One of the most memorable Masses I have attended was in a little parish church in the Chianti district of Tuscany. In many ways it was a rather ordinary liturgy but what made it extraordinary for me was the presence on the sanctuary throughout the Mass of a Downs Syndrome man and an intellectually disabled man. They were there in the form of altar servers although most of the work was done by the intellectually disabled man. Nonetheless the Downs Syndrome man was with the priest throughout the liturgy: sitting beside him high on the presidential step and even standing beside him throughout the Eucharistic Prayer. That was the amusing part because at this point he had his both arms on the altar gazing out curiously on the congregation and occasionally picking his nose.
The local community all seemed to take this in their stride. They obviously knew the men and were used to seeing them there. For me it was a wonderful expression of the heart of Christianity: the powerless, the vulnerable, the marginalised, those whom society might consider weak and disregard, were in this Christian community right at the centre of things, right at the centre of this community’s most sacred moment.
This deeply Christian conception of society is countercultural to any society that prizes strength. Indeed, it was so counter cultural to the perspectives held by ancient Rome as to be ludicrous. Recall how ruthless the Romans were, how they prized strength. For them compassion was an intolerable weakness, and weakness itself something to be despised. There was no beauty in vulnerability only contempt. Power was about domination, as appropriation, about control, taking possession, might and strength. But for Jesus, power was about the bonds of relationship, gratitude and friendliness, the capacity of suffering sympathy, grief and tenderness, about dissatisfaction with the present. As the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann would say, in Jesus, the love of power is transformed into the power of love.
This is the lesson that the disciples must learn in the gospel and that we are ourselves must constantly re-learn. There is a bit of Roman in each of us: the instinct to want power: power as control, power as might and strength. There is a part in each of us which despises vulnerability. We want to be immune from it. Is this not, in fact, what can be a significant dimension of the current interest in euthanasia? We want the right to be in control, to be able to exercise our control at our own choosing, to avoid dependency on another, not to suffer. The thinking goes, ‘I have a right not to suffer.’ And so, suffering must be anaesthetized, literally. Yes, the choice of euthanasia gives me the illusion of control over life. It does not, however, give me the meaning of life which can only be discovered in that mutual surrender of being cared for and caring.
Jesus’ message to us today is as relevant in our own social context as in first century Palestine. Jesus invites us to recognize a new kind of power: the power that is present in human solidarity, the power that is present in sharing one another’s suffering, the power that is present in a life lived from love, and in hope. This is the radical Christian insight: that vulnerability rather than might is where the real power is, and where and how God is reflected most transparently.
Though the liturgy of that Tuscan community may have been ordinary, their practice was extraordinary – extraordinarily Christian. With them may we also learn where the real power of this world lies.
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