God is humble, and we are proud! The judge is gentle; the criminal arrogant! The potter speaks in lowered voice; the clay discourses in the tones of a king! “Come, learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.” Our master carries a whip not to wound, but to heal us.— St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Saint Bassus
No one, certainly not I, can jump over his own shadow. So, since we talked about part of this text last Advent, I revisit a little of what I said then:
That which we are most afraid might be the right answer to our spiritual yearnings often is what greets us at the end of our journey of running away from that answer.
But those who go seeking tend to run after that which might give them relief from the yearning in their spirits. In the process they will happily go after one thing after another. Play them a happy song they will not dance because it does not seem right, play them a dirge they will question whether the purpose of their spirituality ought ever be to mourn. (Matt 11:17) Give them a holy man in the dessert and they will run to the ends of the earth to find him but come home thinking he might just be mad.(Matt 11:18) Let the Messiah come to them unexpected and unbidden and let him draw near to them in spite of there being tax collectors and sinners about and they will wonder about his sense of propriety. (Matt 11:19)
This kind of running about is the Dark Night of the Senses. (St. John of the Cross) It is the demand that the world of the spirit somehow “pay off” for the seeker. That it might make the seeker feel good about themselves. These type of journeys are really about the seeker. They are about the rest or fulfillment they think they are seeking and not about the Lord who holds this rest. These type of journeys end in endless restlessness or demoralized giving up. It is the act of spiritually crossing Jordan in the wrong direction, out of the Holy Land and into the land of wandering.
Hearts are not at rest until they rest in God. (Augustine) Jesus invites the crowd to enter that rest. (Matt 11:28) How does one do this? The Apology uses this verse to say this:
For Christ says, Matt. 11:28: Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Here there are two members. The labor and the burden signify the contrition, anxiety, and terrors of sin and of death. To come to Christ is to believe that sins are remitted for Christ's sake; when we believe, our hearts are quickened by the Holy Ghost through the Word of Christ. Here, therefore, there are these two chief parts, contrition and faith. (Ap. VIIA)
There is no rest until one finds remission of sin for the yearning and longing that are themselves a sign of being conscious of one’s sin. That forgiveness ends the frantic search.
Mmmm . . . Yes . . . still think that.
Spiritual seekers, says St. Terese Lisieux, need to first be about one task: being “little.” Custom tailored spiritualities are probably doomed to fail eventually because they are the creation of the will of the one who holds them. Yes, there is a religion that venerates the spaghetti monster. It was an atheists farce that, just to be weird about it, was recognized in court as a religion that had to be given space in the public square. It even has a sacred vessel: The colander. Everyone knows it is a fake. Yet, every spirituality that comes from the will and opinion of the holder thereof is as much spaghetti monster territory, only without the dimension of humor.
But back to being “little” for a moment: In this pericope they are lauded because they are not the ones shaping the spirit or world around them. They, as little ones, infants (Matt 11:25) do not do this. Instead they are claimed by a patron, in this case Jesus. They are on the receiving end.
The act of a patron, here Jesus, claiming others as his own is not strange to Jesus’ time. The influentials just did that.
“As everyone in the Mediterranean world knows, a patron is someone who freely selects clients and then decides to treat the clients “as if” they were family. Thus any image of father in the New Testament which does not entail the biological fact of parenthood ought to be properly understood in terms of patronage.”
Pilch goes on to explain that “infants” the powerless ones were the last to be served and helped. Think of it this way: “Women and children first,” is a staple of Victorian chivalry. In Jesus time the children would have been last. Their mortality rate was high anyway, so who knows if they will grow up anyhow. There can always be more of them. In famine the elders ate first because the continuation of the house depended on them. The children and the slaves ate last, in descending order of age.
The patron might claim the least as his own and therefore consider them pretty much like family. It would be a peculiar patron that did so. But as patron he would still not do “women and children first.” In Jesus case, the remarkable thing is that that is exactly what he does in the end.
But, again back to being “little.” The Pharisees and rich folk of Jesus time would have laughed at Jesus claiming them as “Clients.” The “little” ones on the other hand were available for the Lord to reach down to and lift up. (Terese Lisieux; also Chrysostom)
The Pharisees are the brood of vipers who had come to John — about whom Jesus’ words here were spoken in the first place — not as little ones but as those who had not been warned of the wrath to come. (Matt 3:7) No, they had come for purposes other than to totally receive God’s patronage. They had come to have John’s Baptism sown onto an already complete garment that was their spirituality. It was going to rip. (9:16) They lacked humility was John’s assessment. They thought themselves sons of Abraham and therefore above it all.
“Good art will not match your furniture,” goes the poster saying. I enjoy the occasional theological joust. The perennial one that seems to come around like a refrain — I quit arguing it — is about universal salvation: Does God save everyone? Argue at your own risk; bicker; joust; lecture; pontificate; yes, all of it only, leave me out of it.
My question is about the obverse of universal salvation or exclusivity of salvation: it is about exclusivity of believing. God might not be exclusive in saving but does that mean the Christians are free to be syncretic in their belief or their spirituality? Even if they are, would it be helpful or would it be the bitten apple that leads to no good because it has the potential to lead everywhere and therefor lead away from the anywhere that in the end defines Christian life, spirituality and salvation. To be “little” is to be claimed by Jesus Christ and let that claim stick and be complete just as an infants embrace of mother’s or father’s presence often for a stage or two even to the exclusion of grandma. But once picked up, why look anywhere else?