Sept. 20 is the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Sept. 23 is the memorial of St. Thecla — special to our family because a daughter took Thecla as her confirmation name.
Thecla was an avid reader of philosophy when (so the story goes) St. Paul the Apostle came to preach the Gospel in Iconium. Thecla was smitten with love for Jesus. Thecla’s pagan parents weren’t.
They were particularly irked that Thecla broke off her engagement. Her fiancé, Thamyris, was even more irked — and denounced Thecla to a judge.
Legend has it that he ordered her to be burned to death, but a storm from heaven put the fire out. She was then thrown to the lions, who only purred and lay down beside her like kittens. Sufficiently spooked, the judge set her free.
She is often pictured with the lions laying by her side — a good reminder that, for Christians, the fierce forces of the world don’t disappear, but when we face them with God, they lose a great deal of their ferocity.
Sept. 22 is the first day of autumn, and in autumn, our minds turn to school, football — and ghosts.
On page 186 of Peter Seewald’s Pope Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait (Ignatius Press, 2008), Seewald quotes Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger reminiscing about two of those three things from his Munich school days, when he had to rebuild the seminary he studied in. It shows what the Pope had to go through to get an education — and reveals his human side, too:
“We pounded and carried stones, and in the autumn of forty-nine we were able to move in, into a side wing with no roof. We climbed up a ladder into our accommodations, and by way of this ladder we could also get into the uninhabitable part of the building. And we made full use of this opportunity to frighten the ‘servants’ by ‘haunting’ them at night. They of course complained fearfully about the ghost.”
Wisdom 2:17-20, Psalm 54:3-8, James 3:16-4:3, Mark 9:30-37
Today’s Gospel is one of those where it’s easy to feel superior to the apostles. Jesus catches them arguing about who is greater, and he puts a child in their midst, exhorting them to be like the child.
It’s true: We don’t often argue with each other about who is greater. But perhaps this is because we’re less straightforward and less honest than the apostles. A brief examination of conscience will reveal that we’re not all that different from the apostles after all. We may not ever say we’re greater — but how many of our decisions are driven by the desire to make that point, all the same?
We argue that we’re greater in ways small and large. In conversations, we tell tales of our encounters with people we feel qualified to ridicule, and make subtle but meaningful references to the shortcomings of others. In our thoughts, we reinterpret almost everything that happens to us as a triumph of “me,” the indomitable hero.
It’s at this point that Christ wants to put a child in our midst and asks us to be more like him.
It’s not that children are invariably humble. Children have their egos, too. But children start from, and live in, a position of secondary importance.
A child lives where he lives because his parents chose to live there. If his parents choose to move, he moves. He goes to the school he goes to because his parents decided to put him there. He comes home at a time arranged by his parents, and he eats food according to the choices his parents offer him.
It’s this position that Christ wants us to take in relation to him. A child is not the protagonist of his own story yet; he’s a bit part in the story of someone else — his parents. We aren’t ultimately the protagonist of our own story, either. The story we are in stars Christ and his saving action for his people. If we’re very blessed, he will give us a walk-on role in that story, as he did for Thecla, who didn’t even get a mention in the New Testament.
Christ himself became a model of how we are to consider our part in the story. The first reading — from Isaiah, prophesying about the Suffering Servant — shows how Jesus planned from the beginning to be reviled, tortured and put to the test.
The second reading sums up the lesson. “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice,” says the Letter of St. James. “But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”
It’s a freeing lesson to learn. It saves a lot of argument about who is the greatest.
Tom and April Hoopes live in Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.
They are former editorial directors of Faith & Family magazine.
Tom was executive editor of the Register.