September 2, 2007
Readings: Sir 3:17-18,20,28-29 / Heb 12:18-19,22-24a / Lk 14:1,7-14
Today is a Sunday of highs and lows. Sirach counsels us to find meaning in being “low,” a trait which he says, should be inversely proportional to our being “high” up there. “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are” (1st Reading). The letter to the Hebrews takes as a given our having “approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God.” In and through Jesus, “the mediator of a new covenant,” we have received the singular grace of being in the presence of the “ecclesia” – the gathering of “countless angels in heaven” (2nd reading).
At first blush, there seems to be something incongruous, if not contradictory, in the first two readings. The first extols lowliness and humility. The second proclaims the singular grace of Christians being able to go up the mountain of the Lord – Mount Zion. The first glorifies lowliness, and counsels us to seek not, and search not, for what is above our strength. The second simply declares the egregious fact of our having been made close to God. The two readings seem to be saying in effect: we are lowly, but we are exalted by no less than God in Jesus Christ, and thus, made worthy to approach the city of God.
This is definitely a day of lows and highs.
But more seeming contradictions are in the offing. The Alleluia verse, which comes right after the 2nd reading upgrades us, so to say, and lifts our morales up by speaking of our closeness to the living God who dwells in the highest heavens, puts us back down once again: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29, Acclamation before the Gospel).
Indeed, today is a day of highs and lows.
But the Gospel passage seems to be the real clincher. Where society’s usual tendency is to seek for places of honor, and for people to exalt themselves, the Lord does the exact opposite. By means of the parable, Jesus counsels us to seek for the lowest places. This is counterintuitive. In a world where “everybody loves Raymund” seems to be the centerpiece of our “self-promoting and narcissistic culture,” Jesus tells us not to get above ourselves. He apparently tells us to avoid the “highs” and prefer the “lows.” But the parable has a surprise, almost “fairy tale-like,” ending, as if to tell us: “Don’t get above yourself, so that God could set you beyond yourself.”
So, is this Sunday’s liturgy really one of highs and lows?
Yes … God wants and wills to exalt us. This, the letter to the Hebrews declares matter-of-factly. We have drawn near to Mount Zion and the city of the living God. He has come to draw us up higher in and through Christ.
No … God does not want nor will that we should get above ourselves. Today’s liturgical readings are a reality check. We are wisely counseled to take care that we do not exalt ourselves unilaterally: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Gospel). The reality is that, being poor and lowly, powerless and small, we can only proclaim in profuse thanks the equally egregious reality that all we have is God’s generous gift: “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor” (Responsorial Psalm). And what is that place, according to the Bible? “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
Yes … God does want us to go up higher. This much, the parable makes clear and sure. After putting oneself in the right place – the lowest, the least, and the last – the Lord tells us: “Amice, ascende superius” (Come on up, my friend, to a higher place, Lk 14:10). God tells us to follow not the ways of the world, which tends to always seek selfishly for endless self-promotion, but to follow his ways, for he “humbles the mighty, and exalts the lowly to high places.” It is God who exalts. It is God who gives, and it is He who alone does for us according to what we all deserve.
Yes … today is a day of highs and lows. We are all high in the estimation of God. “We all share in the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). We have God-given dignity and freedom both of which are “inalienable,” that is, things that cannot be forcibly and unjustly taken away from each one of us. This is a day that speaks rightly of “highs” as far as our dignity as human beings is concerned.
But today, too, is dedicated to our rightful “lows.” Dignity does not give us a blanket permission to treat ourselves more than we really deserve. Pride is not to be taken as part of the package of God’s gifts to us, for God’s favorite virtue is humility.
Pride is to close oneself in on oneself. Pride is self-love pushed to the “highs.” When one is proud, the thermostat of one’s personhood “overheats” and the flames of self-promotion pushes the temperature through the roof. When something overheats, the whole system suffers a meltdown. The higher one goes, the lower one goes crashing down the lowest place of humiliation and embarrassment.
Yes … today is a day of salvific and redemptive “lows.” Jesus tells us to “take his yoke and learn from him,” for he is “meek and humble of heart.”
Yes … there is something salutary and beneficial in being in the “lows” of self-estimation and self-aggrandizement. For when one is down there, there is no way but up. But when one has put oneself up there, there is no way but down. At this point, Jose Garcia Villa, the famous Filipino poet who wrote his poems in English, comes to mind. One of his more memorable lines says: “How high is low, if it resembles high yet not grows? … It expires, as it aspires.” Taking Christ’s yoke is clearly a precondition to “learning.” One can grow, only when one learns to be low. For what good is it even if it “resembles high, yet not grows?”
Humility is being in love with the reality of the lows of our human lives. Humility is truth and the truth is that it is not up to us as human beings to raise ourselves by our own bootstraps, but only up to God, who would tell us at the proper time: “Amice, ascende superius.”
Josh Groban is right. We do not raise ourselves up. No … only God deserves the accolade that he sings about: “You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains; you raise me up, to walk on stormy seas; I am strong, when I am on your shoulders; you raise me up to more than I can be.”
This Sunday of highs and lows thus reminds us of one important thing. We ought not to get above ourselves but go beyond ourselves, beyond power, beyond position, beyond promotion that is shallow. In a word, God calls us to transcendence … “Amice, ascende superius!”
August 28, 2007, Feast of St. Augustine
OSJ Retreat, Marello Retreat House, Tagaytay City
P.S. I thank my OSJ friends and former students for having allowed me to journey with them in this pilgrimage of faith and life. Solvitur ambulando!
