By Father Pete Iorio
One can argue that America is obsessed with greatness. Some of the most popular movies DC and Marvel films come out every year and make millions of dollars as they feature characters like Iron Man, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy who use great powers to overcome their enemies. It most certainly must be a human desire to show and feel that we are better than others, to be Number One.
That was the struggle for James and for John in the Gospel today. They wanted the glory that comes with sitting beside the one they saw as their great Lord and Messiah. But once again, they are clueless. They do not understand what greatness really means if they are to be a follower of Jesus Christ. A few chapters later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus hangs on the cross, and then we see what it means to be at His right and left. It is only on Calvary, the place of the Crucifixion, that the meaning of James’ and John’s request is clear.
At the time of their request, John and James missed three important points: first, they did not understand that Jesus was destined to be a heavenly king, not an earthly one. As often as he taught them by words and by his deeds, they missed that he wanted to build a kingdom focused on mercy and love, not power and domination and earthly greatness.
Second, they did not realize that Jesus had come to die, not to reign. He had come, not to be served like royalty, but to serve his people – to the point of giving up his very life for them.
Finally, they missed the point that life is not a competition. Everyone who serves Jesus, especially when they serve Jesus in the least of our brothers and sisters, will be given a seat of honor in heaven.
So according to Jesus, greatness and leadership have qualities that are almost totally the opposite of how the world even today sees greatness and leadership. How much credibility do we give to Jesus’ definition of greatness? One thing that I pray about to understand more is this: The great leader of our religion chose not to defeat those political forces of his day. He chose a path in which he Himself was defeated to show his great love for all people: Jew and Gentile, Romans and the children of Israel, sinners and those who abided by the Law.
It is a great mystery as to why God chose this path of suffering loving servanthood. As he asked James and John, so he asks us if we can drink the cup with him. What that means is if we can share in a portion of suffering with an attitude of love instead of just expecting rewards and glory.
Last week, Pope Francis canonized seven new saints. One is from the Americas. Oscar Romero was a bishop from El Salvador who had all the power and privilege of a prince of the church. What really changed his heart was the suffering of his people when he was Bishop of Santiago de Maria for three years before he was named archbishop of San Salvador. St. Oscar Romero accompanied the poor at a time when some two-thirds of the population lived in poverty. He also voiced people’s demands for better wages and criticisms of the “oligarchy” — as the elites were caustically called — at a time when his critics considered such talk “communist.” He also called for a suspension of U.S. military assistance.
The poverty and inequality St. Oscar Romero spoke out against are still existing today. Many Salvadorans still flee the country to escape the violence and indignities, causing the saint’s words to resonate with younger generations. Oscar Romero knew that his life was not about himself. It was all about Christ and serving Christ in the very least of his brothers and sisters. His life was threatened, but Romero’s faith and trust in Jesus Christ compelled him to keep loving and serving. He was not afraid to speak out for the poor and the suffering. With faith and great union with Jesus Christ, he said, “If they kill me, I will rise again in my people.” And also he spoke these words, “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”
Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated as he celebrated the holy Mass on March 24, 1980.
This is powerful and challenging for us. What greater way can we share sufferings with Christ than through the Eucharist? It is at the altar that Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and shares His very life with us. The Eucharist is the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary and Oscar Romero shared in the cup of the Lord’s suffering. For me the Eucharist is that gift which empowers me not to be afraid and to choose to humble myself in loving service of God and his people. When I receive our Eucharistic Lord, this is my fervent prayer: Give me/us only the glory Lord of being able to share in your cup and to die for you.