By Fr. Joseph Briody, Professor of Sacred Scripture
To be a servant is to be associated with Christ.
Sister Veronica suffered from pride. It plagued her all her life. In the end, it caught up with her. She had to admit she came from humble beginnings and not the well-to-do, prosperous origins she liked to project. As she looked back on the false impression she tried to convey over a lifetime, one scene stood out for her. Her mother was in service as housekeeper at a great house. Her mother rose at 4:00am daily for work and spent her entire life in service. The young Sister Veronica, dreamed of something much greater for herself. She did not see herself as a servant. One day, when Veronica was a teenager, her mother came to her very excited. Her mother’s employer had offered to pay for Veronica’s training as a cook or a nanny. Her mother thought this was wonderful—a real opportunity to learn a skill and secure a post in service. But Sister Veronica, then a teenager, was utterly shocked. She never saw herself in the role of a servant. She said as much to her mother. “Me, I, a servant . . .?! Never . . .! I want something more and better for myself.” It was her mother’s response she never forgot. Her mother said to her with self-possession and humble dignity: “But I am a servant . . .” Sister Veronica always remembered the calm nobility of her mother’s words: “I am a servant” (R. Godden, House of Brede).
Jesus refers to us sometimes as disciples, sometimes as friends. In the Gospel today, our role as servants is in focus. “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
The reading seems harsh. Christ is putting us in our place, reminding us that we are servants. Even when we have worked hard all day long, all we can say is, “we are mere servants. We have only done our duty.” While this might be stoic, in a stiff-upper-lip sort of way, it’s hardly consoling in difficult times. It would be a harsh demand were it not also a gracious gift.
Yes, we are servants. But that is the point. To be a servant is to be associated with Christ, to do all with him, in him, for him. To be a servant is to be like Christ, to be close to him. To be a servant is to let him work in us and through us. We are servants in the Servant who is Christ Jesus.
Christ is not placing a great separation here between him and us—he the master and we the servants—he at table demanding his meal while we, tired and hungry, wait on him. Rather, he is drawing us to himself. He is reminding us to be like him and stay close to him. When we serve, we do exactly that. He is among us as one who serves. He is the One who lays the table, prepares the feast, washes the feet, and waits on us. He places before us the Sacrificial Banquet of his Body and Blood. Christ, our Lord and Master, has emptied himself. He has taken the form of a slave. He has come to serve not to be served. He removes his outer garment, his glory, to purify us that we might sit at his table and be fed by him with the Saving Food that is himself. He holds nothing back. He has done all for us, and he has done it first. God loved us first.
When he asks us to see ourselves as unprofitable servants, he is saying that without him, all by ourselves, we are unprofitable, but with him and in him—the Suffering Servant—we can serve and be faithful and bear much fruit. All our usefulness comes from union with him. “Cut off from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He is asking us to prepare a table like the one he prepares for us on the altar of the Cross, in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. We should notice what he has done so that we can prepare a similar table ourselves.
These words of Christ about service have special application to the priest, the servant of Christ who is Servant of All. When the priest serves his people, it is Christ himself who serves them. Indeed, when the priest serves his people, it is Christ himself who serves the Father (Saint John Paul II, Holy Thursday, 1979). This leaves no room for pride or arrogance. The priest is a servant who strives to do his duty with the love of Christ himself. His duty is not enforced from outside. Rather, the love of Christ springing up within compels him (2 Cor 5:14).
So close is the union between Christ and the priest that when the priest serves his people, Christ serves the Father. It is an awesome mystery that, in the pastoral charity of the priest, Christ himself serves, loves, heals, feeds, and saves. No wonder the priest himself is sanctified just by doing his priestly work faithfully, by being an unprofitable servant who has only done what was asked of him by Christ, by the Church, by his Bishop. The priest grows in holiness through his pastoral charity. We all grow in holiness by growing in the love of God which somehow always relates to others and invites us to give something of ourselves.
Christ emptied himself, giving us the power to empty ourselves and be filled with him, to be filled with God. To enjoy being served is human. To serve is divine. To serve is to reign. To refuse to serve echoes the non serviam of the Evil One. To take the lowest place is to be raised to the highest dignity because Christ is there, in the lowest place, and at the right hand of the Father.
Sometimes, perhaps because of routine or weariness or weakness, we imagine we should be doing greater or higher things. Whenever we think that something is beneath us, we should look down carefully and there we will see Christ, for he has gone lower than any of us, and he has gone before us into all dark places. It is then that Christ gazes at us with the pure eyes of his sacred humanity and says to us calmly and humble with divine nobility: “But I am a Servant.” “Here am I among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life. . .” (Mt 20:28). “No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13).
Of course, Mary too, Our Blessed Lady, teaches the same lesson—like Son, like Mother. Faced with the greatest commission imaginable, faced with the greatest news and the most impossible of situations, her response is the response of her Son. In pure humility she responds to Gabriel: “I am a servant.” “Behold the servant—the handmaid—of the Lord, let it be done to me according to thy word.”