Hurricane Florence dumped a huge amount of rain on the South last week. The damage is only now being assessed so that repair work can begin. I’m sure as time goes on we will start to hear of some incredible stories of service and heroism, of individuals coming to the help of someone despite the personal risk involved. As I was thinking of this, I remembered a real-life example of courage from several years ago.
Back in 1989, a two-year-old named Jessica O’Connell was playing in her Andover, Ohio yard after breakfast on a sunny summer morning. Following a ten-day stretch of rain, the skies were clear, but the water in a nearby drainage ditch was still flowing rapidly. The beach ball that Jessica and her sister were tossing around escaped them and went toward the ditch. Watching from the kitchen window, Mom suddenly realized Jessica was nowhere in sight.
Meanwhile, two doors down the street, Ray Blankenship was sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast. At one point, he looked out the window to see little Jessica being swept down the flooded drainage ditch. Ray knew that the ditch would run into a culvert which was about thirty feet long and completely filled with water.
Ray dropped his coffee cup on the floor and dashed to the ditch, jumping in to catch up with Jessica. The churning water moved him forward; his arms thrashing, Ray was able to grab the child. Pulling her close, he latched onto a rock protruding from the ditch. The force of the water was so strong that at any moment they could have been swept away and into the culvert, now just ten feet away. Back at home, Ray’s wife had called the police.
Ray held on for dear life. The rescue vehicles arrived and safely pulled little Jessica and Ray from the water. At the hospital, they were treated for near drowning and shock; both fully recovered.
Weeks after the rescue, the commander of the ninth Coast Guard district presented the Lifesaving Medal to Ray, a military award that in this case was given to a civilian for exceptional heroism. Columnist Paul Harvey noted that Ray’s courage was truly extraoardinary. “This selfless American was at even greater risk to himself than I have so far mentioned,” wrote Harvey. “Ray Blankenship can’t swim.”
The type of selfless giving is what Jesus is calling us to live out in our discipleship. The Gospel reading for today’s liturgy, taken from St. Mark’s account, reminds us that from the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus has been forming Peter, Andrew, James and John as his disciples. Many others joined the group along the way. Step by step, they journeyed with Jesus, who taught them through his person, his words, his actions and interactions what life is all about. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God with the totality of his being.
In today’s account, Jesus continues to form his followers. As he did in last week’s Gospel passage, he tells them that “the Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” The evangelist adds that the disciples did not understand, “and they were afraid to question him.” Perhaps they were afraid after Jesus’ reaction to Peter in the previous account.
As they continue along the way, they begin to argue among themselves as to who was the most important. Hearing this, Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
After sitting a young child in the middle of them, he adds, “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.”
Jesus uses the child as an example because, in the mindset of that world, the child could offer nothing in return for the kindness or care given him or her. Service to a child is selfless; the concern is not for one’s self, but completely for the other. This is what is means to be “last of all.”
It is important to make the connection between Jesus’ passion prediction and this teaching. He is willing to go all the way. He empties himself, completely trusting in the Father and offering his own life for the good of all.
Christian discipleship entails such giving. This is indeed a challenge, for the call to discipleship goes on every day. Sometimes heroic action might be needed, but more often it is the regular dying to self in the awareness and response to the needs of those around us. It can be as simple as offering a kind word to someone who looks like they’re having a bad day, disrupting your schedule to listen to someone, helping a child with homework after a long day at work, checking in on an aging parent, reaching out to someone who is ostracized, or visiting someone who is homebound.
Jesus reminds us today that laying down our lives for the good of others – by being “last of all and the servant of all” – is the way we walk as disciples on the path of life.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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