In a 1984 retreat as Jesuit novices, our then retreat master, Fr. Joe Cruz, SJ, talked about love as a movement. He used the image from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians referring to the kenosis of Christ—emptying himself of his divinity to enter our human situation—as the ancient hymn that Paul uses says, “taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:7)
Cruz demonstrated with hand movements. He placed one hand up and positioned the other lower. Then he moved the upper hand below the other hand and lifted up the latter.
“Love is a movement,” he emphasized, “uplifting the beloved in the same way Christ did,” a self-effacing emptying of self.
It is quite striking that Christ was very respectful and empowering even in his invitation to this upliftment: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
He leads by example, yes, but he also gives us the freedom to choose.
This Sunday’s Gospel on authentic service is a stark contrast to the Gospels in the daily Masses the previous week. At one point, Christ criticizes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and other religious leaders of his time.
Coincidentally, these “woes” against religious leaders served as a dramatic backdrop to what hogged the headlines and airwaves recently—the filing of the certificates of candidacy of thousands who aspire for leadership positions.
In one of the most moving descriptions of his mission and leadership—“For the son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)—Christ sets an enduring standard for leadership, the life-giving service of the servant leader as a fulfillment of the story of redemption.
Let me propose three points for our reflection this Sunday on the servant leader: one, the leader as servant; two, the leader as ransom; and three, the leader as an exemplar or embodiment of the story.
The term “servant leader” was popularized by Robert Greenleaf in the late 1970s. His classic book, “Servant Leadership, A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness,” opens with the story of Leo, the main character in Hermann Hesse’s “Journey to the East.”
Leo is the servant of a group of noble men on a “mythical journey.” Leo does the dirty job, so to speak, but he also inspires the journey with his positive attitude and singing. As Greenleaf puts it, Leo “is a person of extraordinary presence.” Then Leo disappears, causing the group to fall apart and the journey to be aborted.
Years later, one of the men in the group was inducted into the exclusive Order that sponsored the journey. Then he discovers that Leo the servant was the “guiding spirit, a great and noble leader” of the Order as its titular head.
As Greenleaf says, “the great leader is seen as servant first.” In our own experience and context, the true servant is the unseen mover, facilitator of things, does not call attention, allows others to enjoy and make the most of the moment, and provides the environment and opportunities for others to excel.
One form of service is to serve as ransom. The root word of ransom is from the Old French, but the original came from the Latin word redemptio—or to buy back another person’s life with one’s own life.
As Christ accurately puts it, he came into our world “to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In John 10:10, the chapter in which another leadership image of the Good Shepherd is shown, Christ says, “A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
This is the story of our redemption; Christ is our ransom so that we may have life more abundantly. Not primarily material abundance—but neither is it a life of unjustly imposed want and poverty—but an abundance of meaning.
In the words of Roseanne Sanders (“The Remembering Garden”), “What we have done will not be lost to all eternity. Everything ripens and bears fruit in its own hour.”
With this in mind, we set as our context what Fr. Catalino G. Arevalo, SJ, stated as the meaning of living out the Ignatian spirit, “to set one’s life within the horizon of a dream larger than life.”
All these resonate with us. We can have life in abundance. We can dream with the assurance of faith that we have been redeemed.
The ransom of Christ, his redeeming us, is experienced fully in freedom. It is freedom not just from our sinfulness, limitations and brokenness, but the greater freedom to commit, to dedicate and to devote our self to someone or something greater than us, larger than life—a life devoted in love to the service of God and others. In short, being ransom for others.
One of the inspirational stories of our childhood was that of Albert Schweitzer, renowned for his medical work in Africa and setting up the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. His story is what inspires equally, if not more than, his medical mission work.
Starting out as an accomplished musician, an organist who trained with famous maestros of Europe, he transitioned to become a highly respected Lutheran theologian. In response to a call to mission, he left his theological ministry and studied to be a medical doctor in order to do medical mission work in Africa.
Schweitzer chose to proclaim Christ not just through theology and the preaching ministry, but through his medical service. His work as a doctor proclaimed the healing love of Christ, most especially to the ones Pope Francis now refers to as the people in the fringes, the marginalized of society.
His principled stand on social issues which had a global impact won for him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.
In Schweitzer’s story, we see the third point for our reflection, the leader as an exemplar and embodiment of the story. His story inspires and brings out the best in others—their own story of journey toward a life of meaning and mission.
Howard Gardner puts it succinctly: A greater leader has a story to tell and, in that story, others discover their story.
History of redemption
Christ’s enduring power and appeal is how his story was set within the ancient story of redemption. This was plainly, yet powerfully and dramatically stated in the Resurrection narrative of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures. (Luke 24: 25-27)
The story of our own journey we reintegrate and understand more as we see this story in the story of Christ, the story of God’s covenant with humanity from Abraham to Moses to the prophets to Christ.
What started as a journey on the road back to their former way of life, ended up with a life reintegrated, reinspired with meaning and mission as they encountered the Risen Lord and “came to know him at the breaking of bread”—a life lived in mission with “hearts burning within.”
Such is the prototypical story of the men and women who found their story in the story of Christ, the men and women who lived lives of intense missionary zeal and many of whom died for this mission to proclaim that Christ has indeed risen.
This is the story of heroic lives, heroic because somehow such lives made our world a better place. As such, they are leaders who are servants first.
They are leaders who readily offer their life so that others “may have life… more abundantly.” They lead by example the story of their life, their journey, the story of the servant leader which is “a journey into legitimate power and greatness” thus, “the last shall be first.”