Tonight I'll be speaking at the monthly All-Night Vigil in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The theme is "Humility and Obedience" and the topic I've been given is "Humility."
In Matthew 23: 12 Jesus says: "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted." This is a paradox that once again shows us God's ways are not ours. Humility leads to exaltation? Becoming low leads to being raised up? This is clearly not the way of the world.
Humility is about truth, about accepting the truth that I am a creature. The root of humility is the Latin word "humus" or earth. I am of the earth. Without God, I am nothing. This is reality.
But we, like our ancestral parents, tend to avoid and deny reality. The Original Sin and in fact every sin is a denial of the fact that we are creatures. As Adam and Eve chose to be "like gods" who choose for themselves what is good and what is bad (Genesis 3: 5), so do we, when we sin, try to do things our way rather than God's way. We grasp, as our first parents did, at equality with God.
The result was immediate: "the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked" (Genesis 3: 7). They became self-conscious, self-centered. Their focus became "ME - ME - ME." Just count the number of times Adam refers to himself in the short response to God's question "Where are you?" He said: "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself."
The antidote to this self-centeredness is humility. The best definition of humility that I've heard is this: Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. It's not putting yourself down and beating yourself up but getting yourself out of your self-conscious spotlight.
Jesus, who said "I am meek and humble of heart" (Matthew 11: 29), is the best example of this. He was not self-centered. Philippians 2: 6-9 says that Jesus, "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness, ... he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him...."
Jesus emptied himself of himself, of any self-consciousness. He was so other-conscious--conscious of both the Father and his brothers and sisters--that there was no internal spotlight focused on himself. What made him so unself-conscious? His relationship with the Father. He was so firm in his identity as the Beloved Son that he had nothing to prove. As a result, people flocked to him and wanted to know the secret of his happiness and peace.
We are called to be like Jesus. Every Lent we enter into a period designed to lead us through a process of conversion in which we die to ourselves in order to live more like Jesus. We begin Lent by getting in touch with reality. Ashes are put on our heads and we are told that we are dust, "humus," earth, nothing really. We are dust that is alive for a while but that will return to dust once again.
But remember where Lent ends--with Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. We are precious dust. To God, we are precious enough to die for, precious enough to be given the very Body and Blood of the Son, precious enough to be raised up as Jesus himself was. In God's eyes we are special, we are important.
Thus there is no need to "grasp at equality with God" like our ancestral parents. There is no need to exalt ourselves. Firm in our identity as Jesus was, we know there is nothing we need to prove, there is no need to exalt ourselves, no need to look good in front of others. We can get the spotlight off ourselves and focus all our attention on our God and our neighbors and in doing so we will find true happiness and peace.