by Br Julian McDonald cfc

They had been discussing among themselves along the way as to who was the greatest. Then Jesus sat down and called the Twelve, and said to them: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9, 30-37

Back in 1952, George Orwell published a book of essays entitled Such, Such Were the Joys. The book takes its title from the longest essay in the collection, which is an autobiographical account of his six years in a private boarding school. His mother enrolled him at the age of eight in a primary boarding school called St Cicely’s, to which he gave the name Crossgates in his long essay, which has some delightful insights into how children think and feel. What Orwell has to say about children offers some insights into next Sunday’s gospel reading.

He writes: “Towards people who were old – and remember that ‘old’ to a child means over thirty or even over twenty-five – I could feel reverence, respect, admiration or compunction, but I seemed cut off from them by a veil of fear and shyness mixed up with physical distaste. People are too ready to forget the child’s physical shrinking from the adult. The enormous size of grownups, their ungainly, rigid bodies, their coarse, wrinkled skins, their great relaxed eyelids, their yellow teeth, and the whiffs of musty clothes and beer and sweat and tobacco that disengage from them at every movement! Part of the reason for the ugliness of adults, in a child’s eyes, is that the child is usually looking upwards, and few faces are at their best when seen from below.”

Earlier, Orwell had written about the struggle he had with bed-wetting, and the way in which he had been punished: “I knew that bed-wetting was (a) wicked and (b) outside my control. The second fact I was personally aware of, and the first I did not question. It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: It might be something that happened to you…But at any rate this was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good.”

In his observations and reflections on his own childhood, Orwell underlines just how vulnerable children really are. In today’s gospel reading, we see Jesus inviting his disciples to focus their attention on a child, to welcome the child, and to welcome him as they would any such child. In making that statement, Jesus identifies with the child and makes the point that he is equally vulnerable. Let’s be quite clear that this is an adult statement that Jesus is making. It is not an invitation to be childlike. But it is a statement that those who accept the challenge that Jesus puts to the disciples will put themselves at risk, will be very vulnerable to the forces of evil.

To grasp the full significance of today’s gospel, we have to look at how Mark has constructed this section of his Gospel. We had Peter’s profession of faith that was followed immediately by a reprimand from Jesus when Peter could not accept that Jesus’ messiahship would involve rejection, persecution, suffering and death. Chapter 9 of Mark opens with an account of the transfiguration, followed immediately by a comment from Jesus that he, too, will be treated as roughly as the prophet Elijah was. Then there is the story of the cure by Jesus of an epileptic youngster, possessed by an evil spirit. The disciples were unable to effect a cure, and Jesus had to intervene. Then there is yet another reference by Jesus to the persecution, suffering and death that await him, followed immediately by an account of an argument among the disciples about power.

Jesus had to challenge them about the topic of their arguing. Mark not only discloses that the disciples could not bring themselves to admit that they were arguing about power and prestige, but that they could not even bring themselves even to ask Jesus questions. They could not imagine a Jesus, a Messiah who would be rendered powerless. Their conversation about their own power is really a reflection on Jesus. They cannot cope with the idea that Jesus will become a victim, will be totally powerless when his enemies get their hands on him in Jerusalem. It is their anxiety that impels them to fill a power vacuum that they are frightened of facing. As a way of demonstrating that they are facing an impossibility, Jesus presents them with a child, and that child represents Jesus himself.

I want to suggest that Jesus is inviting the disciples to reflect on how children live their lives. They are indeed vulnerable. Adults often puzzle them, disturb them, terrify them. Yet children also learn how to trust the adults who reach out to them with gentleness, love and care. A child’s life is lived between terror and trust. Could it be that Jesus is demonstrating that, when fear and terror invade our lives, we would be betraying the trust we have in a loving God by rushing to find security we imagine we have waiting for us in earthly power, position and influence? Jesus is surely suggesting that, in the face of unbridled, unjust power, he prefers the vulnerability of the child. As human beings, we will always be vulnerable to ruthless, unethically exercised power. To look for the intervention of magical powers or rescue by supermen is to betray the trust we place in a God who will walk with us through whatever others can inflict on us. But to walk that way is extremely difficult and painful.

If we are honest, we can admit that there have been times when we have imagined lots of possibilities for rescue when life has become burdensome – money, connections, cunning, violence, reinforcement from friends, appealing to protectors and bodyguards. Yet children would not even know how any of these things might work.

While there is something almost idyllic about Jesus’ way of trying to demonstrate to his disciples (and to us, their 21st century counterparts) that violence and power are not the answer, the brutality of real-life can challenge us to the core. If the violence being acted out right now in Syria leaves us numb and bewildered, we can look, with the protection of hindsight, at the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. New York Times journalist, Raymond Bonner reported an interview with the Rev Bernard Ndutiye, head of the Lutheran Church in Rwanda: “Everyone had to participate. To prove that you weren’t R.P.F. (Rwandan Patriotic Front), you had to walk around with a club. Being a pastor was not an excuse. They said you can have religion afterwards.” He went on the say: “There are times when you lose faith. Sometimes we think God has abandoned Rwanda and allowed the devil to enter the souls of our people.” (Raymond Bonner, “Rwandans in Death Squad Say Choice Was Kill or Die”, New York Times, Archive 1994)

To welcome and make the child at home is harder than it looks. Are you and I courageous enough to try?