Christian at the Foot of the Cross (Pilgrim's Progress), Joseph Noel Paton (1821–1901), date unknown; Private collection

Fr Neil’s homily at Mass on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, 28 August 2022

You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.¹

“I’m always most proud of myself whenever people recognise and acknowledge my humility.” Think about that for a moment! The virtue of humility is a theme that runs throughout our readings. However, to speak about humility, we need to clarify a couple of things that it is not. We are to recognise that this isn’t talking about false humility like that of Uriah Heep, “I’m ever so ’umble.” This is to deny the true gifts that God has given and that we should give thanks for. The skills and abilities that we have are not given to benefit ourselves alone. All of us have different skills that are for the benefit of our family, our friends and our wider community.

What we are also not talking about is humiliation. Humiliation is exercised by the strong and powerful to keep in check those they deem beneath them. To humiliate is a great sin that denies the dignity of another who is made in the image and likeness of God, however flawed. It is this dignity that sets the boundaries of proper interaction between people — hence Christ’s instruction to engage with the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind, and not to think oneself above them, only moving in our closed circle of the worthy.

The Latin word for humility ultimately comes from humus, earth, soil; one might speak of humility being something that instructs us to keep our feet on the ground. Humility might speak of remembering that “from dust you came and to dust you shall return.”² This sense of being earthed, and having a sober judgment of ourselves — the good, the bad, and the ugly — marks the proper distinction between God the creator and us human beings as part of his creation. We exist because of the grace, mercy and love of God, who spoke us into existence.

The enemy of humility is pride, that first great sin, in which we wish to place ourselves at the centre of the universe. Everyone and everything is seen as a means of getting want we want and should only exist to serve our needs. Pride places the ego on the throne of judgment where everyone passes under our critical eye — even God is subject to our judgment and often found wanting.

The Pharisees were “watching” Christ, the Gospel tells us.³ This translation of παρατηρουμενοι loses the sense of the menace in their gaze. They were not watching Christ to see how to imitate holiness, but to find anything negative that they might use against him. They had already passed judgment on the Son of God and wanted him dead. Pride closes down the heart and mind of an individual making it impossible for him to learn from others. All other points of view or words of wisdom are written off and ridiculed as ignorant. It is as if we have arrived at a height of enlightenment, that no one else has reached before. This is the pride of our generation in response to the wisdom of our predecessors. The reading from Sirach or Ecclesiasticus tells us that this sort of pride makes it impossible for us to hear, let alone receive, the gift of grace which God longs to pour out upon us. We cannot enter into a state of grace, gifted by God, to those who are invited into the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The virtue of humility is necessary for us to encounter the living God and his merciful graces. After all, Christ himself, “although he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross.”⁴ The writer to the Hebrews reminds us to reflect on why we are here in this place. Why have we come here? Into whose presence are we gathered?

Humility should allow us to become aware of the fact that God, who was at the beginning of creation and will be there at the end, whose hands flung stars into space⁵, might have a wisdom that we might need to be open to hear. The revealed will of God proclaimed in the scriptures, distilled in the magisterial teachings of the Church, might just have a better handle of things than we do. Humility in coming into the presence of God allows us to be open to receive the gift of the body, soul and divinity of Christ in the sacrament of the Mass. This is our encounter with the living God, who calls us to life that we might be prepared to enter into the fullness of the heavenly Jerusalem, prepared for us since the foundation of the world.

¹ Hebrews 12:22
² Genesis 3:19; cf Ash Wednesday liturgy
³ Luke 14:1
⁴ Philippians 2:6–8
⁵ cf Graham Kendrick