Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: Servant talk is God’s talk

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A couple wake up before Pope Francis’ celebration of Mass for World Youth Day pilgrims at St John Paul II Field on 27 January. Photo: CNS, Paul Haring

This is the edited text of the World Youth Day Catechesis by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP in Panama City, Panama, on 24 January.

‘I’m a servant.’ Such talk sticks a bit in our throats, makes us more than a bit uncomfortable, doesn’t it? A waiter or waitress OK. An airline steward, maybe, as long as I don’t have to look after a plane full of Aussies going to WYD. A nurse, sure. But a servant or a slave: that’s not such a comfortable self-designation.

Yet that’s precisely how Mary describes herself today: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, may it be done unto me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

It sets the trend for the entire New Testament. Jesus describes Himself as the Master who serves (Lk 12:37) and famously at His Last Supper strips down and washes His disciples’ feet (Jn ch. 13). Matthew says Jesus fulfilled the Prophet Isaiah’s words, “This is my chosen servant, my beloved, in whom my soul delights. I will anoint him with my Spirit and he will proclaim justice to the nations. But he will not quarrel or cry out.” (Mt 12:18-19) For Jesus “did not count his equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:6-7)

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The servant stuff is not just for Jesus and His Mum. Jesus says “Blessed are those servants whom the Master finds keeping watch when he comes” and “If anyone wants to be my servant, they must follow me, so that where I am, my servant will be also” and “If anyone serves me, my Father will honour him” (Lk 12:37; Jn 12:26; cf. Lk 17:7-10).

He tells the disciples directly that they must serve each other: “The greatest amongst you must be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt 23:8-12; cf. Mt 20:26) And again, “Now if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (Jn 13:14)

WYD pilgrims
Pilgrims pray during Pope Francis’ World Youth Day vigil at St. John Paul II Field. Photo: CNS, Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

The servant language caught on in the early Church. Though they insisted that amongst Christians there should be no distinction between slave and free (1Cor 7:21-2; Gal 3:28; 4:7; Col 3:11; Eph 6:8; Philem 1:16), the apostles called Israel, the prophets and themselves servants or slaves.

They even used the term ‘deacon’ or servant to describe one of the ranks of the clergy (Lk 1:54,69; Acts 4:25; 6:3; 28:12; Heb 3:5; 2Pet 1:1; Jas 1:1; Jude 1:1; 3Jn 1:7). Paul describes himself as a servant many times in his letters (1Cor 9:19; Rom 1:1; 12:7; 16:1; Col 1:7; 4:7; Eph 6:12; Phil 1:1-2; 1Tim 3:10-3). Servant talk is New Testament talk.

What’s going on here? Are Christians just weak, slaves, doormats – as the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claimed? Are they masochists, enjoying being walked all over by others? Or is all the humility stuff a bit of a game, a new form of one-upmanship? Or is there something more profound going on here?

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Well, the first thing we should understand is that being a servant of the Lord isn’t about being a nobody or a dogsbody. Mary was the most important woman in history: all of history is either BC or AD, before or after that hinge-moment when she answered God. Ever since we’ve honoured her as Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, Mother of God, Mother of the Church, the Immaculate Conception, Seat of Wisdom, Queen of Angels, of Prophets, of Apostles, of Martyrs, of Virgins, of Families, of all Saints. She’s got whole litanies of titles. Pope Francis likes to use her title as Untier of Knots – the great problem solver.

Jesus also, though servant of God and of the servants of God, was in fact also Son of God. We Christians honour Him as Christ the King, Lord of the Universe, Splendour of the Father, Eternal Word, Sun of Justice, King of Patriarchs, Master of the Apostles, Teacher of Evangelists, Strength of Martyrs, Light of Confessors, Crown of Saints, and much else besides. So, for Jesus and Mary, at least, being a servant was no put-down.

A Panama City resident helps a pilgrim cool down in the sweltering heat as he makes his way to the World Youth Day vigil. Photo: CNS, Chaz Muth

Paul could be a bit of a bragger and would insist on people recognising his place as an Apostle. Yet he clearly didn’t think calling himself servant or slave was in any way demeaning or confining: in fact he regularly writes about the dignity and freedom he has found in being a Christian. Paul was someone who served by leading, and he rightly saw no contradiction in this.

