Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-Second Sunday in OT, Year C
September 1, 2013
Sir 3:17-18.20.28-29, Heb 12:18-19.22-24, Lk 14:1.7-14
To listen to a digital recording of this homily, please click below:
The written text of the homily, more or less followed, is below:
Humility in a Culture of Exaltation
In Jesus’s parable in today’s Gospel, the Lord is doing far more than giving his disciples — those 2000 years ago and us today — advice on how to achieve the best seats at a wedding reception. As valid and applicable as that counsel is for human situations, Jesus’ real point was to teach us how to be exalted at the eternal wedding banquet to which the Host, his Father, has invited “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” In order for us to hear those words from God the Father, “Friend, move up higher,” which is the deepest longing that exists in the human heart, Jesus says that there is only one way: we must recognize that we’re poor in need of the Lord’s true riches, crippled in need of the Lord’s help to straight ourselves out, lame in need of the Lord’s grace to walk by faith, and blind in need of the light of faith to see things clearly. We must, in short, humble ourselves, for it is only the humble who will be so exalted.
These are very hard and challenging words in our culture, which so much prizes human exaltation. We see it in the ever-growing number of award shows indulging the egos of those in film, television and music, all giving out awards for best actors, actresses, directors, producers, graphic artists, costume designers, film editors, hairstylists, production design, sound mixing, visual effects, screen play writers, record, album and song of the year, pop solo performance, dance recording, electronica album, traditional pop album lifetime achievement awards and so many others. We see it in the honors we give to the students who are “Most Popular” “Most Friendly, and “Most Likely to Succeed,” to the “Best Looking” women in pageants, to the “Most Successful” sales representatives, to the “Most Valuable Player” not just of the year but of the week, and even to the “best groomed” dogs. So many of us have been raised with the desire not only to be the best, but to be acknowledged as the best. And if we recognize begrudgingly that we’re not the best, we at least want to be better than those with whom we come into contact. We want to get our own way, rather than conceding to the wishes of another. We want everyone to acknowledge our rights and their responsibilities, rather than vice versa. We want to get the last word, rather than concede it to someone else. We want to be the ones noticed and thanked, and resent it if others get the credit we think we deserve.
To all of us in this culture, Jesus says to us in the words of today’s Alleluia verse, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). Jesus’ whole life is a lesson in humility and he turns to each of us and says, “Follow me!”
St. Paul describe Jesus’ humility best in his letter to the Philippians, grounding our humility on the unbelievable humility the Son of God: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:3-11).
Jesus, St. Paul emphasizes, humbled himself to assume our human nature, to take upon the form of a slave to serve us rather than to be served (Mt 20:28), to wash our feet, (Jn 13), to become obedient to human authority, and even to allow himself to be mistreated, manhandled and murdered by his own creatures, all so that he might save us. He humbled himself and God the Father exalted him forever. St. Peter said that Jesus did all of this to leave us an example, so that we would follow in his footsteps (1Pet 2:21). If we do this, if we imitate and enter into Christ’s humility, then we will enter into Christ’s exaltation.
This is a perennial message God has been seeking to teach us from the beginning. Sirach instructs us in today’s first reading, “My child, conduct your affairs with humility.” Everything we do, in other words, we’re called to do humbly. Sirach continues, “The greater you are,” the more blessed you are with material goods, or prestige or high office, “humble yourself the more, and you will find favor in God. On Wednesday this week, we celebrated the feast of the great fifth century doctor of the Church, St. Augustine. He was once asked what the most important virtues are to progress in the spiritual life of faith. He said that the most important of all was humility. The second most important virtue was humility. And likewise the third, because we need humility to live by faith, we need humility to grow in hope, we need humility to love and serve God and others.
What Humility Is
But becoming humble is easier said than done. We first need to have a clear grasp of what humility is and then we need to know the means by which we can grow in humility.
