This is an easy scene for us all to image. If you go to Google Images and search based on this passage, all kinds of manner of choice pop up from cartoons, to Renaissance masterpieces, to iconography from ancient days. In the middle of all the paintings is a child: so small, so beautiful, so innocent. It almost makes you wonder, what’s the problem with the Apostles? That should be the easiest task in the world to receive a child such as this, yes? How could you not receive cute and innocent? And by receiving them in the name of Christ, you not only receive Jesus but also God his father. So what’s the problem?
But then the closer you look at our gospel for today, it is really kinda’ problem filled. Jesus predicts his passion – and not for the first time. This is the second time, but the message of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection is not being fully understood. When Jesus first predicted his passion and death, Peter rebuked him, for which Peter then heard Jesus say, “Get behind me, Satan.” This second time around, the Apostles aren’t talking; they are silent and afraid to ask questions. I wonder what the problem is?
Perhaps they are afraid of a stinging reply from Jesus. Maybe they don’t want to confirm with their question, the fact that they don’t really understand how the Messiah could be other than a conquering hero. I was wondering if they are beginning to understand that Jesus will not be with them much longer and they are starting to talk among themselves about how to get organized – and that leads to the “who is the greatest among us” debate.
Jesus asks them, but of course, he already knows the topic of their conversation – and knows he needs to keep teaching them. So, Jesus takes a seat, the posture of the rabbi and teacher, and begins to tell them (1) this is the mission and (2) this is whom you are to serve – with the goal being “servant of all.” That is the posture for a true disciples of Christ.
I think the next verse is Scripture tells us a lot. “Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst, and putting his arms around it” Seriously, he placed it? Jesus put his arms around it? Did the St. Mark really describe a beautiful child as “it?” Yes, and so does St. Matthew and St. Luke. The first century attitude towards children was markedly different from ours, so much so that Greek and Roman cultures only adopted adults, not children. Even St. Paul acknowledges that a child, even an heir, is no better than a servant until they come of age. In other words, a child is not a productive member of the family or society; they are a necessary burden, but a burden nonetheless. They do not matter. They are least in society. It is inconceivable that one should serve a child. That is a problem in the understanding of the disciples.
Yet that is what is asked: to be servant to all; to embrace all. And sometimes this is a problem for us. I wonder if sometimes we are like a wide receiver in football who does not fully extend his arms to catch the ball. It called the T-rex syndrome – arms that barely extend away from the body, from one’s self – arms that will not embrace.
Who in our life do we T-rex? Who are the ones we will not embrace – would rather not embrace? Who are the one’s we begrudgingly serve?
Pope Francis is coming to the United States this week. Lots of excitement. He is speaking to a joint session of Congress and to the United Nations. He is addressing an international celebration of families in Philadelphia. He will meet the President of the United States, leaders of Congress, dignitaries at the United Nations, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, priests, nuns, mayors, governors – and just all manner of important people.
Amanda Cortes is not anyone’s idea of a dignitary. She grew up poor in an overcrowded house. She worked for years as a phone-sex operator. Since 2010, she has been awaiting trial in Philadelphia on charges that she brutally murdered her infant son. He lives at Riverside Correctional Facility in Philadelphia – the host city of the World Meeting of Families. On Sept. 27, she will meet the pope when he visits Riverside.
To an unparalleled degree, this pope is making a point of spending time with people on the bottom rungs of American society: day laborers, refugees, the homeless, underprivileged schoolchildren and prisoners. Like no pope before him, Francis is using the grand stage of his trip to the United States to demonstrate that the church exists to serve the poor and marginalized, and that this is the responsibility of all Catholics — whether pontiff or parishioner.
Pope Francis is no T-rex. His arms open far and wide to remind us that we, as a community of faith, exist to be servants to all. To show us what it means to be great.