I recently made a pilgrimage to the Ikea in Brooklyn. If I had taken but a second to consult common sense, I would not have gone on a Saturday. The crowds were huge. As I entered the store, I briefly considered turning back. But it had taken me more than a hour just to get to the entrance, so I opted to march forth into the maddening rabble.
I grabbed a blue and yellow bag, found the thing or two I had come for and then proceeded to the checkout. This alone took several excruciating minutes because (if you’ve ever been to Ikea, you will know this) it is impossible to go anywhere in that place in a straight line. Our Swedish masters have designed these labyrinths of good taste and inexpensive living to ensure that we encounter every last bit of tantalizing merchandise prior to our escape.
Anyway, when I arrived at the checkout, my heart sank again. Lines and lines and more lines! It was immediately clear that if I stood in one of those lines, I’d never make it back in time to meet a friend. So I hoisted the white flag of surrender, abandoned my shopping bag and headed for the B61 bus.
“What in the world does any of this have to do with Lent?” you might be asking right about now. Well, what I experienced at the checkout line at Ikea was a feeling of powerlessness: There was something I wanted to do and yet I couldn’t. This happens to human beings all the time, of course. My Ikea experience was a relatively minor matter, but all of us experience varying degrees of powerlessness every day—everything from the traffic jam during the morning commute, to the dejection that accompanies the evening news, right up to the worst news of all, that a loved one is somehow troubled. Human beings, in other words, know what it is to feel powerless.
I don’t know about you, but I never feel more powerless than when I’m confronting my own sinfulness. Having those ashes on our heads is a humbling thing indeed; it’s even more humiliating (in a good way) to walk around town like that. As James Martin, S.J., writes in this issue, however, “the cross is often where we meet God because our vulnerability can make us more open to God’s grace.”
That’s why the Gospel discourses about power are so meaningful to me, not because Jesus helps his disciples to know what powerlessness is (they, like me, already know about that) but because Jesus helps them, and through them us, to see what being powerful actually is. It is no secret that human beings don’t like the feeling of powerlessness. We’re constantly inventing and reinventing ways of feeling powerful, of accumulating power. And in this materially driven world, a world in which the first are first and the last are last, power is accumulated through the accumulation of stuff: money, authority, the latest and greatest from Ikea. Sometimes we even try to possess people, through abuse or betrayal or maybe just a resentment we choose to hold onto.
Yet Jesus reminds us that there is a new math at work in the Gospel, for in the kingdom of heaven, it is those with less who have more. In other words, it is the servant, the one who gives rather than takes, who shall inherit the kingdom. That’s a big idea. It means not lording our power over others, sure, but it means much more than that: we must also find creative and loving ways of exercising the power we have. In fact we must actually become powerless by giving ourselves to another.
Our self-gift—to God or to another person—makes us vulnerable and seemingly powerless. Yet it is the most powerful thing we do. It isn’t easy, and God knows it isn’t easy. But it is possible. It’s also necessary if we are going to leave the world a more graceful, just and beautiful place when we return to dust.