So if being a servant, as Christians understand it, is not about being a nobody or a dogsbody, but being a godly somebody, is it really a device for big-noting ourselves, humility for the sake of drawing attention? On one occasion Jesus found himself being lobbied by Jimmy and Jonno’s mother for preferment for her boys (Mt 20:20-28). The other disciples were indignant.

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So He said to them “You know how the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them? Well, it must not be so among you. No, whoever wants to be the leader among you must be the servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” True Christian servants, then, don’t give up on authority, but they do authority very differently, and it is this I want to explore with you a little more today with the help of a latter-day Mary.

You’ll all know the trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, or the films starring Jennifer Lawrence. The books outsold even Harry Potter – more than 100 million copies so far and translations into 50-plus languages. For the few here who haven’t read the books or seen the films, the story is set in a dystopian country called Panem, with a wealthy Capitol City and twelve poorer districts. Every year, one boy and one girl from each district are required to compete in a televised fight to the death called ‘The Hunger Games’.

But one year is different: a girl called Katniss Everdeen volunteers to enter the Games in place of her younger sister who had been chosen. From that moment she becomes a symbol of hope for the poor and oppressed.

In a world of violence and self-interest, of survival of the fittest, such an act of selflessness and care is subversive. The authorities fear it as an act of rebellion. What’s more this isn’t just a one-off thing: Katniss demonstrates integrity and self-sacrifice many times in the series.

Indeed – Spoiler Alert – when she’s one of the last two left alive in the games, she refuses to kill her companion, suggesting instead they eat poisonous berries as a final act of defiance. Don’t worry: she doesn’t do it!

But if her self-sacrifice makes her in some ways a Christ-like figure, her servanthood echoes that of Mary. Try as she may to hide her Catholic petticoat, the author Suzanne Collins has a very Catholic view of these things!

Let me explore the Marian dimension of this story a little further. Katniss is no doormat: like Mary she is a determined young woman, she has her own mind on things, and she asks questions when she has them. She is a strong servant-leader like Christ and Paul.

Pope Francis arrives in procession to celebrate Mass for World Youth Day pilgrims at St John Paul II Field in Panama City on 27 January. Photo: CNS, Paul Haring

Had the government chosen Katniss instead of her sister to compete in the games, she might still have been defiant, but her defiance would have been that of someone with no options. But Katniss volunteered for the games in place of her sister: it was her choice. In this, she’s like Mary, though in very different circumstances! When God chooses Mary to be Mother of the Lord, He doesn’t coerce her or manipulate her. He tells her what He has in mind and leaves her to consent or not. Eve, after all, said NO to God; this Second Eve was free to do the same.

This tells us something fundamental about the relationship between God and humanity: that God’s desire for our friendship, redemption, eternal life will never be forced, always be free. God could simply have possessed Mary’s body. Or He could have taken human form without involving her or anyone. But He chose instead to invite our co-operation and to respect our freedom to say YES or NO.

This speaks to a second dimension of Christian servanthood. Political power imposes; Christian authority proposes. Imitating God, Christians exhort, cajole, seek to persuade others to enter into friendship, redemption, eternity: but we know that true faith, like true friendship, cannot be forced and we must never try to impose our beliefs on anyone. People must be free, like Mary, to say “I do” to being servants of the Lord. Christian servanthood, like marriage, is freely chosen or it is nothing.

There’s a third respect in which Katniss is like Mary: in her selflessness. Servants do what they do for others; it’s not all about them. Katniss doesn’t volunteer in order to become a famous symbol of resistance, though this is what happens. Indeed, throughout the second and third novels she tries to keep out of politics, hard as that proves, and to resist becoming a mascot for the revolution. She’s not in it for herself, but for her sister’s sake, and then by extension for all oppressed people in whom she comes to see her sister.

