08 November 2010
"The Lord" and Humility
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of my favorite spiritual books is The Lord by Romano Guardini, a German monsignor who was born in 1885 and died in 1968. The Lord is his meditation on Scriptures, and is a very rich and deep reflection on the life of Jesus Christ. I would encourage all those here in high school or older to read it.
One of the chapters in the book is on humility, the virtue that we hear about in our readings today. Humility is a very misunderstood virtue, and Guardini first seeks to clarify the word. He writes, “We use it to describe someone who bows to the grandeur of another; or who esteems a talent that surpasses his own; or who appreciates without envy another’s merit. That is not humility but honesty. […] When St. Francis knelt at the throne of the Pope it was not an act of humility (since he believed in the papal dignity) but only of verity; he was humble when he bowed to the poor. Not as one who condescends to help them, or whose humanitarian instinct sees in every beggar a remnant of human dignity, but as one whose heart has been instructed by God flings himself to the ground before the mystery of the paltriness as before that of majesty.” Humility is the virtue, the secured habit, whereby we lower ourselves with whatever greatness we might have, to another person’s need and want and baseness.
We might think of humility when we assist the poor: when we who have such great resources spend time and donate food, money, clothing, or other goods to those who do not have such great resources. Certainly this parish community in East Lansing is known for its generosity to the poor. But why do this? We can fall into the traps that Romano Guardini mentioned: condescension, whereby we pretend to debase ourselves and do the poor a favor by spending time with them or giving them something; or simply a humanitarian instinct, whereby we realize that we are all human beings, with dignity because we are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore we should help each other.
While it is true that we all do share a common dignity through our being created in the image and likeness of God, this is not the virtue of humility. That would be more of the virtue of solidarity. No, humility seeks to lower ourselves without losing any of the greatness which is ours: both actually lived out, and that greatness that we only have in potential.
We see the virtue of humility most perfectly in Jesus Christ. When the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became a man, he did not condescend to us, in the sense that He pretended to be nothing more than one of us. Rather, He comes down to us to dwell with us without losing any of His divine greatness. He humbles Himself. And so, in our Gospel, when Jesus talks about going to the lowest place at the table, He is simply telling us what He has done. He is the guest at the table of God the Father, and Jesus goes to the lowest place, to earth, and even to the very abode of the dead in His passion, but brings His greatness even there. As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of man.” Jesus did not abandon His divinity when He became incarnate, but neither did He claim any privileges while on earth because of it. He, of all persons, had the right to claim the highest place and remain there. But, He humbled Himself, and allowed God the Father to call Him up to the head of the table, at the right hand of the Father.
And so, when the author of the book of Sirach, Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach, tells us to “conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God,” we listen to his words because we see them practiced in a most perfect way by Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man. God favors humility because God is the source of humility and the summit of humility.
But His humility is not limited to the Incarnation. Jesus, from all eternity, was pouring Himself out to the Father, giving all that He is, with the exception of His identity as the Son. And so the Incarnation was simply a continuation of that.
But the Incarnation is not the end of Jesus’ humility. Even now, as He sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, Jesus continues to humble Himself, by allowing bread and wine to be changed into His body and blood at this altar, and letting Himself, the infinite God, be received into us, mere finite humans. To paraphrase our second reading today, “We have approached Mount Zion, and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal fathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.”
In this Eucharist, we are allowed to come to the antechamber of heaven. While what we can see seems earthly, the reality we approach is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb from the Book of Revelation, where all the angels and saints are present, adoring the Lord, the judge of all. We have come to the sacrifice where the Lord of All humbles Himself to be received by us. So then, let us approach with honesty, mindful of the greatness that God brings down to us sinners. And as we serve the poor, let us not do so because it simply provides physical needs for others, but in imitation of Jesus Christ who gave us of His greatness and riches, so that we, who were poor because we were separated from God, could become rich and be called to a higher place. As long as we simply give because “it’s the right thing to do,” then we are no different from those who do not know Christ. But, if we give because we are trying to live out in our lives the great humility of Jesus, then we will be witnesses of true humility first shown to us by Jesus.