Reasons, there are, abounding to aim for greatness, popularity, and power. With so much competition in our postmodern culture that values self-fulfillment and self-realization to the hilt; with so much pressure on us to deliver, perform, and conform to the so-called “norms” of a society that ever hankers for the elusive more and more, who would want to be at the bottom of the heap? Who would want to be left behind by the bandwagon of success and achievement? Why, even the Olympic games go by that catchy battle cry: citius, altius, fortius! (swifter, higher, stronger!)
By comparison, the liturgy today simply sounds so counter-intuitive, so counter-cultural! Whilst the whole world speaks of getting up higher in the rung of worldly importance, and exhorts all and sundry to pull their own strings, and to claim their rightful place under the sun, today’s readings almost sound like a douse of cold water to our raging enthusiasm to excel and be known to many for all we are worth (or at least imagine ourselves to be).
Or are they?
The first reading from Sirach opens, not with a shove towards worldly excellence, but a gentle nudge towards spiritual heights: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility.” Jesus, in the Gospel, affirms the exhortation of Sirach, with a very practical rule for party rats: “do not recline at table in the place of honor.” Consciously working and striving to aggrandize oneself and purposely elevating oneself to a level higher than that of others simply does not belong to Jesus’ new set of “table etiquette” in the Kingdom he has come to establish. The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews gives the context and motivation for such a selfless and lowly stance. Simply put, this world as we know it, is not going to last forever. Sooner than we imagine, the “heavenly Jerusalem” will one day bring to naught all our earthly strivings and all our vainglorious longings for honor, power, and glory.
A sobering thought and a solid reality check all this is!
Today, we are told not simply to be humble. We are also told that there are reasons, too, why we ought to be humble. Let’s get them straight from the horse’s mouth. Sirach tells us that with humility, we “will be loved more than a giver of gifts” and we The letter-writer to the Hebrews reminds us of the ultimate reason to imitate God in his humility … we ““will find favor with God.”approach Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven …” Jesus, for his part, tells us: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Yes, reasons abound for us to work for greatness and supremacy in every imaginable facet of human life. But more compelling reasons abound that show that the virtue of humility is worth striving after and working for … at least the right humility that the Scriptures speak of, not the self-deprecating type that has received such a bad rap for centuries – the maudlin, self-destructive “humility” that serves one in good stead only during pious retreats, only when there is no more choice left, a humility that enslaves, a humility “for effect,” a humility that really quietly seethes and screams in silent, muffled, and ill-concealed anger.
Yes … the humility that is the subject of today’s good news has nothing of the negative in it. Humility that Sirach speaks about does not smack of weakness and helplessness. The humility presented by Scriptures is redolent of the positive, the powerful, and the freely chosen. Scriptural humility starts with Truth, most especially the truth about God vis-à-vis human beings. And this truth has to do with His choice, His love, and His predilection for us His creatures. God is Love! Bernard Haring writes that these words imply in a challenging way the concomitant truth that God is humility. For “God is the love that bends down to us so that He can lift us up.”
Indeed, humility is truth, as we have often been told. Humility starts in truth which reminds us that we are only humus (soil), but loved immensely by the world’s most tremendous lover. This truth leads us to proclaim with gratitude: “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.” (Responsorial Psalm)
This virtue that has received a bad press over the past many decades needs a little more looking into. It needs a repackaging of sorts, for instead of being all about negatives, it really has to do with a whole lot of positives. In this age and time of “positive psychology,” in a culture awash with ideas of self-fulfillment and self-realization, and in a world replete with examples of self-propelled success and self-made riches, it is all too easy to fall victim to the extremes, either of pride (thinking of oneself as greater than one really is), or self-pity (thinking of oneself as worse than he/she really is). In between the two extremes lies healthy self-esteem, the basic psychological building block of the virtue of humility.
I have it on the authority of moralist James Keenan that, whilst self-esteem is not a virtue, it makes the virtue of humility possible. Again, here we are back to the discourse of the grace-nature interplay. Grace builds on nature. And nature, that is, the human personality ought first to be perfected by, among others, a healthy self-esteem. Keenan goes further, in fact, as to suggest self-esteem to be among the so-called “cardinal virtues” (along with justice, prudence, fidelity, and self-esteem).
As a pastoral counselor and a priest-educator over the past twenty-four years, I find common-ground with what Keenan suggests. More than this, I find the Biblical data on humility more than enough material to prop up such a positive approach to humility cum self-esteem.
Today’s readings are a case in point. They all speak of humility, not only as a positive virtue, but as a virtue that smacks of personal power. The virtue of humility, instead of being a virtue of the weak, really appears to be a virtue of those who are ready and willing to take the Kingdom of God by storm, on purpose, based on a freely made decision to focus less on what earthly and temporal kingdoms have to offer, but more on the “blazing fire” and the “trumpet blast” associated with the “resurrection of the righteous.”
Humble people are never humiliated. They can only be humbled even more, for in the strength and power of their well-placed self-esteem, they become the “meek” who have learned to “take [Jesus’] yoke upon [them] and learned from [him], meek and humble of heart.”
Blessed are the humble and the meek … for they shall inherit the earth. Like Jesus, humbled for a reason, they shall be exalted by no less than the God who is Love, the God who is humility, the Mighty, Strong, Immortal One !(Ho Theos, Ho Ischyros, Ho Athanatos).