Nobody knew how the invading army penetrated the city gates.
The idealists, still believing in the invincibility of the eternal city, thought it must have been treachery: some renegades, probably slaves, had let them in.
The realists, decrying recent municipal and national cut backs in infrastructure, were not surprised in the least. After all, hadn’t they been complaining to the magistrate about concrete falling from the gate?
The moralists, denouncing the loss of traditional values, blamed the church. To them it was obvious the country was being divinely punished.
Regardless as to how the gate was taken, no one disputed what happened next: houses burned, storehouses pillaged, captives taken, graves desecrated.
It could not be disputed.
Rome – the centre of the western world – had fallen, and with it, the hopes and dreams of an Empire.
It was at this moment that Augustine, a bishop and theologian of the church, did what bishops and theologians tend to do in troubled times. He wrote a book. A very large book, that was actually 22 smaller books he would bind together under the title the City of God.
The City of God was Augustine’s attempt to understand not how the gates had been breached but why. Why was the Roman Empire collapsing? And, for a church that had entwined its future with that of the Empire, where did that leave Christian communities of faith? As you can imagine, after 13 years of writing, and over a thousand pages, Augustine had a few ideas to offer.
Rome had fallen, he argued, not because of treachery, not because of crumbling gates, or a lack of traditional values. Rome had fallen because Rome had always fallen—into the worst of sins: the self-love of Pride.
Now, for Augustine pride didn’t mean our personal confidence, or the feeling of satisfaction we have at a job well done. For Augustine pride is a one directional love that moves from the self, back to the self. This self-love is the worst of all sins, because it leads us, consciously and un-consciously to seek to dominate those around us. To expand the greatness of ourselves at the expense of others.
It was pride that led Rome to grow its military power through endless wars.
It was pride that led Rome to fill its treasuries through economic exploitation.
It was pride that led Rome to colonize and redefine its neighbours’ national boundaries.
And now, Rome was reaping what its pride had sown: civil war, economic collapse, and foreign invasions.
As Augustine understood: An eternal city cannot be founded on pride.
In this morning’s Gospel passage, we see that pride is not a temptation confined to the leaders of the world’s empires. We find Jesus teaching his disciples, trying to explain to them what kind of messiah he is: a messiah of selfless love; a messiah who will be killed for laying the foundations of another city; a messiah for whom death will not be the last word.
The disciples don’t understand this, and they are afraid to ask. As my mother always said, “Don’t ask question’s you don’t want the answers to.” And the disciples are professionals in not asking the right questions. Sometimes, the messiah you want, isn’t the messiah you need.
As if to illustrate this, the disciples then break out into an argument over who is the greatest among them, each jockeying for a position over the others. This is not a place from which to build a church: an eternal city cannot be founded on pride.
So Jesus sits them down, and makes it simple: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And just to make sure there are no misunderstandings, Jesus makes it into an object lesson. Taking a child into his arms he says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Welcoming the child,
welcoming the humble,
welcoming the one’s who don’t count in a society seeking pride;
becoming the last of all,
becoming the servant of all:
that is the foundation of an eternal city.
The letter of James unpacks for us what this looks like: good works committed with a gentleness born of wisdom, which is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”
It is a lesson we need just as much as Jesus’ early disciples, for as with Augustine, we too live in an age of empires, collapsing under the weight of their own pride.
The pride of economic empires, that seek infinite growth in a world of finite means. The pride of military empires, that wage wars abroad for values not practiced at home. And the pride of religious empires, that claim moral truth while the hungry remain unfed, the sick remain untreated, and the strangers remain unwelcomed.
As Augustine believed, in the collapse of these empires we are called neither to mourn nor celebrate, for our faith tells us that the destiny of empire does not determine the hope of humanity. Our hope lies in the eternal city, whose foundations of selfless service Jesus is calling us to build upon today.
It starts humbly, with small works committed in a gentleness born of wisdom:
welcoming a child,
feeding a hungry person,
making the empire’s last our first.
But these small works grow:
into a church school,
into a lunch program,
into the city of God.
Jeffrey Metcalfe is a deacon in the Diocese of Quebec. While he completes his theological studies at Trinity College in Toronto, he serves as the assistant curate at the Church of the Redeemer. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.