Friday, February 1, 2002 Forefeast of the Meeting of Christ in the
Epistle: Hebrews 11:8, 11-16 Gospel: St.
The Heights of Humility: St. Mark 9:33-41, especially vss. 35, 36: "And He
sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘If any desires to be first,
he shall be last of all and servant of all.' Then He took a little child and
set him in the midst of them." During this week, the readings have directed
us to different aspects of faith in Christ, toward union with the Incarnate
God, our Lord Jesus Christ. One can observe the flow of St. Mark's Gospel
shift as the Lord Jesus begins announcing His Passion and Resurrection (Mk.
8:31). By repeated emphasis on the Cross, the Lord reveals that union with
Him requires us to take up our cross (Mk. 8:34).
In the present reading, the Lord teaches how to take up the cross.
Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid captures the essence of this ‘how to:' "The
Lord does not forbid us to desire to become His favorites, for He wants us to
desire advancement in the spiritual life. But He does not want us to grasp
for honors and privileges, but rather to acquire the heights by humility."
Notice the manner in which the Lord develops the teaching. First He
indicates the way with words: "to be first, the same shall be last of all,
and servant of all" (Mk. 9:35). Then He places a living icon before us, a
tiny child. Who was that child? Tradition identifies him as St. Ignatius of
Antioch, yet as we approach the Lord's own Nativity, we might also think of
that child as Christ Himself, the humble, vulnerable God Who indwells the
manger of our souls.
Without question, the Lord chose to be born in the lowest place when He
became a man. Imperial Roman society into which He came was hierarchical in
its class structure. The Roman Emperor and the Patrician classes were at the
top, followed by freeborn Roman citizens, followed next by those who had
attained freedom but were not citizens, and finally at the bottom, in the
lowest class, were the subjugated peoples and slaves. Under Roman Law, the
slightest, minor legal distinctions existed between slaves and subjugated
peoples. Being born the subject of a conquered nation, the Lord Jesus was in
the lowest class with the slaves of Roman society.
As a citizen of a subjugated nation, the Lord was under the governance of
a tiny Jewish satellite kingdom which was governed by the Herod family within
the greater Roman Empire. The Herods were a dynasty of petty princes from
Idumaea who ruled the Jews and retained power by Imperial favor. Scripture
tells us that as a newborn, the Lord became the target of a genocidal attack
on all infant boys in the district around Bethlehem, this because of the
political fears of Herod the Great (Mt. 2:16). The infant Jesus survived, of
course, because His family fled into Egypt beyond Herod's laws. As a
refugee, the Lord again took on last place in His social world.
Note: even though a citizen of the kingdom of the Herods, the Lord still
came under the larger, overarching Roman legal system with its code of laws
which applied to all persons throughout the Empire, both in districts managed
directly by the Romans and in all occupied or client states. Later in His
adult years, when the Lord Jesus was arrested, tried for a capital crime and
found guilty, He received the routine death sentence of crucifixion from the
Roman governor, a means of execution reserved for those in the lowest social
Finally, consider the two commands the Lord makes to His followers: "take
up one's cross" and "be last of all." The Apostle Paul, a freeborn Roman
citizen, observed that the Lord "made Himself of no reputation, and took upon
Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and being
found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto
death, even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:7,8). The Master models what He
expects of us.
O Christ God, Thou hast dwelt in a cave, and a manger did receive Thee:
Glory to Thy condescension, O Thou only Lover of mankind Who hast revealed to
us the heights of humility.