We all know the account in Luke about the boy Jesus, who when he was twelve years old accompanied his parents to Jerusalem for the Passover, as was their custom.
When Mary cried out to him, "Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing," Jesus replied, "How is it that ye sought me?" Did they not know that he had to be about his Father's business? (2:48-49). He has redirected their attention from one father, Joseph, to the true Father in heaven. In this family drama of obedience, Jesus shows where his ultimate submission lies, and yet he returns to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, and obeys them in all things.
Dante, at the beginning of the terrace of wrath in Purgatory, portrays the moment thus:
The poet sees what a theologian might miss. Mary has what any mother would consider just cause for anger — what Thomas Aquinas calls parvipensio, to slight, to treat someone as if he counted for little. Yet her words are not angry. She pleads for understanding; she waits for the answer from Jesus. We can imagine the boy shaking his head quizzically, wondering about their wondering. His reply is not defiant, but half amused. Where else did they think he could possibly be? Mary did not understand, but she "kept all these sayings in her heart" (Lk. 2:51). The Greek suggests that she kept watch over them, she held them close, just as she kept and pondered the tidings of the shepherds when Jesus was born (Lk. 2:19).
Mary did not brood; she pondered. She is here our exemplar of meekness, that sweet and mild virtue that, like the soft answer, "turneth away wrath" (Prov. 15:1). Jesus identifies himself with the virtue, saying, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light" (Mt. 11:28-30).
Why do I say that the virtue of meekness brings life? Consider the difference between someone who is ready to cavil at the least perception of a wrong done to him, and one who is, as God is, "slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy" (Ps. 103:8). The former, the one who makes touchiness into a principle of action, is continually besieged with wrongs that must be redressed. That's inevitable, given that we are sinners. His family and his friends, aware of this vice, walk gingerly about him. Both he and they are cramped; and no one escapes the shadow of enmity.
But the latter dwells in freedom. It is not that he is timid, afraid to avenge himself. It is rather that his meekness clears a wide field. Must this slight be mentioned? Perhaps not. Must this act of disobedience be punished? Perhaps, but not at the moment. Would it be excusable in me to return an angry word for the angry word? Yes, but what good would that do? Am I in the right? Yes, but do you really wish to win an argument and lose a friend? When the prodigal son returned to his father, would it have been understandable had the old man sighed and shook his head, and said, "Come, boy, let's clean you up at least"? Yes, understandable; and it would have planted in the boy's heart the doubt that perhaps he should have stayed away after all.
It is a paradox, but nonetheless true, that meekness demands largeness of heart. We see this when our Lord, brought in bonds before Herod Antipas, never answered that fool after his folly, but submitted in silence. And when he was dying upon the cross, with all the people mocking him, he said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk. 23:34). The meek shall inherit the earth: they are the ones great enough for it.
Anthony Esolen. "Meekness: The Third Lively Virtue." Crisis Magazine (May 8, 2012).
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
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