One of the most popular conceptions of the so-called “historical Christ” current in the secular world is the portrait of Christ the Revolutionary. The modern West, bound up in its own sensitivities and obsessions, seeks a Jesus beyond the Christ of the Church’s faith, and so, often makes of Him either a harmless wandering Rabbi who merely teaches universal moral law, or a reforming firebrand and thorn in the side of all establishment, political and religious alike. According to this second narrative, the mission of Christ lay in exposing the hypocrisy of organized religion, represented by the Pharisees, and ushering in an era of exact and classless equality.
The Gospel passage we have this Sunday can indeed, at first glance, seem to show us just such a revolutionary Christ, overturning power structures, taking down the great and powerful and replacing them with the poor and the outcast. While there is some truth to that interpretation—God does indeed use the weak to shame the strong, and Mary’s Magnificat praises Him for “casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly” (Lk 1:52)—it would be too easy for us to constrain God with our modern concepts of power dynamics and narratives. The reason that Christ tells His Apostles that the one who “wishes to be first…shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mk 9:34) has a far deeper reason and implication than mere ant hierarchical sentiment or concern with human society. The clue that leads us to a more complete understanding of Christ’s teaching on humble service comes in the form of the child He receives at the end of the Gospel passage. While adults, surrounded by and enmeshed in webs of power structures, can become calloused over time and interpret any discourse on humility as an extension of interpersonal politics, the child Jesus embraces stands for innocence of heart and the love which a child calls forth from heart of a family.
The Apostles, and all of us, must humbly serve not out of any reparation for the misuse of power by the mighty, or because God desires the poor to rule for some merely ideological reason. We must humbly serve because only humility makes love possible. Christ is indeed a revolutionary of sorts, but He does not seem to care much for what sort of political systems people choose, or how they structure their societies. What He does desire for His people is the joy that comes from love, from the love which alone can receive the great gifts of heaven’s eternity. It is this eternity of love that stands against all power narratives, as a witness to the truth that we were not made for any society in this world, enlightened or otherwise, but rather to be taken up into the love of our God, forgetting our honors, positions, wounds, and grievances, all things washed away by the pure glory of divine charity. It is in this context that we can look again at the Cross, which Jesus predicts at the beginning of the Gospel passage. In the perfectly humble love of the Cross, in Jesus’ total gift of Himself for love of us, in His becoming poor for our sake, the logic of the bare secular world must fall silent and bow, recognizing something that it cannot comprehend, co-opt, or assimilate. When the crucified God embraces us, His children, with wounded hands, all worldly wisdom ends, useless, and only the childlike knowledge of being loved remains.