Drinking Well

Safeguard your littleness

Now at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. This census – the first – took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to his own town to be registered. So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee and travelled up to Judaea, to the town of David called Bethlehem, since he was of David’s House and line, in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
      While they were there the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. Luke 2:1-7

     I was struck by the advice Pope Francis offered in two different homilies during the year: ‘Safeguard your littleness, your smallness.’ In one homily he was remembering King David. He said that when God chooses people, he chooses the little ones; so much so that when he chose the people of Israel to be his chosen people, ‘it was because they were the littlest, those with the least power among all the peoples’.
      God sent the prophet Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jessie’s sons as the new king. Jessie presented seven of his sons, and did not even think of his youngest son, David. David had no place in this high powered meeting inside the house; his father had sent him to look after the sheep. David was at ease with his littleness and was contented to mind the sheep. God told Samuel that none of the seven was to be king and that David was the one he had chosen. In due course King David became powerful and popular. Then he forgot his smallness. He wanted Uriah’s wife for himself, so he arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle. When he came to his senses, he remembered his smallness again and he repented of his terrible crime.

     Pope Francis concluded that being faithful as Christians ‘is simply a matter of guarding our littleness so that we may remain in dialogue with the Lord. Lowliness, humility, meekness are so important in the life of a Christian: they are guardians of littleness”. Pope Francis said that Our Lady is our great example in this; she remembered her littleness; she recognized that God had done great things for her, not because he saw her goodness or holiness, but because he saw her lowliness.

Naamam accepts his littleness
In another homily Pope Francis told the story of Naaman, the army commander of the King of Aram. He suffered from leprosy and heard there was a prophet in Israel who could cure him. He set out for Israel accompanied by his servants. He took with him a large amount of silver and gold, ten sets of fine of clothes, and a letter of introduction from his king to the king of Israel. The king of Israel directed him to the house of the prophet Elisha. Naaman drew up his chariot in front of the house and sent word to Elisha to say who he was and why he had come. Naaman sent word back telling to him to go and bathe seven times in the Jordan and he would be cured. Naaman was furious. He said, ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants persuaded him to do what Elisha said. He waded into the river Jordan seven times and was immediately cured.
      Pope Francis commented on the story: “Naamăn was asked to perform an act of humility, of obedience, like a child: to do the ridiculous! But he reacts with indignation. Yet those who were with him, who had good sense, helped him to place himself on the margins, to humble himself”. When Naaman stopped hiding behind his important position, his money and his rich clothes and accepted his littleness, only then could he be cured.

Jesus in his littleness
      In the Christmas story we see Jesus in his littleness, ‘wrapped in swaddling clothed and lying in a manger.’ Jesus never forgot his littleness. He said that he came not to be served but to serve. At the Last Supper he asked his disciples, ‘Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’ The mystery is that he is Lord and Master and yet his littleness is part of who he is, not a disguise or a pretence. The Anglican scholar, John McQuarrie reflected on Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and concluded: ‘humility and the form of a servant are not disguises of God and not unnatural to him, but of his very essence. And this would mean in turn that he cannot draw near as a prince or even as a professor but only in some utterly lowly and obscure form.’
      ‘Learn from me,’ Jesus said, ‘for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls.’

Prayer: Psalm 131
O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
As a child has rest in its mother’s arms,
even so my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and forever.

Brendan Clifford


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