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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Humility of God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
As we begin our reflections on the divine attributes revealed by God become Man, a panorama opens up that would never have been visible except for the Incarnation. We can now see who God is and how he relates to the world he made as we could never in our wildest dreams have perceived before the coming of Christ. That is why Christianity is the fulfillment of man's thirst for his knowledge of God; and only Christianity can satisfy that thirst.
We begin with what must seem like an unlikely attribute of the Creator of heaven and earth: the humility of God. I plan to cover the following aspects of this oceanic subject: first, the Incarnation as the humiliation of God; then, the humility of Christ himself as he practiced during his stay on earth; third, Christ's teaching on the virtue and practice of humility; finally with all this breathtaking panorama about the humility of God, what is our responsibility?
We begin by observing that the Incarnation is the humiliation of God. Because whatever else humility is, it is most certainly self-abasement, a lowering of oneself. 'Humilis' in Latin is the adjective corresponding to 'humis' which means, in plain, ordinary classic Latin, dirt. Plain, ordinary, black dirt. For hundreds of years the word humilis in Latin meant earthy, dirty, unkempt. With the dawn of Christianity all the words of a pagan vocabulary before change their meaning.
A classic passage in divine revelation for the Incarnation as the humiliation of God occurs in St. Paul's second chapter of his letter to the Philippians. Pauline exhorting those whom he is writing to to humility, says, Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death on the Cross."
Let's briefly go over what St. Paul told the Philippians of his day and is telling the Philippians of all times including us. The most difficult virtue for a human being to practice is humility. Consequently, in the first century as in the twentieth century the followers of Christ must be powerfully motivated to practice humility; and the deepest motive that St. Paul, under divine inspiration, could give us is the fact that God became man: he humbled himself. A perfect revealed description of the Incarnation is God humbling himself so that we proud creatures of flesh might be humble. We are not naturally humble. And the primary grace we need to even become humble, let alone grow in humility, is grace in the mind. We must see more clearly and more deeply what we already believe, to see that the Incarnation was God humiliating himself to teach us, so that like him we too might be humble.
In the same context, the Holy Spirit told Paul to write in Greek 'kenosis.' Completely, as far as God could, he emptied himself of all the glory that as God he had a title to. God could not have become less than a human being. The lowest rank of creature that God could become identified with was human beings. We do not doubt we are dealing with a mystery, but mysteries are not revealed truths that we know nothing about, mysteries are revealed truths that we do not know everything about. By his Incarnation God humbled himself to the limits of divine ingenuity. What a lesson for us! Where will you find a person, I don't say who accepts all the humiliation that comes into his life, but goes beyond that in even wondering: "How can I become more humble? What is the most humiliating thing that God could do? The most humiliating thing, as far as our faith will allow us to say it, that God himself could do was to become one of his creatures and not even an angel but a man.
The humility of Christ. Everything in Christ's earthly life from conception to the grave, everything was a manifestation of that incredible attribute of God: his humility. And we don't even need to be literate to be able to understand this kind of humility. He came into the world as a speechless infant. And this is the almighty Word of God who by his Word the world came into being. He hid what he had and who he was. For nine months he was hidden in his mother's womb; for thirty years he lived, as faith tells us, in total obscurity. Then in his public life from the moment he began to preach and proclaim the Gospel he was not accepted even by his fellow Nazarenes, remember? Small wonder that he had so few true followers.
The modern world tells us if you want people to appreciate you, if you want them to recognize you, the last thing you do is to go into hiding, and the last thing you tell people to do is what they don't like to do. That's the central theme of Carnegie's book "How to Win Friends and Influence People," of whose sales there were five million. Christ found a way of making enemies and irritating people, and he did so by the simple expedient of being himself and telling people the truth. If you want a lot of friends do not tell them the truth.
He taught the apostles, his chosen followers far into the night. What happened? They just didn't get it. I can speak from experience; the most humiliating thing for a teacher is to see that his students just don't get it.
Christ experienced opposition on all sides. What a contrast in the six days from Palm Sunday to Good Friday! "Hosanna, hosanna," the crowd shouted on Palm Sunday, and on Good Friday: "Crucify him!" One thing that Christ teaches us is the fickleness of human praise.
Christ was betrayed by one of his own followers, scourged and crowned with thorns. Why did he allow it? Remember, he is God. But Christ wanted to make sure that we understand what it means not only to reluctantly accept humiliation, but seek humiliation, surely welcome it when it comes.
Christ's teaching of humility. Christ taught first of all by example. Remember when the Baptist remonstrated with the Master on the shore of the Jordan? John couldnt bring himself to do it. "Look, I should be baptized by you," in effect telling Christ, "Please get out of the water." And Jesus told him, "No, that's the way it must be; thats the way the prophecies about me are to be fulfilled."
He is to be a suffering servant. We see his long years of subjection to two of his own creatures, Mary and Joseph, holy people; but they were creatures.
And then there is that unforgettable scene at the Last Supper. Just before he was going to undergo his passion, the one thing Christ made absolutely sure, the last lesson he would teach his apostles was a lesson in humility. He took a pan of water and a towel and started with Peter. But Peter, "Not me, Lord; that's beneath you." "But, Peter, if I don't wash your feet, you cannot be my disciple." "Oh, all right, wash them."
