In the world of cartoons things like vacuum cleaners are credited with a life of their own and endowed with the ability to choose their actions. Now apart from the fact that vacuum cleaners don’t have brains—even though some may be programmable—they are totally dependent on being connected to an electrical outlet capable of delivering the power they need to operate. And although it would be ludicrous to imagine that a vacuum cleaner—or any other electrical appliance—could ever think of itself as autonomous and self-sustaining, it is perhaps just as absurd for us to think that we are self-sufficient and self-sustaining entities able to exist on our own and apart from the moment-by-moment existence granted us by God our Creator. As Christians we believe that absent this life-sustaining presence of God and we would immediately evaporate into nothingness.
Forgetting this fundamental and total reliance on God for our existence lies at the heart of human pride and vainglory. Conversely, always remembering that our very existence is a gift constantly received at every moment is the first step along the pathway to true greatness and glory. This is not always easy and it was Pope Benedict who reminded us that generally man does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God. He himself wants to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God’s level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts. According to Pope Benedict, this is partly based on the mistaken belief that God’s love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself.
The truth of the matter is that truly becoming ourselves is inseparable from our union with God. And this not only in the sense that we can only be sustained in being by his willing it, but also in the sense that, as Saint Augustine discovered, we were made for relationship and union with God and can never be complete with anything less than God. Accordingly, we can never realize our full potential or, indeed, become fully human in opposition to or in separation from God. Admittedly, many have succeeded in achieving greatness and world renown or notoriety. But whenever this has been achieved at the expense of a loving relationship with God, inner peace and joy—despite the fame—has eluded such people and their lives have often ended tragically in abject misery, loneliness, isolation, disillusionment, and bitterness.
The tender shoot taken from the giant cedar planted on the mountain peak is today’s scriptural way of describing the only true pathway to true greatness, unassailable inner peace, and infinite and unending joy. So too the small mustard seed described by Jesus that grows to become one of the largest plants speaks to this indispensable need to truly acknowledge one’s nothingness apart from God and thereby open the floodgates of glory that pour into open hearts not obstructed by God-excluding pride, vainglory, and plain stupidity. If you have any doubt about this just think of the saints—especially those recently canonized men and women like John Paul II, or John XXIII, Mother Theresa, and our own Martyrs of Atlas. Their greatness and spiritual stature are not the result of achieving great things and winning fame by personal effort and ambition, rather it is because they were content to be that little tender shoot or that tiny mustard seed humbly resting in the hand of the all-powerful God who was then able to transform them.
And in becoming that giant cedar or that large mustard bush their joy wasn’t in having becoming tall or great but rather that they were resting securely in the hand of the all-powerful God and that their branches provided shelter and protection for their weaker brothers and sisters struggling on the same long road to salvation and our Eternal Home. And so let us not believe the lies uttered by our contemporary culture and society: God’s love doesn’t create a servile dependence since the very existence he gives us moment by moment is inseparable from the ineffable gift of himself—the only one who can fill our empty hearts and in raising us up to share in his eternal glory he enfolds us in eternal peace, filling us with that inexpressible joy that no one can ever take from us again.