Like the Master whom we follow, we are called to become the least of these. That was what the late, great (though he would reject the accolade) Fr. Henri Nouwen meant when he warned of the \"lure of upward mobility\". He referred to it as the greatest sin of the age. He spoke of God's extraordinary love, revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, as an alternative way, a way of \"downward mobility.\"
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - I have been facing some painful and difficult challenges lately. In fact, it seems most of the people whom I care about the most are walking along the same road. Yet, it is on this road that we encounter the Lord, carrying His cross, and teaching us the liberating way of downward mobility.
The phrase is not my own. It was used by one of the great spiritual writers of our age, Fr. Henri Nouwen, in a book which I highly recommend called "Here and Now" Fr. Nouwen writes of the compassionate life. To understand the phrase it helps to remember the etymology of the word. At its root it means to suffer with; to enter into the suffering of another out of love. Clearly, this is the Way of Jesus Christ. We are his disciples. Is it becoming our way?
Pope St Leo wote of Jesus: "He took the nature of a servant without stain of sin, enlarging our humanity without diminishing his divinity. He emptied himself; though invisible he made himself visible, though Creator and Lord of all things he chose to be one of us mortal men. Yet this was the condescension of compassion, not the loss of omnipotence. So he, who in the nature of God had created man, became in the nature of a servant, man himself."
Fr. Nouwen wrote concerning the compassionate life, "The compassionate life is the life of downward mobility! In a society in which upward mobility is the norm, downward mobility is not only discouraged but even considered unwise, unhealthy, or downright stupid."
He was correct. Yet, it is so hard to hold onto this insight, and even harder to live it. There is nothing new about this difficulty. We see Jesus, who is the incarnate example of this way, instructing His disciples in this way repeatedly. Apparently they had the same difficulty. For example:
"An argument arose among the disciples, about which of them was the greatest. Jesus realized the intention of their hearts and took a child and placed it by his side and said to them, "Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest." (Luke 9:46-50)
The older I get the more I am aware of my own failures in compassion and my lack of love. That is why I am regularly drawn to make an examination of conscience by reflecting on the profound words of Jesus recorded in the 25th chapter of St. Matthews Gospel. When all is said and done, we will be judged on whether we loved Him as he is revealed in those whom He loves.
"I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison, and you visited me." (Matthew 25.35-36)
It was said of the early disciples that they "turned the world upside down" with their preaching (Acts 17). Well, we still can. After all, we are His disciples in this millennium. They offered more than words. They offered a life of demonstrated love, of downward mobility. Will we learn how to love as He loved and embrace a way of life which reveals Him to others?
Like the Master whom we follow, we are called to become the least of these. That was what the late, "great" (though he would reject the accolade) Fr. Henri Nouwen meant when he warned of the "lure of upward mobility". He referred to it as the greatest sin of the age. He spoke of God's extraordinary love, revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, as an alternative way, a way of "downward mobility."
How extraordinary is this wonderful love of God, revealed in Jesus. How hard it is to comprehend its invitation. The God of the entire universe came among us as a man. He "emptied" Himself and took our body and our nature. In His sacred humanity he lived a full and complete human life, walking in intimate communion with His Father. He now makes it possible for us to do the same.
Because He was fully God, Jesus accomplished for us what we could never have accomplished for ourselves, he redeemed us, set us free from the punishment merited by our sin, and capacitated us to now live our lives differently by grace. He defeated the last enemy, death and overcame the evil one. He did all of this because He is love Incarnate and He can do nothing else but love in word and indeed.
He invites each of us to walk in His way, the way of "kenosis", a Greek word which means self-emptying love. He invites us to become the "least of these." St Paul writes of Jesus "Though He was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, He emptied Himself" (Philippians 2)
God became the "least of these" in the Incarnation of His Son. Will we? Will we allow the truth revealed in the conception, birth, saving life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ to become our pattern for daily living? Will we cooperate with the grace of conversion and be emptied of ourselves for others?
We are invited to experience this mystery of faith and to make it real. When we empty ourselves, He comes and takes up His residence within us. Then, we become His arms, embracing the world; His legs, still walking its dusty streets; and His Heart, still beating with the Divine Compassion manifested in Jesus Christ, the One who became the "least of these" in order to bring us all into the full communion of love.
I will end with some more words from Fr. Nouwen, "This is the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus. It is the way toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless--toward all who ask for compassion. What do they have to offer? Not success, popularity, or power, but the joy and peace of the children of God."
Let us learn to walk in the way of liberating way of downward mobility.
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