One of the daily challenges all priests face is the balancing of personal life with a life of service and pastoral care for others. All of us have personal goals and commitments. We all strive to answer the call to holiness and rightly devout time and attention to our own spiritual renewal and even well needed recreation. Yet we also must be willing to put our own pursuits and endeavors aside when it comes to caring for the flock entrusted to us.
The family gathered around the bedside of their loved one in a hospital does not need to hear what a bad day we are having; it matters little to them if we spilled our cup of coffee that morning or had an abominable time searching for a parking place. It would not impress them at all to know where we spent our last vacation. They want to see their loved one anointed and to receive the assurance that their faith, even in this dreadful experience, really matters. They want to know that God is near.
Daily we are called to forget ourselves and make those around us a priority. This denial of self is central in the call to discipleship enunciated by Christ Himself in the Gospel:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
In our readings for this weekend, Christ provides the greatest example of what it means to place our own personal interests aside and open our hearts to those around us.
The scene begins by the lakeside, and Christ has just been told of the death of St. John the Baptist. He could not be anything but devastated. Remember, John was His cousin. More than just a familial bond, however, they also shared intimately in the same mission and message of salvation. The bond they shared—one ultimately forged in blood—goes back to the womb. At the Visitation, when the pregnant Blessed Virgin Mary enters the courtyard of her cousin Elizabeth, the unborn Baptist rejoices because Christ is near.
Now, as Jesus hears the news of John’s violent death, Matthew tells us “he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (Matthew 14:13). He needed to be alone. But the crowd has something else in mind. They anticipate his next move and arrive there just as He disembarks. Jesus’ reaction is telling. He doesn’t become exasperated or frustrated. Instead, St. Matthew tells us, “his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick” (Matthew 14:14).
Christ is able to set aside His own personal grief and sorrow and to see the needs of those around Him. Perhaps it is even because of His own loss that His insight into their need is all the more keen.
They had come to Him hungry—physically and spiritually—and He fed them. In that deserted place Christ multiplies the loaves and the fish in a miraculous expression of love that is but a foretaste of what He will do in the Eucharist.
How fitting, that in a moment of sorrow and loss Christ forgets Himself and provides for the deepest needs of those around Him. This is exactly what He does in the total gift of self on the cross, a gift that we celebrate each time we gather together around the Eucharistic table.
It is on the cross that Christ completely denies Himself, choosing to make that total offering for our redemption. Whenever we celebrate that living sacrifice at the altar of God, we experience anew the great outpouring of grace and forgiveness from Christ. His body, broken on the cross, and His blood, poured out for us on Calvary, is re-presented to the Father and we ourselves receive the body and blood of Christ anew. At the heart of the Eucharist is the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ.
Several days ago I was able to visit the beautiful Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula in Brussels. In the side chapel, which is dedicated to Our Lady of Deliverance, there is an impressive altar which is held up by two large, sculpted pelicans. One of them is piercing its side with its beak, while the other stretches its head up toward the altar.
There is an ancient legend that the pelican, in order to feed its young, would pierce its breast and then feed them with its own flesh. This became a profound symbol in the Church for the Eucharist, and is used by many of the saints, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. It is Christ who is willing to be pierced and wounded so that we can be forgiven and fed. It is from His own wounded and broken body that we receive the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation. It is a mystery we celebrate at every Mass, and one we are called to imitate in our daily lives.
Where is Christ calling us to enter more deeply into His self-sacrificing love?
How are we called to forget ourselves or deny ourselves as we become more attuned to the needs of those around us?
Might we find, in Christ’s sacrifice, in our own daily sacrifices, and perhaps even in our own suffering, a wellspring of care and concern for the needs of others.