Sunday, December 14, 2014

Humility—Third Sunday of Advent—Cycle C

Isaiah 61: 1–2a, 10–11; Resp. Luke 1:48–54; 1 Thess. 5:16–24; John 1:6–8, 19–28
            This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin Introit for today's Mass from Philippians 4. "Rejoice in the Lord always." And also from the second reading today, which begins, "Semper gaudete." Always rejoice. We depart from the somber tone of this penitential season for a bit to celebrate the light that is dawning on us. So we light a rose colored candle and wear rose colored vestments to celebrate and rejoice in the coming dawn. Some of our ministers will rejoice a bit less if you tease them about wearing pink today, so for the record, I will remind you that we are wearing rose colored garments.
            We have some common themes this week relating to joy and anticipation, but also to a virtue that many of us don't appreciate enough: humility. The readings for this week are also fantastic examples of how the old testament prefigures the new, and the new points back to and interprets the old. Isaiah is the best exemplar of this tendency, as so much of what we read in Isaiah points forward to Christ. The first line of today's first reading comes from the mouth of Isaiah, "The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me." Isaiah announces freedom for those who are captive, glad tidings to those who are poor, and healing for the brokenhearted. The word for anointed in Isaiah is Mashiah, from which we get the word, Messiah. Isaiah is not speaking, intentionally, of the Messiah, but he prefigures the coming Messiah, as many others in salvation history prefigured Christ.
            In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reads this same passage in His home synagogue to announce the beginning of His mission. Luke actually quotes the Greek version of this text, which uses the Greek word for anointed, e' kristen', which is where we get the word Kristos or Christ. So Jesus announces His arrival using the words of Isaiah.
            Now Isaiah wasn't particularly popular among his fellow Jews, as no prophet is welcomed in his home. And Jesus likewise isn't received very well by his neighbors, who know him as the son of the carpenter and of Mary. There's even something of a scandal in how that birth came about. But the words of Jesus and Isaiah are not empty boasting. Each is simply acknowledging their gifts and their role in God's plan of salvation.
            The Magnificat, our responsorial Psalm today, comes from the infancy narrative in Luke. Mary rejoices that God has noticed her even in her humble state and that God lifts up those who are lowly. The Magnificat is another of those canticles with reverberations in the Old Testament, and it presents a series of contrasts between the humble and the arrogant.
            These readings share a common theme of humility. Now, I'm not talking about the kind of groveling humility where one is humiliated, but the true virtue of humility, which is to see oneself as one truly is. Isaiah recognizes the great honor God has done to him by anointing him as prophet. He knows he has done nothing to deserve it other than to be willing to do God's will. He is wrapped in garments of salvation and a robe of justice. He knows that all he has is from God and to use for God. That is true humility.
            Finally, we come to John the Baptist, and here we see the contrast between the humble and the arrogant. A delegation comes from the temple in Jerusalem: priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees who come to question this man in the desert. Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself? Can you just picture the haughtiness of these delegates? Who are you to be out here baptizing people? Are you a prophet? Are you Elijah? Who are you?
            And John also quotes Isaiah: "I am 'the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord' .... Among you stands one whom you do not know... the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." He is the precursor, called by Jesus as "the greatest of all men," but he knows one thing for certain. He is nothing—NOTHING compared to the God who is to come.
            That is humility—to know that we are just servants and not truly worthy to serve.
            Now, humility gets short shrift in our culture, and that's largely because it is so frequently exhibited in false humility: denial of our true gifts, ungraciously refusing others who compliment us, or pretending to be modest when we're really not. But we should seek to cultivate true humility. It's not an easy thing to develop, and sometimes it comes when we least expect it and in ways that often do seem humiliating.
            I remember when I was in diaconal formation, I was talking to the wife of one of my deacon mentors, and I mentioned that I had been praying for a deeper sense of humility. She responded to me, "Are you out of your mind? Oh, you can bet God will make it happen."
            And she was right. I don't think anything helps us to find out just how flawed we are as humans as when we seek a vocation.
            But humility is truly necessary for the spiritual life. We need to know that we are utterly dependent on God. We have these penitential seasons like Advent and Lent to remind us how much we need God's presence. And we will only truly recognize our dependence when we see ourselves as we truly are. When we come to this Eucharist each week, do we recognize that dependence? Do we recognize how extraordinary it is that God presents Himself to us as our daily sustenance?
            Do we see our dependence in Him in this act of communion?
            John's message in the gospel is for us today in this time of preparation. Make straight the way of the Lord. How do we do this? We can begin by examining our consciences and seeing where we fall short. We can get the clutter out of our lives: set aside all of the distraction, let go of all of the material wants, and loose ourselves from those things that don't matter. You cannot open your heart to God if your heart is set on the cares of this world.

            Make straight the way of the Lord. Give Him a straight passageway into your heart. He can get there anyway, but you can show Him how ready you are by clearing all the junk, the distractions, and the attachments out of the way, and by opening your arms and heart to say, I am ready for you, Lord.
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