There is a story I told earlier about the late Rolando Tinio. In the late ’60s or early ’70s, he gave a talk in an exclusive girls’ college on the power of the vernacular. For us who are old enough to remember, this era was the period of Filipinization, activism and renewed nationalism.
As Tinio was making his point, a student argued against him in colegiala English. Tinio quietly walked to the young lady while the whole auditorium watched. He stood beside the student and then told her, “Ang ___ mo!”
The young lady turned red instantaneously. Tinio then said with a smile, “You see? I told you the vernacular is more effective!”
This Sunday’s Gospel is quite similar to this incident. As Christ moved closer to the fulfillment of his mission, he wanted to make sure his followers were with him—that they understood who he really was, the Messiah, and his mission.
After his moving prediction of his betrayal—“The Son of Man is to be handed over to men…”—as well as passion, death and resurrection, his followers, or some at least, still seemed to miss the whole point. “They did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.”
But worse—the worst, actually—was that, immediately after this prediction of the suffering of the Messiah as the first and foremost man-for-others and servant-leader, the disciples argued about who was the greatest among themselves.
This is just like Tinio delivering an impassioned lecture on the power of the vernacular, and we who went through that period in our nation’s story, and who knew Tinio and what he stood for can imagine how moving and powerful this lecture must have been. It was an appeal not just on behalf of the Filipino language, but also for nurturing the soul and identity of our people.
But then, imagine someone, a young colegiala in this case, standing up and trying to dispute that passion. Talk about raining on someone’s parade. This is what the disciples did.
Tinio’s unorthodox response drove home his point.
This was what Christ did. He drove home the point. If you want to be the first and the greatest, he said, you have to be “the last of all and the servant of all.”
Then he pointed out to whom they needed to be servants. To the child who is helpless and holds no real influence in society, who is weak and powerless, who is the symbol of innocence, purity and hope, to whom the future belongs.
This Sunday’s Gospel drives home the point what it means to be Christian and to render Christian service. As the “Prayer for Generosity” states, it is “to give and not to count the cost, to toil and not seek for rest, to labor and ask not for any reward.”
To be Christian is to be selfless and “the servant of all.”
There is a story about a man from Sparta named Paedaretos. Sparta was governed by 300 of its best and most distinguished men, and these 300 were chosen. In one such election, Paedaretos was not included.
After his loss, Paedaretos was consoled by friends. They extolled his competence and brilliance and said what a loss it was to Sparta that he, Paedaretos, was not chosen to be part of the 300.
Paedaretos’ response was that he was happy to see there were 300 men in Sparta who were more deserving, competent and brilliant than he. This humility and selflessness earned him the respect and admiration of Sparta.
Worthy of emulation
This is a public servant worthy of emulation. How many of us will place the community’s interests above our own? How many of us will acknowledge that others can do a better job than we?
The heart and core of Christian service is following Christ and imitating him in the pattern of his Cross and Resurrection, the Paschal Mystery. Christ, time and again, said this is the only way—the way of the Cross and the Resurrection.
The first step in living a life of authentic Christian service is to overcome our self-centeredness and be totally other-centered—God first and then our neighbors.
We have seen many people who have seemingly embraced noble causes. But a closer look will show us how such “good things” disguise a self-centered, even narcissistic person.
It is no accident that Christ takes a child, places the child in the midst of his followers, embraces it and declares that whoever receives the child receives him. Christ clearly defines Christian service as a service toward the helpless, the weak, the powerless.
This is service that seeks no reward and recognition. Christ clearly defined Christian service as the act of imitating him who chose to undergo suffering and death—a choice that was lovingly made, but still painfully lived out.
This is the shocking, painful reality: Christian service is painfully lived out, but the pain is lovingly endured. As Hannah Hurnard puts it, pain and love go together, for a time at least. But when love bears fruit, the pain is no more. It is all love. It is pure love.
This is the love that makes us follow Christ in our day-to-day lives. It echoes St. Ignatius of Loyola’s prayers: “…And ask not for any reward, save that of knowing I am doing your most holy will” and “Give me only your love and grace, these make me rich and I ask for nothing more.”