The virtue of humility is a good one to reflect upon during the season of Lent. Humility and holiness go hand in hand. Humility is something that is often misunderstood and an unhealthy understanding of it is not beneficial to the spiritual life. However, the proper understanding of humility not only deepens our relationship with God, it is the very foundation of it. In reality, humility is part of the life of God Himself and that is why it is always reflected in the lives of the saints.
In his homily on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis reflected on the foundation of what humility is all about. His words certainly demonstrate how humility is part of the life of God and how Christ lived this humility as an example for each of us in following Him. The Pope expressed that “Lent is a humble descent both inwards and towards others. It is about realizing that salvation is not an ascent to glory, but a descent in love.” Jesus’ ascent to glory was in His becoming one of us in love and taking our human nature to Himself. Jesus’ ascent to glory was precisely His descent in love through which He went to the Cross and gave His life out of love for us in order that we might have life. God’s humility is well expressed on Ash Wednesday in the words of Saint Paul, “God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
The English word "humility" is derived from the Latin word, humilis, which means lowly and near to the ground, humus. Its basic meaning is that we have not given existence to ourselves but reminds us that God has given existence to us from the earth He created. As the account of creation in the Book of Genesis tells us, "The Lord God formed man from the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being" (Gen 2:7). To be humble means to recognize that our existence revolves around our relationship with God who created us precisely for that relationship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that humility is the virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good and that this virtue is the very foundation of prayer.
During this season of Lent, it is especially significant to realize that God, the author of all creation, showed Himself humble in the Person of Jesus Christ. It is precisely for this reason that the saints strive for humility which is the fabric of their lives. The richness of the great hymn from St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians is one that can never be exhausted through our meditation upon it. It is the Magna Carta of the virtue of humility which tells us that we must have the same attitude of Jesus Christ, "Who, 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; and found human in appearance, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:6 - 8). These are the crowning words of Holy Week in the Easter Triduum before we celebrate at Easter the fullness of the second part of that great hymn, "Because of this, God greatly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:9 - 11). Christ’s decent in love is His ascent in glory.
In His ministry, Jesus constantly shows Himself to be the model of humility and reminds us that we must imitate His humility if we are truly to be exalted. Continually in the Gospels, Jesus calls us to humility and invites us to "learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29). He gives us the sterling example of humility when He washes His apostles’ feet at the Last Supper, which we will commemorate on Holy Thursday, and tells us, "I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (Jn 13:15).
Among the saints, Mary presents to us an example of humility paralleled to her Son’s. Always in the background, she rejoices in the relationship she has with God which is what brings her joy and exalts her above all others. Her Magnificat, her prayer of thanksgiving, expresses this so well. "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For He has looked upon His handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on all ages will call me blessed” (Lk 1:46-48). Mary realizes that she deserves none of the graces received from God, but she accepts them gratefully from God who bestowed them upon her. Her humility deepens her relationship with God.
In reflecting on humility, it is important to understand that one of the outstanding qualities of the saints is their ability to enable others to be themselves in their presence. The saints have no pretension about themselves and therefore others are able to be at home with them. This is why Jesus can invite others to come to Him because He is humble of heart. This is why Elizabeth is able to be so joyful in Mary’s presence that even the baby in her womb, John the Baptist, leaps for joy (cf. Lk 1:39-45). This quality of welcoming acceptance flows from the saints’ humility and their realization of their complete dependence upon God. Such welcoming is quite obvious in the lives of modern-day saints such as Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. It is also obvious to us from the lives of those who have gone before us with whom we have lived and feel certain that they are now saints in God’s presence.
As we continue with this season of Lent, humility is a wonderful virtue to reflect upon. The more we humble ourselves by realizing our dependence upon God, who freely gives Himself to us so that we might have a relationship with Him, the more we grow in grace and peace. God’s humility is evident in the Person of Jesus Christ. The saints reflect His humility in their lives and invite us to that same humility which is the foundation of our relationship with God.
As we contemplate the humility of Jesus who ascended to glory by His descent in love, in the Ash Wednesday words of Pope Francis, “Let us stand before the Cross of Jesus: the silent throne of God. Let us daily contemplate His wounds, the wounds that He brought to heaven and shows daily to the Father in His prayer of intercession. Let us daily contemplate those wounds. In them, we recognize our emptiness, our shortcomings, the wounds of our sin and all the hurt we have experienced. Yet there too, we see clearly that God points His finger at no one, but rather opens His arms to embrace us.”
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
March 5, 2021