I must admit that I do not know much about St. Clare, whose Memorial we celebrate today, though I had the distinct joy of spending a January day wandering with my wife and youngest son through Assissi in 2008 and learning something about St. Francis and St. Clare. I have only the knowledge I gained on that day and which I gained many years earler when my older brother took me to see Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon. It is a knowledge of a pilgrim not an academic. It seems that today's Gospel calls us all to be pilgrims - certainly not academics - as we consider a passage that fired the imaginations and hearts of Francis and Clare and all those who choose to live the Gospel message of simplicity.
In Matthew 18:1-5, 10, Jesus encounters a question from the disciples:
"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 becomes humble like this child
is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.
See that you do not despise one of these little ones,
for I say to you that their angels in heaven
always look upon the face of my heavenly Father."
It must have been heady stuff to be an apostle, one of 12 chosen by the Teacher, the only Teacher; the question of greatness would have been on every apostle's mind: if he is the Messiah, and if he has chosen us, certainly we are ranking members of the Kingdom, but who (in today's parlance) is number 1? Jesus confounds every expectation by turning the question in on the apostles and choosing one of the most vulnerable members of ancient society: a child. Unique amongst ancient religious teachers, I would argue, Jesus points us on a number of occasions to the child as model disciple. It is an odd choice in so many ways and remains a model the Churtch has a difficult time maintaining. In a recently published book which I co-authored with Cornelia Horn, "Let the Little Children Come to Me: Children and Childhood in Early Christianity," we point to the shocking nature of the child as model and the undercutting of human pretensions which it embodies. Why children? It is not so much because children are innocent - one need only remember their own childhood - but that they are vulnerable, dependent upon others and God. This is true humility and children have no choice in the matter. They are dependent upon those who would care for them, love them, and guard them from harm. If the adults in their lives choose to abuse them, they have little recourse. This is why Jesus warns so strongly against despising "one of these little ones." It is also the attitude that we must have before God, for the reality is, in the eyes of God, we are all "little ones." We all need to cultivate an attitude of dependence and vulnerability upon God, who alone will guard and protect us.
Often we feel as adults that we have it all - job, money, love, wealth, fame, whatever it is we strive for and desire -but it can be gone in an instant. Never did the teachings of Jesus on the "little ones" and children become more powerful to me than when I worked with sexual abuse survivors and people going through crisis. I worked with politicians, doctors, lawyers and businessmen, as well as homeless people, musicians, street people and gang members and everyone in between. In our group sessions, there were no powerful people; there were hurt people striving to learn the truth, however inchoate the yearning was, that God loved them. In their vulnerability and in their weakness, they were humble. It is at that point that it became clear to me that we truly are all children of God and in our weakness we could grasp the true meaning of being "little ones."
St. Clare grasped the meaning of being a "little one" and rejected the society and wealth of her family to serve God. She was humble and became a model for all of us who yearn to serve God. We must be open to the "little ones," we must accept the "little ones," for as Jesus says, "whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me." Jesus spoke first of children, but there is no question that when we reflect on our own dependence and vulnerability, our own need for humility, we recognize that we are all children of God. Our station in life means nothing, as Clare demonstrated, compared to the need to accept the most vulnerable amongst us. Whatever our role or vocation, if we can constantly consider our childlike status before God, we can accept all of those in need, which ultimately includes all of us.