supper, the agony in the garden, and the dying on the Cross this week! May we be inspired by His humility to ask for this grace for ourselves, but also for the courage to accept it! Let us continue to pray for each other as we meet in the Heart of the Lord of Extreme Humility and Mercy during this Holy Week. Peace!
*Venerable Bede was a Benedictine monk, priest, and historian who lived from 672 or 673 to 735 in Northumbria, England. He was the first English church historian and is a Doctor of the Church. His most famous work is Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People).
The icon at the top is Jesus Christ Extreme Humility written by Rev. William Hart McNichols. You can get copies of it or more information about it at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=93
The picture in the middle of the post is one of my own photos. It was taken in Nova Scotia, Canada a few years ago.
Heart Speaks to Heart