Mystical Word  |  Weekly Reflection
Mystical Word is a weekly reflection on the Sunday Gospel reading by L.J. Milone, Director of Faith Formation, Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

Reduced to Nothing

The Gospel invites us to be reduced to nothing in imitation of Jesus.

Whenever I’m home, I gravitate to my big comfortable chair facing our television.  I grab a cold beer, a bag of potato chips, and plop down in front of the television to watch for a while.  It’s so very comfortable!  The more relaxed I become, the more I slouch in this soft lazy chair.  If my kids are out of bed, then the great risk is that they’ll ask me to get up.  Truthfully, it feels like I’m being dragged out of my lazy chair.  It’s uncomfortable, but I get up because one of my kids say, “Daddy, come play with me.”  The invitation is too good to turn down.  The Gospel works in our lives in a similar way.  The Gospel of God should make us uncomfortable, because it is a complete interruption to our normal lives.  The Gospels demands much from us.  But, the promise of divine life is too attractive to turn down.

We live rather comfortable lives.  Beyond physical comforts like temperature-controlled homes and cozy beds, our existence in this country is generally free of strife and hardship.  Our comfort derives from our values.  We live based on values like success, achievement, stability, competition, and strength.  Family values loom large in our society.  We are dazzled by celebrity.  Perhaps the greatest value is the economy.  At the core of this economic value is the seemingly uncontrollable urge to make more money, to get more stuff, and to consume (the earth’s resources and the poor be damned!).  These are all unquestioned assumptions in our society.  They are values we take for granted and none of them are rooted in the Gospel.

The Gospel is radical, but our familiarity with it blinds us.  So, we need a fresh look at the Gospel to jolt us out of our complacent and dismissive view of it.  The Gospel is the story of Jesus being reduced to nothingness.  The Gospel is lived by being reduced to nothingness with Jesus.  In this way, God frees us from the grips of evil.  God does not fight evil on evil’s terms but by being God: the humble, poor, merciful yet incomprehensible mystery grounding the whole of existence.  The cross, the way God saves us from evil, is, essentially, about being reduced to nothing.  The Gospel is a dangerous memory that disrupts the story of conventional society.

No less an authority than St. Paul says, “God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something” (1 Corinthians 1:28).  God’s plan is to reduce us to nothing so that our inherent oneness with God can be insuppressibly real for us.  It’s a scriptural theme, and we find it in tradition as well.  An obscure medieval hermit named Stephen of Muret says, “If it is the Son of God you wish to imitate – he who emptied himself – you will have to reduce yourself to nothing.”  Such a view has the power to shock us out of our assumed knowledge to perceive just how radically devastating the Gospel is to our conventional American lives.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus lets the Spirit lead him into the desert.  He surrenders to God’s Holy Spirit.  This is the primary way we follow Jesus along this path of reduction to nothingness, for when we allow God to be the center of our lives we stop being the center.  Such an allowance is a reduction of the ego to nothing, for then the ego is not the center of life.  It’s not what we do, but what we allow to be done to us.  Otherwise, whatever practices we choose to do, the ego is still in charge.  Ego cannot be the one directing the path of reducing the ego to nothing!  Instead, like Jesus, we must surrender in the desert.  The desert into which Jesus is led stands for nothingness.  It’s the Bible’s way of pointing to the mystery of God as it coincides with poverty, deprivation, humility, littleness, and emptiness.

The Gospel is the dangerous memory of Christ Crucified, which is Jesus being reduced to nothing.  This memory disrupts and devastates the basic assumptions we have about life.  The Gospel attacks conventional American culture and its values.  The story of Jesus being reduced to nothingness should cause discomfort.  It should repulse us.  The Gospel is not here to confirm conventional American values.  Instead, the Gospel is the antithesis to the world’s status quo values, which include the priority of the market, the accumulation of possessions, success, beauty, competition, comparison, and, especially, autonomy (our cherished freedom to choose).  A reduction to nothing is directly opposed to our polite, middle-class society.

The Gospel path we all commit to taking as followers of Jesus is the path of being reduced to nothing, and that should be terrifying.  The Gospel of God interrupts all our pretensions, all our niceties, and, especially, all the unquestioned cultural myths we harbor.  We are faced with a terrible decision this Lent: repent or slink back to the numbness of normal life.  Will we head into the desert with Jesus to be reduced to nothing or give in to the dreary yet familiar suburban culture and remain dead to divine life?  Will we turn away from our comfortable, all-too-easy rationalizations and let God lead us into the desert of divine mystery to suffer with others and show divine compassion?  Do we just believe in Jesus or do we follow Jesus?  Will we only believe in conversion and mercy or will we actually repent?  Will we question all the values we take for granted?

To take this absolutely seriously, to start living the Gospel, Lent focuses us on three practices: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.  But the foundational practice is repentance, which means calling into question everything we take for granted about our lives.  It means being ready to give up our cherished values of competition, success, and strength to receive the Gospel values of weakness, nonviolence, and joyfully suffering humiliations.  Still, we need to give this repentance concrete form in our lives.  So, we fast, give alms, and pray.

Fast from TV, movies, and the internet.  Unplug and slow down so you don’t absorb the values of conventional society through its media.  Beyond donating money to a charity, give alms by personally interacting with someone suffering from poverty.  Get to know their name and listen to their story.  Pray often and do it daily. Whatever method of prayer you choose, allow for interior silence and stillness.  Go into the desert of silence and solitude.  Your culture tells you to be seen, to be heard.  The Gospel tells you to refuse the need to be seen, to be acknowledged.  Above all, intend to practice out of love for God and neighbor.

We repent by following Jesus along the path of being reduced to nothing.  Jesus shows his follower how to be reduced to nothing through humiliations, weakness, poverty, trials, defenselessness, loss, misunderstanding, service, littleness, insecurity, suffering, hiddenness, anonymity, and interior silence.  The Gospels teach these values.  A vital Lenten practice, then, is to read the Gospels.  I suggest we read the Gospel of Mark, for it is a clearly the story of Jesus being reduced to nothingness.  It is also a direct challenge to take up our crosses and to tread the same path as Jesus by repentance.  In doing so, we, like Jesus, become a serious threat to conventional, well-mannered American life.  Like Jesus, too, we discover a spring of joy welling up from within because we see the nothingness to which we are reduced is the very mystery of God.