Friday, July 25, 2008

Feast of St. James the Apostle
Diving to the Top

Readings: 2 Corinthians 4:7-15; Psalms 126:1bc-2ab, 2cd-3, 4-5, 6; Matthew 20:20-28
Picture: CC MadMatson

When you pause for a moment and gaze upon your life, what does it feel and look like to you? Sometimes, I think that life looks and feels a lot like someone climbing up a high mountain. Whether it’s in school or at work, whatever may be our motivations, we just cannot seem to stop pushing onward and upward, seeking to get to the top. From kindergarten to graduate school, from one pay grade to another, there just seems to be one height after another to scale. Even after retirement, aren’t there those who continue to seek other challenges, other peaks to climb? Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the image of ascending a mountain is a common and powerful metaphor even in the spiritual life. The psalmist, for example, speaks of going up the mountain of the Lord (Psalm 24:3), and one of St. John of the Cross’ books on the spiritual life is entitled The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Clearly there’s deep truth in the image. Life is meant, to some extent, to be an ascent of sorts.

Even so, isn’t it also true that there’s great danger in taking the metaphor too far? Isn’t it true that overemphasizing the need to climb continuously can actually be detrimental to wellbeing – both that of others and ours as well? It can lead us to become so obsessed with our own efforts and achievements as to lose sight of the reason why we’re trying to get to the top in the first place. And, in the process, we may find ourselves becoming ever more competitive, even to the point of ruthlessness. Which is why the image of the ascent needs to be complemented, and even supplanted, with yet another metaphor.

In the gospel, on this feast of St. James, what we find is precisely a powerful illustration of the dangers of overemphasizing the need to ascend. The mother of James and John asks Jesus for choice seats in his kingdom. And the rest of the apostles become jealous and envious. Notice, however, that Jesus doesn’t chide her for making an unreasonable request. After all, the Father desires to give us the kingdom (see Luke 12:32). But he does point out that she does not know what she is asking. And neither do the others understand the implications of her request. For everyone thinks that she is actually asking Jesus to pull some strings so that her sons can climb higher and faster. But Jesus proposes a contrasting image. Anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave… To ascend, one must first be willing to descend.

Paul deepens our reflection on this insight by reminding us, in the first reading, of Jesus’ example. Jesus didn’t so much climb God’s mountain as much as he was raised. And he was raised only because he first willingly lowered himself. He ascended only by making a descent. And it is only when we follow in his steps that he who raised the Lord Jesus to life will raise us with Jesus in our turn, and put us by his side… In order to truly receive the prize that we seek at the top of the mountain, we must first imitate the Lord in emptying ourselves. For we are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us…

Even if life does indeed look and feel like the ascent of a high mountain, it is important that we remember that we reach the heights of God’s glory only by diving into the depths of selfless service.

How are we being invited to take the plunge today?


  1. I'm reminded of a poem I read earlier in one of Fr Mark Link's reflections in the Vision / Mission / Action 2000 booklets:

    My dreams for life were laid;
    my journey mapped and made.
    The Lord was at my side
    to be my friend and guide.
    So I started out.

    But then the sky turned dark.
    The road grew steep and stark.
    I scarce could travel on.
    I turned and cried: "My Lord!
    Where's the road; where's the light?
    Why this pain; why this night?"

    The Lord turned and said: "My child!
    Where's the faith; where's the trust?
    Why this fear; why this fright?
    I chose this way for you.
    Just take my hand and travel on."

    Now, almost two years later, I've yet to see the light at the end of the "water" tunnel. Wonder when I can finally rise to the surface and take a breather?

  2. What are my personal mountains to ascent? To be more attuned to the needs of others in an ever expanding realization that there is also a limit. Human limitations dictate that we cannot go it alone without a compass and guide. So I turn to the only person in our hour of need - the Lord of the mountain.
    How low can I plumb into the self, given that the deep is often dark and unknown, lurking with unexpected dangers. Is it possible to know myself fully? How do I handle those emotions that unexpectedly surface with seething resentment over seemingly "small stuff." In my relationship with others, this awareness puts me in check of the outpouring of negativity that emanate from our lips.
    So I am aware of my limitations and my propensity to go over the deep. My days are filled with competing doubts and joyful realizations.


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