First, what does humility mean? Humility comes from the Latin word, humus, which means the ground, the dirt. It has various connected spiritual meanings. It means, first, that we have both of our feet on the ground, that we have a deep sense of who we are. One of our two grounded feet, we could say, is that we recognize we’re dust and unto dust we shall return, as we hear at the beginning of every Lent. We recognize our human weakness, our frailties, our limitations. The second grounded foot is that, even though we’re dust, God nevertheless breathes into us the breath of life, he calls us through a humble life to greatness, to a communion of love with him and others. To use St. Paul’s image, we’re vessels of clay carrying within an immense treasure; (2 Cor 4:7); to have both of our feet on the ground, we need to keep both of these things in mind. To be humble doesn’t mean that we think that we’re losers. It also doesn’t mean that we’re self-inflated. It means, rather, consistent with the overall message of the Gospel, that we’re ex-slaves who have been liberated by Jesus who have become adopted children of the King. Humility means never forgetting where we have come from, but also remembering the greatness that our relationship with God confers on us.
Seven Practices to Grow in Humility
If that’s what humility is, we can now turn to how to grow in humility. Growth will intensify our sober, calm awareness of our “clay” but also a joyful, hopeful, consciousness of the treasure we nevertheless bear. Jesus wants us to learn from him this type of humility. We can mention seven practices.
Looking to the interests of others
St. Paul, as we heard a little earlier in his reflections on Jesus’ humility, said, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” To grow in humility, we need to avoid pride, conceit and the ambition for ourselves to succeed at others’ expense. The practice Jesus describes in the Gospel helps us precisely to do that. Rather than seeking the best seats, we seek the least, leaving the best seats to others. Rather than wanting to be acknowledged as better than others, we decrease so that they may increase. Rather than allowing others to serve us, we seek to serve them. We know that the only way to develop any virtue is through repeated virtuous acts. We become truthful by telling the truth. We become courageous by repeated acts of courage. Likewise, we become humble through acts of humility. Those acts begin with our thoughts: we think of others as better than ourselves, rather than giving into the temptation to try to exalt ourselves in comparison to others; we need to look out for their interests rather than our own, be ambitious for their success rather than ours. Then we can translate such thoughts into deeds, or actually preferring others, serving them and exalting them. The more we do, the humbler we become. Some have said that the truly humble person forgets himself because he’s so absorbed in the love of God and the service of others.
Loving in God’s love and esteem
But we have to ask: How do we get the strength to think and act in this way that goes so much against our fallen nature, that seeks to indulge itself rather than lose itself for others? This is the second practice to grow in humility. It’s increasingly to recognize and treasure the love God has for us. One of the things that drives pride, that drives us to seek better places at tables, to prop ourselves up is that we don’t always remember who we are already in God and the greatness we bear as his beloved children. We seek worldly honors, esteem, and perches because we don’t recognize how much God esteems and loves us, how much he’s honored us by adopting us into the royal family, and how he already has ready for us the greatest seats of all in heaven, provided that we’re able to abase ourselves on earth enough to be exalted to take those exalted places at the eternal banquet. We seek after human respect, worldly titles and positions is because, psychologically, we think we need them. The more we focus on who we are in God’s eyes, the more we will see that worldly honors are a vanity of vanities — and sometimes even a millstone.
Entering into God’s love for others, especially the needy
The more we grow in our awareness of God’s love for us, the more we will grow in awareness of God’s love for others, and that will help us to start to love them, too. That’s the third practice to grow in humility, because it’s that love that will help to foster and sustain humble thoughts and acts of loving service toward others. There would be two ways to throw the type of dinner party for the poor, crippled, lame and blind that Jesus mentions in today’s Gospel. One would be to do it out of largesse, out of a type of condescension, to share our blessings with those who are less fortunate. Such a party might actually make us prouder rather than humbler, if we do it out as a means to show before others our goodness, generosity, and Christian virtue. But there’s another way to throw such a party. We can do so with love. Once we recognize God loves them infinitely, once we see how special the poor are in God’s eyes, we can grow to love them and seek to serve them out of love rather than condescension. And the more we become conscious of their true status before God, we can grow in genuine appreciation of who we are as well. One of the reasons why we fight for seats at tables rather than for towels to wash others’ feet is because we struggle truly to love others. When we love someone, we want them to have the best seats, even if we sit behind them. When we love someone, we want them to be praised, well-fed, helped, and happy. That’s why when we grow in love of others such that we serve them willingly, we become humbler without often even knowing it. .
