Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me." (A Brief Reflection on the Feast of St. John Bosco, Patron of the Youth, Matt. 18:1-5)

At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me”.

“To receive a child” is a phrase that’s capable of bearing more than one meaning. In the context of the saint whose feast we celebrate today, it can mean, not so much receiving an actual child, as to receive a person who has qualities associated with children.

In our highly competitive world it’s quite easy to pay most attention to the person who's aggressive, assertive, attractive, successful, driven, and full of self-confidence, just as it is easy to neglect and even disregard, those who are often left behind.

When I first began teaching many years ago, I found myself gravitating towards the more intelligent students in my classes. They were easy to teach, quick to raise questions and had no hesitation arguing about serious and difficult issues in class. They were always enthusiastic, engaged, and always eager to learn.

It wasn't that I didn't care for those who weren’t as bright, I just thought that if I concentrated on the smarter ones who were always behind the lively discussions and exchanges in the classroom, all the rest would naturally be drawn in, follow, and learn. (I figured it’ll be like “trickle-down economics;” you take care of those on the top, believing that the benefits will somehow make it to those at the bottom, then everyone benefits.)

I was pretty satisfied with the way I thought things were going until one time, during an exam I was conducting, a student who had failed the course the previous year and had to re-take the exam, sat in front of me and began answering my questions. Halfway through his answer, I found myself getting really frustrated, not only because his answer was wrong, but because I remember asking him the very same question the last time he took that test. I figured I was being abundantly generous by doing so, and that it should be so easy for him to give me the correct response this time.

I think I may have raised my voice a little; I was getting upset. “How could you not know the answer to this question?! I asked you the very same question the last time you took this exam! Have you learned nothing?! This is the second time you’re taking this test. Do you want to fail a second time?”

The young man just sat there, staring at me, with a devastated look on his face. Then tears began rolling down his cheeks; and when he finally managed to say something, his words felt like a blade cutting right through me. “Father, this isn’t my second time to take the test. It’s the third. I’ve already failed twice. I study so hard and write down everything you say in class”. (He opened his notebook and showed me the pages.) “I don’t know what else to do. I try so hard to understand the lesson, but I keep failing”.

It was one those “a-ha” moments for me. (One philosopher calls them occasions of “cosmic disclosure”.) Whatever term one chooses, one thing was certain, it was my moment not only of profound realization, but conversion. I had forgotten “the least” among those God had sent me to teach and guide. This young man wasn’t failing because he kept failing to make the cut. He was failing because I - the one who had been sent to instruct and guide him through the forest of philosophical speculation - had failed him, three times. I had to make amends.

“And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me”.

John Bosco was a person who took to heart Christ’s message in today’s gospel. Living at the end of the 19th century, he began a community of men and women who dedicated themselves to caring for the poorest and neediest young people in Italy. John Bosco sought to give impoverished youth of his time, a good Christian education, and cared for both their spiritual as well as their material needs.

Jesus—in today’s gospel—may well be reminding us that the most important people in this world are not necessarily the successful ones and those who have climbed to the top, but the quiet, humble, and simple ones, who do not only have the heart of a child, but who actually need us in the same way that children do.

It is worth reminding ourselves that in God’s eyes, whatever we do to those who are often regarded by the world as insignificant and of little consequence, we do not only for them, but for him as well.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)