Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily, Sept 1, 2013, "Progressing Towards Humility", Fr. Grégoire Catta, SJ


Sunday September 1st, 2013 – SMA
Luke 14: 7-14 ; Sirach 3:17-18,20,28-29; Heb12:18-19,22-24

The message of today’s readings is pretty simple and rather straight forward. “My child, conduct your affairs with humility… the more you Humble yourself, the greater you are,” we’ve heard in the book of Sirach. And Jesus in the gospel: “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” We’re invited to humility. We are invited to cultivate the virtue of humility as the surest path towards the kingdom of God. Once St Augustine wrote to a friend: “I wish you would submit with sincere piety to Him and not seek any other way to abiding truth but the one shown us by Him… This way consists first of humility, second of humility, and third, of humility…” Pretty clear!

Ok! So let’s cultivate the virtue of humility. But what are we talking about? What is humility? Let’s be clear from the beginning, humility is not about being passive in front of humiliations caused by injustices, by the non-recognition of our dignity as human beings, neither it is a form of masochism… It’s not about thinking that the more I suffer, the more it pleases to God. No!

A good way of understanding what the virtue of humility is about, is to take a general definition given by Fr. Jim Keenan, one of my professors of moral theology. Humility is the virtue of discerning one’s place in the world or the community. What is my place in the world? What is my place in this world created, loved and redeemed by God? First of all, I have to recognize that I am not the source of my own life, that I came in this world not by my own will but ultimately by the will and the love of God; that I’m not all powerful, that there are things that I received, like my body, elements of my character, talents, weaknesses etc. which with I have to deal simply because I’m not the creator of myself. In our era of high technology and incredible progress of medical possibilities, this is an important reminder! Technical and scientific progress allows us to do a lot of things on the human body. But are they oriented towards becoming more human, in the humility of recognizing our status of creatures, or towards having absolute control on the person I am just like if I had created myself, choosing the color of my skin, my external appearance, etc…

Recognizing my place in the world has also certainly something to do with recognizing that the creation around me is loved by God as well. Although we have the capacity, and in a certain sense the duty, to till the earth and master over it as it is said in the book of Genesis, it’s always to be done while remembering that we are only stewards, not creators, not all-powerful masters. We have to behave like God behaves with what he created by love. This has clear consequences concerning our duty to protect the creation, to care for it, and there is a lot to do today, we know it very well! So yes being environmentally concerned is certainly a dimension of being virtuously humble in front of God’s creation.

Humility is the virtue of discerning one’s place in the world, says Fr. Keenan, but also in the community. On this the gospel of today is very enlightening. How do I discern what my place is in the human community? What is my place among the various human groups I belong to? There are actually two parables in what Jesus tells us today and they bring an answer to our question at 2 levels.

The first level is to recognize that we might be a little too optimistic about our situation and that humility calls for being prudent. Better to evaluate ourselves too low and then be upgraded by someone else than the reverse. In a very hierarchical society like the one of Jesus, at banquets places are very important and reflect the social position. So what Jesus says about not sitting too high on the scale of honors in order not to have the shame of being asked to move is really simply basic common sense. Today in the United States we live in a much more egalitarian society, with much less protocol for meals but we can still pretty well understand the image. It remains, basically, human wisdom, no more. Discerning one’s place in the community is first of all not presuming of one capacities, talents, resources etc…

However, Jesus brings the teaching to a second level with his other advice to the host who invited him. Do not invite those who can repay you in return but invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind… That’s not human wisdom! That is on the contrary, completely counter-cultural, in Jesus’ times just like in ours! Discerning one’s place in the society, calls for looking at things the way God looks at things. And how does God see the society? He dwells where the poor, the lame, the blind, and all the oppressed are. God’s place in the society is here. Let’s just look at the cross: this is where God dwells. It means that if we really take Jesus as our model, if we really search for God, our place as well ought to be with the poor, the lame, the blind, whoever they are in our times. Some of us are there by choice, progressing counter-culturally towards greater humility. Some are there because of the circumstances: they are poor, they are oppressed, they did not choose it. It’s a fact. In both cases, the whole Bible tells us that really this is where God dwells! Not to justify the injustice or the sufferings but to be with those who fight for justice, share with those who suffer, heal those who are wounded. And God’s way of acting here is what we contemplate in Jesus: the way of the cross, the way of non-violence, the way of forgiveness. We celebrated this week the 50th anniversary of Dr King great discourse, “I have a dream.” What an example he is of Jesus’s way of being with the oppressed, fighting with them with non-violent weapons! Discerning one’s place in the society, for Jesus’ followers cannot be elsewhere than where Jesus was, preferentially with the poor and oppressed – note that this does not impede him to dine with rich and powerful Pharisees –. Here lies the virtue of humility: being close to God by being close to the poor.

Discerning one’s place in the world and in the community, this is a workable definition of humility that we can keep today. Following Jesus in today’s gospel it will lead us to go where God preferentially goes; to the poor and rejected of our times. On this road we have a great predecessor: Mary, our mother. In her canticle of thanksgiving she says: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked upon his lowly servant… He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.” Mary, model of humility, pray for us!

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