As pilgrims cheer, one Australian pilgrim waves an inflatable plastic kangaroo before Pope Francis’s celebration of Mass for World Youth Day pilgrims at St John Paul II Field in Panama City on 27 January. Photo: CNS, Paul Haring

Remind you of anything? In an image of the end of time, Matthew has the Lord declaring: ‘Truly I tell you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ (Mt 25:40) Because Katniss sees her sister in all the oppressed, they are all her family; because Mary sees her Son in each one of you, you are all her children. Like Katniss, Mary doesn’t say YES to God because she wants all generations to call her blessed (Lk 1:48), though they do; she doesn’t say YES because she wants the Litany of Loreto; she doesn’t even say YES as her way of getting to heaven.

No, Mary’s fiat is a selfless act: she is offering God and all humanity, her body and her maternal care, as a great YES to salvation for all creation. And that is paradigmatic of how we all should relate to God and our fellows.

Christian servanthood is not just other-regarding: it is other-loving. Katniss doesn’t take her stand out of hatred for the government, understandable as that would be; she does so out of out of love for her sister and then others like her.

Likewise, if Mary had said YES out of fear of God or of going to hell, but with gritted teeth, this too might be understandable: but it would not be the kind of servanthood she came to represent. Mary’s YES was to being a loving servant of God and the Church.

A fourth aspect of Christian service is that it is active. It is not just a theory or a preference or even a character trait: it is a way of acting, a way of life. Servants serve; if they serve well they are good servants.

The great civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King once famously declared that “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” President John F. Kennedy famously said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And the Bengali polymath, Rabindranath Tagore, once said: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Both our young women say the same to us.

So to say YES to being a servant of the Lord is freely to say YES to something mundane yet important, to a kind of service-with-authority, to do this out of selflessness and love rather than self-interest and fear, and to do it actively.

Finally, we might notice that such Christian service perseveres. St Thomas Aquinas taught that perseverance is the virtue that disposes a person to hold steadily to the good. Katniss Everdeen never gives up. After she calls out ‘I volunteer’, she has to walk all the way through the crowd up to the stage.

We can guess the stage-fright she felt inside, the uncertainty about where this would take her, the dread of her own likely death. As the story continues she will grieve the loss of family and friends: servanthood doesn’t make you insensitive to such things. She will grieve also many lives lost through the revolution she sets in motion unawares. But her step is bold and constant. She stays the course.

Mary, too, had many moments when she might have changed her mind: when she saw the transport arrangements to Bethlehem or the stables in which she’d have to give birth, or when she heard the Temple prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart or that the family would have to flee as asylum-seekers.

When she saw her Son betrayed, mocked, whipped, and ultimately crucified, her pain must have been intense. Yet she stood firm, by the cross, even when the men had fled the scene. And so, as the founder of World Youth Day, St John Paul the Great, once said, “Mary’s fiat at the Annunciation finds its completion in the silent fiat she repeats at the foot of the Cross.”

In The Hunger Games Panem’s tyrannical leader, President Snow, fears the hope generated by Katniss, because a spark of hope, if not contained, can ignite a revolution. In the Gospel of Matthew – one of the few books to outsell even The Hunger Games – Herod had a similar fear and set about trying to kill the Baby, the Idea, the imagined Rival that was Jesus. Spoiler alert for those who don’t know it already: both were wrong to imagine some rival for their power but both were right to fear that the world would change if it adopted the values of this newcomer.

But why would a President Snow or King Herod – a powerful, experienced, man of the world, with complete power over an entire country – fear a teenage girl and the hope she generates?

Hannah Arendt, one of the twentieth century’s most famous political theorists, once explained that totalitarians cannot abide spontaneous friendship any more than open hostility; for “spontaneity, as such, with its incalculability, is the greatest of all obstacles to total domination over man.”

Each new friendship, such as that between Katniss and her friend Peeta or that between Mary and the Christian, shows that the power to act lies not with the system but with the person; and person by person hope can grow where previously all seemed hopeless.

This, then, is being a servant of the Lord: true service, service that is free, selfless, loving, active and constant, an authoritative love and loving authority that can topple oppressors and start a moral and spiritual revolution, ‘casting the mighty from their thrones and raising up the lowly’ as Mary sang in her Magnificat (Lk 1:52). “I am the servant of the Lord”, says Mary. Let us say the same ourselves and bring on the Christian revolution!