All of Jesus’ teachings enrich and challenge us as human beings. Some, like "love your enemies," are easy to understand though difficult to follow. Others, like "I have come to cause division," are puzzling. Learn more about 12 key sayings of Jesus throughout 2005.

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To Serve As Jesus Did
 
By Kathy Coffey

“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

Who in his right mind really wants to be a servant? Uneasily, we picture a butler in a British movie holding a tuxedo jacket for a wealthy, pampered boss. Is this what Jesus asks?

Perhaps our aversion to the idea of servanthood springs from the spunky independence of North Americans. Descendants of bold pioneers who broke away from an entrenched system of servitude, we stoop to no one. We serve no master!

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Maybe we need to wrestle with what these words of Jesus mean today. Just as in dialogue with a friend, we pose objections and he expands his original idea.

We might protest that we dread feeling vulnerable. When our livelihood, the scheduling of our time and the work we do depend on the whim of another, we feel diminished. We’re used to being independent adults—staying in charge, controlling our lives, setting our own agendas. Then Jesus, with his startling one-liners and his heartbreaking humility, challenges us to rethink those easy assumptions.

He might gently point out that, bluster aside, we do serve in the ordinary context of our days. Even the millionaire dad has been known to chauffeur his kids to soccer games; the mom with advanced degrees still—at least now and then—cooks breakfast for the family. Every time we fold laundry, weed the garden, check the homework or brew coffee, we are serving someone.

Quiet, Simple Sanctity

Jesus might remind us how our tradition has always honored quiet, ordinary service. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of a lay brother named Alphonsus Rodriguez, contrasting the glorious deeds of warriors or martyrs with the simple dailiness of the man’s job: Today we’d call it being the receptionist at a Jesuit institution. Years of world upheavals passed while, uneventfully, “Alfonso watched the door.”

Yet his name is preceded by an abbreviation that speaks to us: “St.” The fact that Alfonso achieved sainthood with so little drama is good news for us. Perhaps we don’t need to found religious orders, travel to remote missions or perform great exploits, either. Perhaps sanctity is as close as the kitchen door, the math homework, the soup shared in kindness, the clean laundry, the compliment, the offer of friendship.

As our imagined dialogue continues, Jesus gives not only his words but also his life to help us understand. He directly experienced what he describes: total vulnerability. He who could have come into our world as political ruler, military general, respected scholar or esteemed artist comes as defenseless child. We all begin as infants, so perhaps that’s not saying much. Then the surprise: He grows not into adult power but into servanthood. He who made the universe washes feet, serves meals and does “women’s work.”

Servants and Friends

His example of the great one becoming a servant begins radical reform of a social order built on superiority/inferiority, domination/subordination. He replaces that rickety social ladder with a paradigm where all serve each other. In Jesus’ community, the distinctions are irrelevant because all belong to one mystical body. Christ’s members energize and help each other, contributing to the health of the whole.

If we take this saying of Jesus in the context of all his words, he further refines the “servant” model by saying, “I do not call you servants any longer…I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Ah—our objections silenced by a model of human relationships we can naturally, warmly admire!

God, then, is not distant dictator, but intimate friend. Furthermore, God not only befriends, but also serves. Any stigma attaching to serving is removed because it is done in love.

Through his words, actions and vision, Jesus shows us that human life can sometimes seem as defenseless as a servant at the whim of an arbitrary master. But here’s the difference: Our childlike vulnerability places us squarely in the hands of a compassionate God who never abandons, who keeps us wholly secure. Every breath we take depends on a creator who desires only our good and loves us for all eternity. And that is indeed a mercy.

Kathy Coffey, the mother of four, is an editor at Living the Good News in Denver, Colorado. She has won numerous writing awards. Her newest book is Women of Mercy (Orbis, 2005).

Next: Unless You Become Like Children…

Questions for Reflection:

• Who in your Church community models the loving servant? In what way(s)?

• When have you found it difficult to serve another? When has it been easier?

FAMILY CORNER
Answering the Call
By Judith Dunlap

John makes it quite clear in his Gospel that serving others is essential to being a Christian. During the Last Supper he describes in detail the scene in which Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. When they protest, Jesus tells them they are to follow his example: They are to serve each other. Jesus’ message, of course, is for all of us: We are all called to be servants.

This is no big deal for those of us who are married. I experience the call almost daily—when I put on the coffee, retrieve the newspaper, fix a dinner or make a bed. For those of us who have children, the list multiplies a hundredfold. We do our chores willingly, sometimes lovingly. Usually, I can accept the role of servant without even thinking about it.

But there are other times when my response to the call has been anything but loving. In my many years as wife and mother, my spouse and children have often heard me say loud and clear, “I’m not your servant.” Should I feel guilty? Maybe once in a while, but for the most part my guilt is eased when I remember there is mutuality to Jesus’ call. As wife and mom I’m doing husband and children a disservice if I don’t give them an opportunity to serve also.

Perhaps shouting is not the gentlest way of promoting our common call. Much better to have family meetings and decide together who does what—and stick to it. (This could occasionally mean having a table not quite set and food served lukewarm.) We find the great plus in serving each other a little further in John’s Gospel when Jesus tells his disciples he will no longer call them servants but friends. Perhaps when everyone in the family answers the call of Jesus to be servant, we will truly be able to say the same.

