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Greatness is to be found in sacrifice, not power

When I was in seminary, at the end of the academic year, the men preparing to return to their home dioceses for ordination to the priesthood and to preach the Gospel were celebrated by the community at an annual farewell banquet. Of all the speeches and toasts that I had heard there, only one, delivered by a wizened spiritual director, has stuck with me these many years later.

He mused about how the men would be returning soon to ordinations and first Masses, which would then be followed by celebrations, parties and receptions. They would rejoice – as well they should – in the gift of the priesthood, but he warned them not to forget that the very thing they celebrated was also the thing that would chain them to an altar for the rest of their lives. Their glory would be found in sacrifice.

In the Gospel this Sunday, James and John approach Jesus and request that they be given places of honor in his kingdom. Just prior to making this request, Jesus had informed the apostles that they were going up to Jerusalem and that he would be rejected, condemned to death and then rise again. Nevertheless, it seems that, in their selective hearing, the apostles heard only that they were going up to the City of David, the city of the great king.

Perhaps they, like so many who followed Jesus, still did not understand that he was not to be an earthly king or political messiah. Perhaps, when they heard Jesus talk about rising (see Mk 10:34), all they could imagine was him ascending to the throne of David. The glory they imagined consisted of titles, offices and temporal power.

Jesus, however, reminded his apostles that greatness was not to be found in power, but in sacrifice: “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:44-45). Jesus has taught us that the kingly and priestly offices can never be separated. Kings govern and rule; priests sacrifice and sanctify. Royal dignity comes not from one’s bloodline, but from one’s bloodshed.

Each of us, through holy baptism, have been anointed with Christ as priest, prophet and king. What we possess now is a “royal priesthood” (1 Pt 2:9), which finds its glory in sacrifice. As members of the Body of Christ, we have been made active participants with Jesus in the salvation of the world and its ongoing sanctification. Whether we share in the common priesthood of all the baptized or the ministerial priesthood of the ordained, we are called, each in his or her own way, to lift up the cross of Christ in our lives and to offer it to the Father for the salvation of souls.

Obviously, this is done in a manner par excellence by the priest at Mass. However, whenever we willingly accept the trials or sufferings of life or whenever we take on some voluntary penance or work of charity, we exercise our own share in Christ’s priesthood by offering these sacrifices with him for the good of all. The work of God’s priestly people is a work of royal dignity because it is a work of sacrifice. “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him” (2 Tm 2:11-12).

Father Jeffery Loseke is pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna. Contact him at jloseke@archomaha.org.

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