Sunday, September 02, 2007

Award-Winning Humility

(22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 1 & 2 September, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Sirach 3: 17-20 and Luke 14:7-14)

You may have heard the story of the parish priest who was so humble that his parishioners decided something had to be done to recognize him. They had a medal cast with his name on the front, and on the back was inscribed: “The Most Humble Priest Ever.” They gave it to him at a special ceremony after Mass one Sunday. But just one week later, they decided to take that medal away from him…because he had the audacity to wear it!

Humility, a theme we find in our readings this weekend, can be an elusive virtue. As soon as we think we have it, we’ve lost it! But if there ever was such a thing as an award for humility, it could certainly be given to the author of our first reading, the author of the Book of Sirach. His full name, as we are told in the introduction to that book, is Yeshua Ben Sira (Sirach in Greek) and he is one of the great sages of the Old Testament. He is also considered one of the most modest and humble.

Sirach lived and taught about 200 years before Christ and his book is literally full of counsel and advice about how to love and serve God, how to follow the commandments and live at peace with those around us. In our first reading, Sirach offers us his teaching on humility (Sirach 3:17-20):

"My child," he says, "conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts."

Do you want people, to love you? If so, Sirach is saying, then be humble. If you want people to like you, then live in humility. He continues:

"Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God."

Not only are the humble attractive to those around them; humility attracts God Himself! God favors those who live in humility. Finally, Sirach offers the key to achieving this humility:

"What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not."

Knowing who we truly are, according to Sirach, is the key to humility: to not go beyond our limits; to know where God has placed us and to be content there. That is the path we are called to walk.

There is a great book, written by Ursula Le Guin, called, The Farthest Shore. It is very much like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; the fantasy-fiction genre. The book begins by describing the land of Earthsea, a world overtaken by a dark force which has drained the land and its people of their power. The wizards and all the inhabitants of Earthsea have been drawn into this darkness and are helpless to overcome it.

The main character and hero, a wizard named Ged, sets off with his young apprentice, Arren, to confront this dark force. Before long, Arren notices that Ged—unlike all the other wizards—has somehow retained all of his powers. Intrigued, Arren questions this strange phenomenon:

“How is it that all the wizards…have lost their art, but you keep yours?”

Ged answers without hesitation:

“Because I desire nothing beyond my art.”

He alone had lived his life according to the wisdom of Sirach:

What is too sublime for you, seek not,
into things beyond your strength search not.
—Sirach 3:17-18, 20

That was they key to his strength, and to his ability to practice well the art which all the others had lost. “I desire nothing beyond my art.” That is true humility: being content to be the person God created us to be, and not striving to go one bit beyond it.

What would the world look like if everyone followed that advice?

What would “Corporate America” look like if men and women in the business world followed the counsel of Sirach?

Or closer to home, what would our families, marriages, vocations and personal lives look like if we followed that advice?

What is too sublime for you, seek not,
into things beyond your strength search not.
—Sirach 3:17-18, 20

Jesus Christ, in the Gospel this weekend, gives us a picture of exactly what that would look like. He reveals to us what happens when we do not seek to go beyond our own limits. When we do not spend all of our efforts looking after “Number One,” then God begins to look after us Himself. When we seek merely to take the lowest place, God Himself moves us up higher to where we never dreamed of going. Jesus says:

When you are invited [to a banquet], go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, “My friend, move up to a higher position.”
—Luke 14:10

Back in the summer of 2001, when I was about to begin my second year of Major Seminary in Rome, I was part of what was called the Orientation Committee. Each summer, the Second Year seminarians work together as part of that committee to welcome the new students to Rome for the first time. One of the most moving events of that orientation is the trip to the Pope’s summer residence in Castelgondolfo, joining about 1,000 other pilgrims for the general audience there.

Since we had been to Castelgondolfo already, just one year before, many of the members of the Orientation Committee began to move the new students closer to the window where the Holy Father was about to appear. As we moved them forward, we ourselves took up the places towards the back of the group.

While we were in the very process of doing that, the archbishop in charge of the Papal Household came out and addressed our rector, who had just begun his position as the leader of our seminary. The archbishop said to him, “Are you the new Rector of the North American College? Take two people from your group, and follow me.”

The rector pointed to me and one of my classmates, and suddenly the three of us were led through a door and up a flight of stairs, and eventually into a small room where Pope John Paul II greeted us, and spoke to us for a few minutes, before finally giving us his blessing. It was one of the most memorable moments of my seminary formation.

The first thing that came to my mind that day was the gospel passage for this weekend, and the call for those who take the lowest place to “move up to a higher position.”

This morning we gather here at God’s great banquet, the Banquet of the Eucharist, to meet not the Pope but Jesus Christ Himself. God calls us to take the lowest place, to approach this great mystery of the Eucharist with the same faith and humility that we express at every Mass, praying in the words of the humble centurion in the gospel:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive You,
but only say the word and I shall be healed.

May we truly come to recognize, here before Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, who we truly are in the sight of God; may our joy, our contentment find its foundation in that knowledge. And may we hear the voice of Christ Himself inviting us “to move up to a higher position,” more and more intimately into a life of union with Him.