Making humble and regular confessions
The fourth practice Jesus wants to teach us to grow in humility is Sacrament of Penance, which he himself established on the day he rose from the dead so that through reconciliation we could participate in the joy of his resurrection and hear the Father say to us, “My Son was dead but has come to life again” (Lk 15:24). In the Sacrament of Confession, we recognize our weak clay, we examine our failings and sins, but even more importantly, we recognize the infinite treasure of God’s mercy and go humbly to ask him for forgiveness and help. There’s no better way to fight against pride than humbly to examine our consciences and to see that we’re not who we ought to be, that in our thoughts, words, acts and omissions, we have “greatly sinned” and strayed big time from the path of Christ’s footsteps, and come to God for forgiveness and help. The fact that we kneel when we go to confession is itself a practice that helps us to mature in humility. The fact that we often have to confess the same sins over and over again — that no matter how hard we try, we still have a temper, or give into impatience, or walk straight back into occasions of sin — likewise helps us to remember both our weakness as well as the treasure of God’s patience and paternal kindness. If we’re not regularly going to confession, it’s likely that one of the reasons is a lack of humility, a pride that convinces us that we don’t really have any sins or that our sins aren’t “that bad,” or a pride that says, “I’ll confess my sins directly to God,” rather than confess our sins in the way Jesus himself established through his Church. To grow in humility, Jesus wants to teach us one-on-one in the Sacrament of Mercy, but we need to go to him as we learn humility of heart as his heart opens with blood and water to cleanse us from our sins.
The fifth practice Christ teaches us is to accept sufferings and humiliations well. We can’t be human without experiencing suffering, embarrassment, put downs, and other highly unpleasant circumstances. But these things can make us bitter or better, depending on whether we relate them to the Lord and allow him to draw good out of them. When a proud, self-reliant man gets so sick that he gets hospitalized and becomes so dependent that a nurse even has to change his bedpans, it can make him humble really quick if he responds to the help with gratitude rather than grumbling. When a couple or a family experiences a job loss and has to ask family members, or neighbors, or the Church, or even the government for help, it can be a great opportunity to grow in humility and appreciation for the love of others. When we’ve got a critic who just thinks we can never do anything right, who rides us, always assuming the worst, it can make us either proud or rebellious or it can be a chance for us to grow in humility, because even if they’re off on the actual things for which they’re criticizing us, there could be many other things they don’t know for which we’d be able to be justly criticized. The cross of suffering and humiliations can help us to die to our ego, and one of the reasons why God allows us to endure such things is precisely because they can help us grow in humility, and growth in this virtue far outweighs whatever we “lose” in such circumstances.
Praying humbly for humility
The sixth practice to grow in humility is humble prayer. Not all prayer is humble. Jesus told a parable of the two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a despised tax collector and the other a respected Pharisee. The tax collector sat in the back beating his chest and crying, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” The Pharisee, on the other hand, sat in the front to be noticed and prayed aloud thanking God for not making him a loser like so many others, but rather one who said his prayers, paid his tithes, and did his fasts and so on — forgetting all the while that he was full of pride, judgmentalism, and arrogance, sins perhaps more deadly than the sins of the publican to whom he was comparing himself. Jesus tells us that only one of the two left the Temple in a right relationship with God, the humble tax collector, not the self-righteous proud Pharisee.
We, too, are called to pray humbly and to pray specifically for the gift of humility. One of the most helpful prayers I’ve ever found to do this is Cardinal Merry del Val’s Litany of Humility, which I’ve been praying, almost every day, for 23 years, because all my life I’ve been battling against the capital vice of pride. Just yesterday, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Pietro Parolin as Vatican Secretary of State (basically #2 in the Vatican behind the Pope) and many noted that at 58 years old, he’s one of the youngest Secretaries of States in decades. But Merry del Val was only 38 when Pope St. Pius X gave him these responsibilities a century ago. He was highly capable, fluent in many languages, the son of a union between Spanish and English nobles, with many spiritual gifts. It was unsurprising that many were slotting him for even greater things as the next pope. It was easy for all of this to go to his head. So he composed a Litany of Humility, one of the most daring prayers ever written, which I’d like to share with you because if we can truly pray this prayer, it will help us to understand what humility is and grow in it. (I’ll print it in next weekend’s bulletin so that you can make this prayer your own.)
