Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2021
They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house,
he began to ask them,
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
But they remained silent.
They had been discussing among themselves on the way
who was the greatest.
Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”
Did Our Lord ever act out with his own body the meaning of his words? Yes, indeed—and very powerfully and permanently, if we consider the greatest of the signs he uses, namely his body and blood offered and poured out on the cross and offered up and received in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. If this homily is for anything, it is for preparing us to make use of that dramatic and effective sign.
But the Blessed Sacrament, the greatest of his works and teachings, is not the only time his work is accomplished literally by his acting it out. He uses this method throughout his ministry. He makes a miraculous catch of fish, to show that his apostles were called to be fishers of men. He changes water into wine to signify his ushering-in of the kingdom that is an eternal marriage banquet between him and the Church. He says to the Samaritan woman, “Give me a drink” and then immediately refers to the deep inner meaning of his request. He uses the hem of his cloak for pouring out his power on the sick woman. And so on, with so many symbolic signs that St. John tells us that the whole world could not contain all the books needed to narrate all that he said and did, acted out, for our salvation.
In a very charming way, the scene placed before our eyes of faith today shows Christ acting out the mystery of our life together in him.
The apostles are arguing among themselves who was the greatest among them. Jesus takes a little child and places his arms around him (it, our version says!) and says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
What does it mean to “receive” something, in the most basic sense? The image of receiving is that of a container, of something that holds something else in: a baseball mitt receives a ball, a glass receives wine poured into it, a drawing room receives guests.
A human embrace, such as the one Our Lord makes here, is an expression of love that we accomplish with our bodies to express something more than just a physical containing. We receive someone into our arms to show that that person is being received into our heart and mind, into our feelings and our friendship. Even with the less dramatic handshake, each one’s hand is inside the other’s mutually, a beautiful sign of a good will and of recognition, of love and knowledge. Whether it is a matter of politeness or friendly affection or romantic attraction, we are all meant to “contain” each other, and our gestures symbolize this, and also express the feelings behind it.
Who could possibly contain God, whom the heavens themselves cannot contain? He is absolutely infinite, there is no limit that could receive him. Yet here Our Lord says that in receiving the little child (and in other places he refers also to other kinds of human beings), we receive him, and in receiving him we receive the one who sent him.
Amazing. The God who cannot be held within limits chooses to become one of us, in our human nature, and so perfectly identifies himself with us, so that whomever we receive in his name represents him, and in receiving him we automatically receive also his eternal Father, since he and the Father are one.
Jesus says that our Christian identity is to be followers of his. Our role and destiny as his disciples can been judged by how readily we embrace others in love; for in receiving them, we receive him and the Father who sent him.
He became such a little child and declared that the kingdom of heaven belonged to such as these. When we imagine what it means to receive Christ, this is the image he wants us to see in order to understand how we relate to him. Do you want to contain Christ? Then embrace him in your neighbor. Do you want Christ to enfold you in the arms of his love? Then obey his commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Then being like him, you too will be contained in him.
For it is even more true to say that we are contained in God than that he dwells in us. We enter into his embrace, and so we dwell in him, and when we receive our neighbor then Christ dwells in us as we in him.
This is true greatness: to contain the uncontainable God by receiving others into the embrace of our love. Then we will be the greatest, since we will be like the God who has embraced us.
At every holy Mass, the infinite God is made present on the altar, acting out his love for us under the appearances of bread and wine. Let us receive him, if we are ready to, as he was received at Bethlehem (the name means “house of bread”): that is, as a little child, and so we will be sure of his receiving us into the arms of his great, great love.