Christ's teaching of humility in speech, in word. "Take up my yoke upon you and learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart: and you shall find rest for your souls." (Mt 11:29) To follow Christ, to carry his yoke, to be his disciple there is no choice; either we are going to be humble and be disciples of Christ, or no matter what vesture we may have around us, no matter what name people may give us, we are only as true followers of Christ as we are humble. Then he gives his promise: "and you shall find rest for your souls." And he's not only talking about that final eternal rest to which we all aspire. I have yet to meet a proud tranquil person. Proud people are worried; proud people are disturbed; proud people are restless. What a task we have to examine our lives and to ask ourselves: "How truly am I a follower of Christ, judging by my preoccupation with so many things? How little it takes to disturb me."
"Whosoever will be greater among you, let him be your servants; even as the Son of Man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a redemption for many." (Mk 43:45) Christ practiced superhuman humility in order to teach us that if we are going to grow in virtue we must start with humility. There is no virtue which is not weakened, which is not diseased, which is not infected unless that virtue is possessed in humility.
"I am in the midst of you as he that serves." (Lk 22:25) Human beings do not like to be beholding or dependent to anyone. The self-will of a three year old! We don't have to learn pride, we are born with it. It is humility that we've got to keep learning and relearning. And the great teacher and master of humility is God become Man.
"You call me Master and Lord; and you say well, for so I am. If I then being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also." (Jn 13:13-15) May I suggest that at least once a day you recall what Christ told his disciples and is telling us everyday. "Whose feet, practically speaking, have I washed today? Before whom have I allowed myself to be humiliated or lowered in that person's estimation?
Our responsibility. The foundation for the following of Christ on its moral side is not only the practice of humility but growth in humility. Jesus Christ is both our model and inspiration for both the practice of humility and growth in the virtue. He is also the source of grace that we need to be able to become humble.
The great St. Teresa of Avila defined humility as the truth. There are two parts of this reflection on the meaning of humility as truth. On the one hand humility does not overreach oneself. Humility is a true estimate I have of myself, recognizing who I am, and not making claims or boasts for what I do not possess. And Christ surely did not overreach himself.
When is humility truth? When we think and act like we really are, and we do not have any higher estimation of who we are or what we can do than really and truly is the case. To maintain and grow in our humility in following Christ, we must keep reminding ourselves of who we are: we are creatures. God the Creator became one of his own creatures in order to protect us from the folly of thinking more of ourselves than we really are. We are, except for God, absolutely nothing.
Even as Christ revealed his own dependence on the heavenly Father, he showed dependence on Mary and Joseph, dependence on the Jewish Sanhedrin that finally brought him to his death. I strongly recommend that you decide on what ways everyday you can protect yourself from your pride. We are all proud. And the only way known to God and to man for lessening our pride is to walk the hard, rough, road of humiliation. Welcome the humiliations in your life; cherish them; thank God for receiving them. Remember, the royal road of humility is paved with the sharp stones of humiliations. We don't have to go around asking people: "I need more humility, would you mind humiliating me?" They may say, "You idiot!" and we should say, "Thanks."
That's the first meaning of our humility in the following of Christ, in not overestimating, overreaching ourselves. But there is another side to humility. Here again, the Son of God in human form is our perfect model to imitate. Humility does not mean under reaching ourselves. Whatever we are, everything we have is a constant merciful gift from God. We were nothing but we are not nothing now. We are children of God; we are loved by God; we do possess graces and gifts, talents and abilities that God wants us to put into constant practice. The hardest thing for many people is to balance these two forms of humility. Now some people don't have much problem with the first kind of humility: they don't have much, but they will find something in human nature to be proud of. But there are other people who are not to under reach themselves with the gifts, the talents and the graces that God gives them. Behind that statement stands the mountain which we just began to scale some days ago, in saying that God never gives any grace to us in order just to be stared at or hugged for ourselves. We are to be channels of grace for others. Gifted people can, in their pride, not exert themselves, not put into use, not be honest with God and use the gifts which he gave them, always for his own glory and correspondingly for the good of souls.
St. Bernard relates on one occasion he was to speak to a multitude of thousands of people. As he walked up to the pulpit he said to himself: "Bernard, get down. You are going to preach this homily so people will think how eloquent Bernard is." For a moment he hesitated, then he told the devil: "You liar. I did not prepare this sermon for my glory and I will not stop from giving it because you tell me I am going to be proud of what people will think of me because I am such an eloquent orator."
The more gifted we are, the more talents and graces God has given us, let's not do what the man in the parable of the talents did. It is just that gifted people will have to work harder, much harder to remain humble than those who are less gifted than they.
Christ, the living God, is our perfect model for the imitation that we need to practice the humility that God became Man mainly to teach us. God abased himself - that's what kenosis in Greek means - he abased himself to the limit, to teach us, proud creatures, the meaning of humility. But Christ never allowed anyone to doubt who he was, and what he should do. He did the will of his Father, was faithful to what the Father wanted even though it meant working astounding miracles.
The Litany of Humility was composed by the Secretary of State of St. Pius X, Cardinal Merry del Val. Anyone who knows the history of St. Pius X will appreciate the depth of meaning and the ocean of grace that his secretary obtained for himself and for the Vicar of Christ by living up to the invocations of this litany of humility.
"Lord Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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