Some years ago, a friend of mine was ordained a priest. He has always been a jokester and so I was looking forward to attending his ordination festivities since I knew he’d have some type of humor or comical observations about things. And – true to form – the day after the ceremony, as we met for lunch with some mutual friends, he banged on the table and pontificated, “Friends, I’ve been ordained for service! …And, damn it, I expect to get it.”
Of course, we all shook our heads and laughed because, at the time, we all thought it was a funny twist on the obvious meaning of the biblical teaching on service. And yet, in surveying the ecclesial landscape today, maybe we shouldn’t have laughed.
It appears there are churchmen who think their ordinations have designated them to be the recipients of service, rather than marking them as the ones who are to give selfless service to others. And, as we’ve seen all too often, and in many tragic ways, when a call to service is manipulated, it gets ugly… for everyone.
In the scriptural readings at Mass this Sunday, believers once again walk with the Lord Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. Since the mission of the Lord reaches its climax in the Holy City, the teachings recorded by Saint Mark along this messianic journey take on an understandably heightened priority in the life of the Christian community.
On this particular Sunday, in a very helpful way, we hear the Lord Jesus give a very sobering lesson on authority and service.
On the trek to Jerusalem, two of the apostles, eager for power, approach the Lord and insist, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you… Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”
In spite of everything they’d seen and heard from the Master, even some very specific counsel earlier on in this same journey, James and John – who had close knowledge of the Lord as his followers and friends – only wanted dominance and recognition. In contrast to the Lord’s own meekness and humbleness of heart, the two brothers were only focused on their own promotion and superiority. Shockingly, the two wanted something and the Lord was a mere means to get it. They’d lost their way. The challenge to the Lord’s example on authority might sound familiar. It’s been repeated through the ages in a thousand different ways by a thousand different personalities. Tragically, it has shown itself in our own age.
This waywardness is what happens in a Christian, especially one ordained for priestly ministry, when the gospel mission is lost and ego takes over. Boundaries disappear. The cross is emptied of its meaning and becomes a mere disguise for personal gain or pleasure, even of a perverse or demented expression.
In response to such fallenness, the Lord tells James and John (and all his disciples through the ages): “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
The Lord Jesus, of course, is referring to his own passion and death. Consistent with his preaching and way of life, Jesus models how authority is to be exercised by his disciples and especially by those who are chosen to shepherd the community in his name. Among Christians, therefore, authority is not to be shown by “lording it over others,” but by a true dying to oneself and an outpouring of service for the good of others. Christian teaching has always held that our hierarchy is precisely a hierarchy of service. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI went so far as to identify it even as a hierarchy of martyrdom, namely of selflessness, righteous suffering, and a death to our own desires and preferences for the sake of others.
This all reflects the conclusion of the Lord’s response to the two brothers (and to all of his disciples in any age): “Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all… For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Today, as opinions are given and efforts are made for reform in the Church, a retrieval and deepening of the biblical sense of authority – what it is, why it’s been given, and how it’s to be exercised – and its sincere living out within the Church, especially among ordained leadership, is a pressing and pivotal place to begin.