Updated: Oct 31
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
"When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do,’” says the Lord. That’s the proper attitude of the disciple. The disciple serves the Lord with devotion and then withdraws without fanfare in humility. Serving the Lord is its own reward.
By contemporary standards, especially in our present society that emphasizes recognition and appreciation, that might strike you and me as strange, but it’s not something we’re completely unfamiliar with. The United States is the greatest nation of volunteers. We have a great abundance of non-profit organizations; most nations don’t come close.
Many people aren’t driven by external rewards—something that comes from without—but rather by what comes from within. Their motivation is internal. Those who serve or have served in our military may have an appreciation for this sentiment. After all, external rewards, like one’s salary and benefits—while necessary and accepted—aren’t necessarily the reasons why one serves in the military. Financial compensation matter, but one doesn’t generally expect to get rich from military service.
And in serving, or having served, there can be a tendency to withdraw in humility at the end of one's service. Even gratitude isn’t necessarily a reason for military service. Some servicemen and women might feel awkward accepting thanks for one’s service, preferring simply to serve and then to exit the stage, giving way to the next generation of military servants.
We’ve seen this attitude of humble service in other areas of life. Think of teachers. They don’t necessarily get rich by teaching. But for those who choose to teach as a vocation for life, they find value in what they do that goes beyond the external. Teaching itself can be a reward. They cultivate their students, and then step back in humility, as children advance to the next grade. Parents do this too. They raise their children during their formative years, and then they step back in humility, as children’s growth takes the beyond the home.
I’ve seen this attitude by priests at the end of their assignment. I know a few who have refrained from visiting their former parishes for at least a year, so that they’re not obstacles in that natural process by which a new pastor bonds with his parishioners. Those priests ministered in the time allotted to them; and then they departed in humility.
I came across an old letter recently from a priest I knew who was the rector of a seminary I had attended for a couple of years. In the letter, he spoke of a change in leadership model the seminary was undergoing, and he was discerning whether or not to seek another term to lead the seminary through that change.
I’d like to share with you just a few snippets from that letter. With regard to his prayer and discernment that led to his decision to depart after his term ended, he wrote:
After receiving His Will in prayer, I understood the wisdom of it clearly. …I noticed that after ten years, I was losing my creativity… I was no longer looking for fresh approaches; I was settling for what had worked well in the past without thinking enough as to whether it would work well in the future. I had become content to simply do what we had been doing, without wanting to ask whether or not we should continue to do it…
… In the last few weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that you deserve the best, that I am no longer at my best, and that my best is not coming back.
I hope that by modeling how to relinquish an office with grace and good order, I can provide one last lesson for you as your Rector. One day, each of you will likely have to do something similar. Part of any transition such as this is to, “bring to completion the good work which you have begun.” I want to do that well, and to set the stage for my successor to achieve the tasks that the Lord will give him to do…
… I hope that I was able to provide an atmosphere in which you could pray well, study well, and love each other in Christian fellowship. For the times that I succeeded in doing this, I give thanks to God. For the times that I have failed in this endeavor, I ask His and your forgiveness. I take comfort in the fact that these failings were committed out of human weakness and ineptitude rather than any malice.
For better or worse I have influenced the kind of priest you will become, and the type of service you will give to the Church. I hope that the Lord will be pleased with both of our efforts…
After that conference, in which he read the entire letter, there was not a dry eye in the room. Our father was going to be departing, and he was delivering the news.
One day, I’ll also be leaving Holy Family. Until then, I try to do the little I can to pave the way for my successor. Like this priest, I too want to serve in the time allotted to me, and then depart with grace and good order.
There’s a beauty to this; of serving with devotion; and then departing graciously. It takes a special maturity to appreciate that balance. We all know, I’m sure, personal examples of those who have shown us how to serve and depart with humility. Think of change-of-command ceremonies. Outgoing commanders can seem to disappear at some point during the celebration, allowing incoming commanders to bond with their troops. Think of grandparents who step back and allow their children to parent their own children, providing gentle guidance and wisdom from a place of experience.
The greatest example of all, of course, is our Lord Jesus Christ [gesturing to the Crucifix], who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Jesus served his allotted time. He lived for thirty-three years. He served publicly for three. And then he departed (he ascended back to heaven). May our service, one day, come to resemble his. May we serve well in the time allotted to us in this world, and then depart with grace and good order.
Rosso Fiorentino. Descent from the Cross. 1521. Oil on wood. Pinacoteca Comunale di Volterra, Italy.