The prayer begins by turning Jesus and begging, ““O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, hear me.” Then the Litany is broken down into two parts. The first part asks Jesus to deliver us from bad or proud desires and from the fears that we have of the process to become more humble. The second part prays for the good desires we’re supposed to have in order to become humble like Jesus.
Among the proud desires and the fears, Cardinal del Val prayed and encouraged us to pray, “Deliver me, Jesus, from the desire of being loved, from the desire of being extolled, from the desire of being honored, from the desire of being praised, from the desire of being preferred to others, from the desire of being consulted, from the desire of being approved.” The fact is that all of us naturally prefer to be loved, extolled, honored, praised, preferred, consulted and approved, but we do this because, frankly, we’re not really conscious of how much God loves, extol, and honors us, and so we seek these things from others.
Cardinal Merry del Val than turns to our fears, praying, “Deliver me, Jesus, from the fear of being humiliated, from the fear of being despised, from the fear of suffering rebukes, from the fear of being calumniated, from the fear of being forgotten, from the fear of being ridiculed, from the fear of being wronged, from the fear of being suspected.” Likewise, none of us wants to be humiliated, despised, suffer rebukes, calumniated, forgotten, ridiculed, wronged and suspected — even though Jesus endured of these things throughout in his public ministry and particularly in his passion and we look to him on the Cross as the happiest man who has ever lived and we claim to be following him along that path. That’s why we need to pray to Jesus, meek and humble of heart, to free us from the fear of being humble and from the fear of the path that will help us become humble.
Lastly Cardinal Merry del Val’s Litany of Humility has us pray for the desires that should fill our hearts. He writes, “Jesus grant me the grace to desire… That others may be esteemed more than I, that, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, that others may be chosen and I set aside, that others may be praised and I unnoticed, that others may be preferred to me in everything, that others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should.” That is basically a prayer to help us to love as God calls us to love. When we love others, we want the best for them, we want them to be esteemed, chosen, praise, preferred and holy. We care about their good more than our own. We receive great joy when they’re blessed. And we lose ourselves in this love of others. That’s what we’re asking in this prayer. And when God grants these prayers, and others are kept on the team and we’re cut, others get the promotion and we stay in the same position, another is asked to the prom by the person on whom we had our eyes, the truly humble person rejoices in the other’s fortune.
That’s a hard prayer to pray, because it goes against so much of the way our heart works. It points to the fact that growth in humility is very hard work. It’s hard to become small, to serve others unselfishly, to affirm them even at our own expense. It’s hard to become small enough to fit through the narrow gate and the eye of the needle. But it’s what Jesus himself did for us and the humility of his divinity is so much greater than the humility needed in our humanity.
Pondering and entering into communion with Jesus’ humility in the Eucharist
The seventh and the last practice is the Holy Eucharist, which is the greatest means of all that we can learn from Jesus who is meek and humble of heart. St. Paul marveled in his Letter to the Philippians we heard earlier that even though Jesus was God, he didn’t grasp onto this identity but emptied himself, took on our nature, the form of a slave, and in humility became obedient even to death. Here in the Eucharist his humility goes even further than that. On the Cross he hid only his divinity; here he hides even his humanity under the appearances of simple bread and wine. He abased himself this much because he loves us this much. He became so small in order to feed us, to serve us, to change us, to make us holy from the inside. It’s here that we learn from him likewise how to become small and humble, how to decrease so that he and others can increase, so that together with him we can go out to serve others in such a way that through us and our Christian example, they might themselves follow us on the via humilitatis and be exalted by God forever. As we come to receive Jesus in Holy Communion today or make our spiritual communions if we can’t receive today, let us ask him, for others first and for ourselves second, “O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts humble like yours!” Amen!