When I first interviewed here in Bordentown, after a great talk with the Vestry, Andy Law gave me a tour of the church, starting in the Lady Chapel. The afternoon light was coming in the Magnificat window and I immediately spotted the Marian Monogram, that intertwined M and R (for Maria Regina, Mary Queen of Heaven), and I remarked that I had the same monogram tattooed on my right forearm. Now, I don’t know Andy thought about all of that, but when I was called here to be your priest, I thought maybe Mother Mary was made glad by that connection.
This week’s Gospel lesson reminded me of another tattoo, this time on the wrist of a good friend of mine, Fr. Sammy Wood, the Associate Rector of the Church of the Advent in Boston. Fr. Sammy and I were at seminary together; he was first a deacon and then a priest at the Church of the Ascension & St. Agnes, where I did my field work. When he was ordained he went out and got a new tattoo, a Greek word on his wrist, where he could see it and be reminded of its significance all the time. That word was doulos.
Doulos means, simply, slave. We come across doulos in the Gospel today after James and John, those uppity sons of Zebedee, slink up to Jesus and try to get Him to promise them prime spots in Jesus’ kingdom. Despite Jesus telling them multiple times already that He will soon be suffering and dying on a cross, that His Kingdom is not of this world, they don’t get it. They write all of that off as pessimism and assume that it won’t be long before the whole lot of them will reigning from golden thrones in Jerusalem.
But Jesus knows better and turns the tables. He gets them to promise Him something instead, that they can and will drink from the same cup, that cup of wrath Jesus knew was waiting for Him. Then He gave them a lesson on the economy of the Kingdom of God:
Jesus called all of His disciples close and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave, must be doulos, of all.”
The Letter to the Hebrews is placed with this Gospel for a reason, as it “reaches for this paradox. We have a “great” “high” priest. But he (Jesus) was strangely compassionate, fragile, and subject to the very trials we abhor. Isaiah warned of the fact. This savior would be afflicted, would suffer, and would even bear guilt. We want no afflictions, no suffering, and will admit no culpability. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned.”
This is a strange fix. Like Zebedee’s sons, we aspire to sit at his right and left, but we do not know what we are asking for. It is a cup of pain and suffering. It is an emptying-out. It is a descending. The great joke on us is that the mighty God above goes down below, even below us, proud of ourselves for not needing anything other than ourselves.” 1
So let me tell you what all this isn’t about. Jesus is not telling us not to be great or not to aspire to be the best at what we do. In fact, working hard and doing your best is exactly what we should be doing; imagine a world in which everybody thought that Christians were a bunch of lazy bums.
What this is all about is attitude, it’s about humility, where we place ourselves in comparison to others. Do we feel that we are above others, for whatever reason? Are there tasks or duties that we feel are below us? Do we think that sitting on the right hand or left hand of Jesus relieves us of our servanthood or do we think that would make us servants of all?
I don’t think we all need to run out and get doulos tattooed on our wrists as a reminder of today’s teaching from Jesus, but we could all use a reminder now and again that our Lord came not to be served, but to serve, to give up His life as a ransom for our sins. What will serve as your reminder?
1John Kavanaugh, SJ http://liturgy.slu.edu/29OrdB101815/theword_embodied.html