Greatness

Fame is no plant that grows in mortal soil …
The last infirmity of a noble mind.

Milton, Lycidas

Every human being that ever was and is was made for greatness and longs for it. This is because we were made in the imago dei, and greatness is an essential aspect of the Divine. Glory, honor, dignity, and being known as opposed to being forgotten, are all a part of the original order of creation, part of what it means to be holy. The absence of this is chaos.

With the fall from original glory came a fall from greatness. The problem is that we are still image bearers and long for greatness and fame when our mortal frames cannot bear it. The earth we walk on is cursed so as not to sustain anything for long, and time itself sweeps everything into oblivion. In spite of this humanity does everything it can to defy the odds and grab the wreath of greatness. There were those before the flood, the Nephilim of old, that are faintly remembered as “mighty men of old, the men of fame” (Gen. 6:4 Heb. šēm = name, fame). Babel’s tower was begun with the motivating cry “Let us make a name (šēm) for ourselves lest we be scattered … (i.e. forgotten, Gen. 11:4). It is in this context God called Abraham, the seed of Shem (Heb. šēm = fame), and promises him a “great name” (Heb. šēm, Gen. 12:2). God promises Abraham the very thing that the nations were striving for, true and lasting greatness!

Abraham’s greatness defies the curse and oblivion because he is associated with God, who transcends all things. Moreover, true greatness is linked with a corresponding depth and development of the imago dei, for Abraham was to “walk before [God] and be perfect” (Gen. 17:1). Those poor mortals that seek and to some degree attain “fame” and “greatness” in this world without reflecting God’s image and glorifying God become mere abstractions of being and a farce, for there is no substance to their fame. Even if history remembers them, what does this mean for them when their frames crumble in the dust and they stand face to face with eternity? Even those godly persons who achieve greatness in space and time, such as the Blessed John Paul II or Billy Graham, if you would ask them what their fame means to them, they would probably say something to this effect: “I am glad my life glorified God before the world, but personally, the fact that I am famous is not essential to me. It is an illusion. People and historians think they know me, but they really do not know me; I am a mystery even to myself. I do not exist as I really am in the minds of others. I pass on unknown in this world.” This is why Milton said, “Fame is no plant that grows in mortal soil.”

True fame, true greatness, belongs to those who embrace God and no longer care about what the world thinks of them. I remember my dear mother, a saint and most obscure housewife, came to me, and gathering herself together as to declare something she long rehearsed, said, “You know John, I spend my days doing small tasks, washing clothes, making dinner, doing dishes, etc., but some day I am going to be great!” She intuitively knew that greatness and renown belong to those who belong to God and to the New Jerusalem (Rev. 2:17, 3:5, 12), where every soul shall be known to all.

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