Sunday, 23 September 2012
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury, 11am Mass
“Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me."(Mk 9:37) We know that there are many times in the Gospels when we hear Jesus speaking about the importance of being childlike. It can sometimes be difficult to understand what ‘childlike’ means; after all, there are certain things it obviously doesn't mean: being infantile, petulant, throwing a tantrum and stamping our foot when we don't get our way, etc.
In today's gospel the particular context that led Jesus to refer to children was the context of his 12 apostles each claiming to be greater than the others: in this sense, each claiming to be more of an adult than the others. When we look at a child, however, one of the things that a child does NOT claim is greatness -a child may claim the right to our attention, the right to a new toy, and the right to not be punished for fighting with siblings, but it is not typical of a child to claim GREATNESS: a child knows that it is not great -which is why a child looks to the adult for attention, a new toy, justice against siblings and so on.
I want to illustrate this by referring to a saint. As Catholics, we know that one of the ways we can understand the Scriptures is by looking at the lives of the saints, and one particularly useful saint for understanding being childlike is Saint Therese of Lisieux (or ‘St Teresa’ in English not French), the saint whose relics toured England back in 2009 and widely reported even in the secular media. Saint Therese is famously known for teaching what is called "the way of spiritual childhood". And in some ways the spiritual childhood she lived was a pretty tough, manly childhood: she suffered, suffered and died from tuberculosis, but suffered without complaining, suffered with grace.
Thinking of greatness, however, there is one particular aspect of St Therese’s spiritual childhood that I want to refer to: her practice of "hidden" acts of kindness. She says in her autobiography (an autobiography she only wrote because she was commanded to by her superior), that, "I endeavoured above all to practice little HIDDEN acts of virtue, such as folding the mantles which the Sisters had forgotten". And that small little act is typical of the way of life St Therese lived and calls upon us to live: to be content to do many small hidden acts, to do them because somebody needs to do them, and WE can be that somebody.
In contrast, that false adulthood that we saw in the 12 Apostles, far from being willing to be hidden demands rather that its greatness be seen, be seen by others and praised by others. Far from being content with doing good just to do good, mistaken greatness demands that the greatness be seen.
For ourselves, it is all too easy to make being seen all too important, to get in a bad mood when people don't thank us for what we’ve done, to grumble when people take us for granted. I know that I don't like it when people take my work for granted -when I tidy the church and hall up and nobody notices who did it, when if feel like I’ve walked the extra mile to meet many different peoples different spiritual needs in a day, and no one seems to notice. To serve Jesus, however, to love as Jesus loved, means being willing to do goodness to others even when others don't see it.
To come back to Saint Therese, I want to conclude by pointing to an irony that we see in her hidden goodness: the irony is that in seeking to keep her goodness hidden it has been manifested to all the world, manifested not by herself but by the Lord. One of the mistakes that the 12 Apostles made was not only to demands their greatness be acknowledged by men rather than by God, but to demand that it be acknowledged right now. St Therese was content to let her hidden acts be seen by God, and as a consequence of the faithfulness of that good God, the glory and greatness of St Therese is on public display to ALL as she tours our country with a schedule fitting a pop star and adoring crowds to match, but the real glory and greatness of St Therese is on display in heaven and will be on display there forever. As we heard Jesus say, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all". He was true to His word for Saint Therese and if we too are "servants of all" he will be true to us too.