 

For Family Response:

Draw names and choose “secret servants” this week. See how many times family members can serve each other without being observed.

Media Watch
The Chorus
By Frank Frost

For at least 50 years we’ve enjoyed a rich tradition of movies in which one teacher makes a difference. This year it’s The Chorus, a French-language film with subtitles that won an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Picture.

On one level, The Chorus is about the healing power of music. But it’s also about the redemptive power of simple respect and dignity.

The story is told through the eyes of two boys who, as elderly men, look back at the man and events that shaped their lives at a boarding school for troubled youngsters.

Their teacher, Clemént Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), is an earnest, pudgy, nondescript teacher who comes new to the school looking a little lost. He is immediately educated in the unbending philosophy of the principal, Rachin (Francois Berléand)—“action-reaction,” roughly translated as “every misdeed has immediate and severe consequences.” The result is a prison atmosphere, with a constant battle raging between resident students and their teachers.

At first the mild-mannered Mathieu appears to be overmatched by the unruly lads he not only teaches, but also lives with. Two students deserve special attention. Mathieu’s departing predecessor warns him about Pierre Morhant (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), who has the face of an angel and the personality of a gang leader. He also has an amazing soprano voice. Pépinot (Maxence Perrin), the youngest and most vulnerable child in the group, waits fruitlessly at the school gate each Saturday for his father to come pick him up.

When he first arrives, Mathieu locks a precious leather packet in his personal cabinet. Naturally the boys steal it, but they are baffled when the treasure is only musical notepaper. Outed as a composer by the theft of his handwritten music, Mathieu is inspired to get the boys to sing.

Everyone responds. They all know at least one song they can sing for their audition, and the class is quickly divided into vocal sections. (Since boys will be boys, their language is not a model for little children.) One lad cannot sing at all. He is given the responsibility of serving as the music stand. Pépinot, clearly too small and too shy to participate, is designated assistant music director.

Given the movie genre, it is no surprise that the lives of the boys will be transformed by the musical harmony they subsequently create. They are not the only ones, however. Mathieu himself is redeemed. A failed composer who has had no hope of ever hearing his music performed, he gains recognition and self-esteem in the process. The other teachers also come to recognize that respect has greater efficacy than punishment in improving their students’ behavior.

Director Christophe Barratier has crafted a well-acted, gentle and humanistic film worth seeing, and the music is pleasing to the ear.

 

For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?

SAINTS AND HEROES AMONG US
By Judy Ball

St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 605?)

Fear and uncertainty may not be the easiest or most common path to sanctity, but St. Augustine of Canterbury is proof they don’t rule it out.

An Italian by birth, he is known and celebrated today as the “apostle of England” for his untiring work in spreading the faith there. Though his efforts did not always meet with dramatic success, he is a human saint whose self-doubt and cautious nature were balanced by perseverance and love of the Church.

In the year 596, Pope Gregory the Great sent his friend Augustine to lead a party of fellow monks to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons in England. Even before arriving, Augustine was struck by uncertainty. He and his men headed back to Rome after hearing stories about the “ferocious” Anglo-Saxons and the menacing waters of the English Channel. Pope Gregory assured them that their fears were groundless. They set out for England once again.

Welsh missionaries before them had failed to make inroads among the Anglo-Saxons. But over time, Augustine and his men achieved some success in their evangelization efforts. In part, this was due to the counsel of Pope Gregory that they do their best to retain local non-Christian customs as much as possible. Though he often turned to Rome for decisions on matters he could have decided on his own, Augustine proved a wise and patient missionary. He was content to move forward in slow, steady steps.

He served as the first archbishop of Canterbury and also established dioceses at London and Rochester. In 1091, almost 500 years after Augustine’s death, his remains were transferred to a place of honor in Canterbury cathedral. His feast day is May 27.

Thuy Nguyen

As the city of Saigon was falling to the Communists in the spring of 1975, young Thuy Nguyen, then 16, undertook a journey that brought her to a new land, new struggles and new possibilities beyond imagining.

It was a journey that began in fear: escape on an open barge she and her family shared with hundreds of other “boat people” as well as days on the open sea without food or protection from the elements. Then came a chance rescue by a U.S. merchant boat, stays at several refugee camps and months of waiting for resettlement.

“I was frightened. I didn’t know what was going to happen to our future,” Thuy told Every Day Catholic. But God was watching over the devout Catholic Nguyen family, which was eventually resettled in Kansas City, Missouri. Thuy and her five siblings were welcomed at no cost at St. Pius X High School.

The next part of her journey began in the religion class of Sister Mary Aquinas, who helped “a kid who couldn’t speak English” blossom into a confident young woman. The Sister of Charity gently guided Thuy through her high school studies and into college, where she majored in biology. From there she went on to Columbia University Medical School. Today she is a successful plastic surgeon in New York, where she lives with her husband and young daughter.

“Sister Mary Aquinas [who died one year after Thuy graduated] was sent to guide me,” says Dr. Nguyen. “She was a miracle in my life. She opened doors for me. I’ve been so blessed by God.”

So blessed that she is giving back to her former high school in the form of a $25,000 gift. “I’m not heroic. I just want to pay back.”

 

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