During a recent morning Mass Pope Francis preached on humility. And though this is a laudable Lenten theme, I must admit, I have never been a fan. I mostly equate humility with weakness and with deprecation that is either imposed or self-inflicted. Further, humility and humiliation are too close for comfort. And of course, who can forget Mozart’s quote from the film Amadeus: “Humility is the little cousin of mediocrity.”
So when I received the transcript of the pope’s homily I did not reach for it immediately, as I am otherwise want to do. Still, I made myself read it and, to my surprise marveled at the fact that Pope Francis spoke about humility in a beautifully affirming way rather than in deprecating terms. Thus, in one short sermon he salvaged humility for me.
Since then I have been musing about authentic humility and have concluded the following: first, humility is part of our very identity as Christians. Second, Christian humility is informed by Scripture and Tradition. Third, Christian humility is branded by charity and mercy.
First, the fact that humility is an essential characteristic of Christians is based on two complimentary realities. One the one hand, we are created in the image of God. On the other hand, as Pope Francis said in his homily, God, throughout salvation history has appeared to us in the humblest of ways, culminating in the birth of Jesus in a humble stable and his death on a cross. Therefor, since we are created in the image of a humble God we are called to humility ourselves. It important to note though that, as salvation history reveals, God’s kind of humility in no way implies weakness. On the contrary, God’s humility and thus Christian humility is strong and decisive. In the same way as God made the radically humble choice to become one of us, even in a stable or on the cross we too are to be with one another, even in a stable or on the cross. This kind of humility is clearly not for wimps.
Second, Christian humility is rooted in Scripture and Tradition. A quick etymological search reveals that the word humility is derived from the Latin word for soil: “humus.” As such, one of the main characteristics of humility is rootedness. For Catholics, humility is the soil in which Scripture and Tradition are rooted, while in turn humility is rooted in Scripture and Tradition.
The Scriptures and Tradition teach us the history of God’s radically humble, yet extremely decisive engagement with the people God created. The Scriptures and Tradition also teach us how God wants us to relate to one another and to all of creation in the same radically humble, yet decisively engaging way.
As we let ourselves by guided by Scripture and Tradition it is good to remember that though God’s Word is eternal it is also in constant dialogue with each individual’s concrete life experience. Similarly, though our Tradition is ancient it is also ever new; dynamic and not static; shaping and reshaping itself holding on to the essentials yet adopting continuously evolving accidentals. Scripture and Tradition do not exist in order to cause deep sighs of shared nostalgic longing for a time long-since gone except in romantic minds. Rather, Scripture and Tradition which contain our shared past accompany us into our future. Scripture and Tradition are not a sacred relic, rather they are a lived reality.
Third, Christian humility is branded by charity and mercy. Better yet, everything we do as Christians is to be cloaked with the mantel of charity and mercy. Without mercy and love we can do nothing. It is this very understanding of Christian mercy and love, illuminated by Sacred Scripture and Catholic Tradition that is the “humus” or soil of all we do as Christians.
In the end true humility is nothing more or less than an unwavering commitment to radical love supported with copious amounts of mercy. This is the kind of humility God has demonstrated to us time and time again, most especially in the manger and on the cross. And this is the kind of humility God requires of us in turn.