Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Path of Humility

Those who ponder the significance of Christmas quickly come to realize that once you get beyond the presents and carols, the Feast of the Incarnation is a celebration of humility. The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, came to be born into obscurity and poverty - even, as Chesterton observed, in a cave beneath the earth. This is the far deeper and more profound meaning of the Feast that invokes worship long after the crèche is packed away.

If this is true of Christmas, it is far more true of today, the Feast of the Annunciation. This is when the Church celebrates the visit of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary as recorded in Luke 1, when she gave her fiat to the Lord's wish that she bear His Son. When she assented to be used in God's plan of salvation and the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, the Divine Son was incarnated in her womb first as an embryo.

That's an abasement so deep that some were literally scandalized. God Himself dwelling within the sexual organs of a human woman? The concept was so outrageous that the Greek philosophers just scoffed, and the Gnostics were offended. It was even too much for certain Christians, such as Bishop Nestorious, who taught that it was the human Jesus who dwelt in the Virgin's womb, not the divine Christ. It was in condemning this heresy that the Church brought into common usage the term Theotokos, Mother of God, to affirm that both Jesus human and divine natures were present prenatally.

That's what strikes me: the humiliation which the Son of God voluntarily endured for our sake. As Scripture says, "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." (Phil 2:5-7) When I was younger and my blood ran hotter, I relished the martial imagery of Christ triumphing over evil with a mighty victory, His enemies scattered on the ground at His feet. But the older I get, the more I appreciate the manner of that victory: it was gotten through humility and weakness, by Christ not only deigning to come as a man (which would have been humiliation enough), but to put Himself into our hands to be cruelly and unjustly mistreated and executed.

It's that humility that's the surprise. We men think in terms of mighty conquerors because that's how we like to rule: the strong overcoming the weak by force of arms, the greater will overcoming the lesser ones by strong and persuasive words. But here was the greatest Will of all choosing not to conquer and rule like that. His arms were the ones He stretched out to be nailed to the wood, and His words were those of forgiveness. No wonder the people of the day couldn't understand this manner of conquest - it didn't look at all familiar.

This ideal of strength in humility, of conquering through weakness, is a hidden truth, but it is found in the most obscure and mystical of wisdom through human history. For example, the Chinese sage Lao Tzu recognized it, and used the image of water to illustrate the power of humility ("The highest goodness, water-like, does good to everything and goes unmurmuring to places men despise; but so, it is close in nature to Tao" - Chapter 8, Tao Te Ching.) In another place he recognizes that lowliness and humility is usually the lot of those who love wisdom ("But honor comes to me when least I'm known: The Wise Man, with a jewel in his breast, goes clad in garments made of shoddy stuff." - Chapter 70, Tao Te Ching.) These cryptic images hint at the ultimate humility of the Incarnation and the Passion.

The lesson I'm coming to learn in my old(er) age is that the Path of Humility that Jesus walked is not only something He did to make my salvation possible, but the model for my own growth in Christ-likeness. When I was younger I got excited about mastering demons - now I understand that it's a struggle for me just to master my own weaknesses and disordered appetites. Decades of trying to overpower them through main strength has only proven that they'll pin me every time. If I'm going to be a blessing to the world like I want to be - heck, if I'm even going to make myself a proper disciple - the Path is clear. My Master has already walked it, and He calls me to follow. It leads down, down, down to the depths of humility and self-abnegation. I don't like it - in fact, I hate it, and the Old Man within me screams in protest for he knows that his tomb lies that way. But if I'm going to reflect Christ to a world that needs it, I'm going to have to walk the trail He blazed.

Maybe that's something that can mark the Feast of the Annunciation. If Christmas is marked by gratitude, and Good Friday by sorrow and repentance, and Easter by joy, then maybe the Annunciation is the true feast of humility. The Blessed Mother models perfect human humility in her assent to God's plan – a plan that brought her no end of difficulty and pain. Jesus Himself demonstrates infinite humility in coming into her womb as an insensate embryo, there to grow in the same manner as the humans He came to save. I need to take that mission just as seriously, and embrace the humility Christ has for me.

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