Tuesday, September 03, 2013

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C: Pride, Poverty, and True Humility

During my seminary years, I had what’s called a Pastoral Year. This is a time when a seminarian spends an academic year out of seminary, between the second and third years of Theology, and in a parish in his home diocese. I was at St. Athanasius in Louisville. During that year, I had an experience of both pride and humility that I’ll never forget.

We were coming near to Holy Week and I had been feverishly preparing for the Easter Vigil. Even though the Easter Vigil had been going on like clockwork since long before I got there, I was determined to have everything figured out. Since I was going to serve the Mass, I poured over all the documents and instructions pertaining to the Easter Vigil, and made pages of notes, so that I could know exactly how everything should happen. It was a very prideful attitude for me to have. The pastor there at the time, Fr. Terry Bradshaw, very wisely left me to my devices. He knew before I did that I would learn from this. One should always prepare well for liturgy, but never think himself its master.

When the Easter Vigil finally came, I was a nervous wreck. But, I had a pretty good relationship with the sacristan so I was kidding with her a little bid in order to ease the tension. In the midst of that I said an off-color remark that hurt her feelings and she walked away sad. This was 15 minutes before the Easter Vigil was about to begin. I was crushed. I felt like the scum of the earth. Even after I apologized to her, I still felt terrible.

But it didn’t stop there. I forgot all about the careful preparation I had done, I forgot all about my notes. I was thrown all out of whack. On my way into the Church from the Easter Fire, instead of holding the paschal candle by the base, I held it by the candle itself and the base went crashing down on the tile, making a terrible noise. After that I sulked and moped throughout the entire Mass. After all my prideful preparation, after thinking I could be the master of this liturgy, God allowed me to be humbled in a profound way. He allowed all my preparation to come tumbling down. And of course, everything still went smoothly.

I think God allows that to happen to us because pride is one of the biggest obstacles that comes between us and Him. When Jesus was invited to a banquet at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, he knew the room would be filled with people watching carefully his every move, conniving and scheming for a way to trap him. But he went because he loved them too. He did not write them off as being beyond salvation. He took the opportunity to teach them a lesson that he hoped would soften their hearts toward him. He wanted them to see that despite their lofty position in society, the state of their souls was quite low. In that way they were the poorest of the poor.

When he saw them clamoring for the highest positions at table once they had all gathered there, he no doubt had pity on them. In his Sacred Heart reverberated our responsorial psalm today. “The Father of orphans and the defender of widows – is God in his holy dwelling – God gives a home to the forsaken – he leads forth prisoners to prosperity.” In their worldly exaltedness and their spiritual depravity, the Pharisees had orphaned themselves from the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had spurned Lady Wisdom – she is a widow in relation to them. But God the Son, Jesus Christ, enters the home of the forsaken to offer them a new home in his heart. He leads forth those imprisoned to sin to the prosperity of the freedom of innocence by challenging them to take first the lowest place at the table, rather than presuming that they deserve the highest place. He warns them that if they exalt themselves in the eyes of the world, then they lower themselves in the eyes of God. “My child, conduct your affairs with humility,” Ben Sirach advises his grandson in the first reading, “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.”

You and I must carefully examine how humility and pride characterize our lives. Pride sneaks into our lives quietly but can soon become a roaring lion. We can have a string of successes or favors and then all of a sudden, it’s “all about me.” “Look at how good I did, look at how successful I was!” We’re the first to brag about our successes and we want to be the center of attention. We want more and more, to advance our own position and we forget the needs of those around us, those looking to us for help. Pride is the worst kind of poverty. It stores up worldly praise, treasure, and ambition that fade away like vapor and is empty of the life of God and the spiritual riches that have eternal significance.

But, this is not to say that we should walk around gloomy and sulking – as I did during that Easter Vigil several years ago after feeling so terrible for what I had said. God doesn’t want gloomy Christians either. Being humble does not mean being constantly self-deprecating which is so tiring to one’s family and friends. This is a false humility – a humility that springs from a desire to appear humble rather than springing from a true humbled and contrite heart. We also see this in those who have an almost belligerent rejection of the charity of another or of proper praise when it is due. “No, No, No! That wasn’t nearly as good a homily as it could have been! Well, I got through it! Eh, it was OK… it wasn’t that great” – those kinds of statements often come from a false humility. Another funny example is what you can sometimes witness in a restaurant – the feverish competition to see who will pick up the tab – “Oh, allow me! Oh, no I couldn’t! Oh, but I insist! Oh, no please let me!” and there is this game of hot potato back and forth with the bill and the cash until someone ends up sliding money through the window of the car or hiding it in the other’s pocket! What we often forget is that accepting charity is an act of humility.

Humility is not a gloominess or a stubborn refusal of help or appreciation. It is simply an accurate estimation of one’s standing before God and of one’s situation. To adamantly reject the notion that we need or could use help in a given moment is to have an inaccurate estimation of our sinfulness, weakness, and room for growth. Only after we acknowledge how much help we truly need, will God be able to provide for those needs, to lift us up by the hand, and exalt us in the spiritual life.

This authentic humility brings peace and calmness. It comes naturally. It is attractive, it is gracious, it is welcoming. It is steady and even-keeled. It is joyful because it finds its sustenance through reliance on God who never fails, rather than on itself who often fails. Humility says, “Thank you very much, I appreciate that” when a comment is given. It says, “Well, that’s very generous of you, God bless you” when a friend offers to pick up the check. It carries always on its lips the song of Mary: “the Almighty has done great things for me and Holy is His Name. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty…” and the Glory be, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

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