Sunday, May 31, 2009

9-28-2008: 26th Ordinary Time (A)

Ezekiel 18:25-28/Psalm 25/Philippians 2:1-11/Matthew 21:28-32
If evolution were viewed as a calendar year, Carl Sagen once said, humans would have appeared sometime after 11:59pm on December 31st. Now that’s a humbling thought, especially when you’re tempted to see yourself, and the species, as the center of the universe. It makes you suspect that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet – both the good and the bad.

St. Paul’s memorable hymn exalting Christ as Lord is the subject of today’s second reading. Often interpreted as testimony to Christ’s divine status, it’s an appeal to action as well: Follow Jesus, it seems to suggest, and come down to earth.

Biblical translators are old hands at political correctness. Christ humbling himself might just as well be translated as Christ humiliating himself by becoming human. In English, humility and humiliate come from the same Latin word for “earth” – humus (not to be confused, of course, with hummus, a Turkish word for that delicious chick-pea mash from the Middle East). Maybe the force of the poem is just that – a study in abject humiliation, made more acceptable to the listener when given a more ethereal and spiritual tweak: abject humiliation becoming the practice of humility.

That humility might be best practiced by pilgrims (a status somewhere between tourist and immigrant), because they often have to eat what they suspect they will not enjoy. This food metaphor comes to us as eating humble pie, giving up the comfort of the familiar to venture into the unknown. This forsaking of privilege for poverty (and, remember, privilege and poverty are always relative terms) is a recurrent theme in literature as well: from Dickens’s Great Expectations to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper to a more recent film Gosford Park, a murder mystery set in the class-conscious Britain of the 1930s where the vocation of a servant is memorably put by Helen Mirren’s character: “I am the perfect servant,” she says. “Because I anticipate everyone’s needs.” Within the context of the story the ignoble status of the humble servant is revealed as true nobility, the same message, I suspect, St. Paul wanted to convey by his poetry.

St. Paul’s poetry turns things topsy-turvy, even for us who live in a more egalitarian world than our ancestors. Christ humbled (read humiliated) himself, not to raise us to a higher status but to sanctify the lowly condition in which we find ourselves. The beauty of the Incarnation is not so much (and here I realize I’m nearing the borders of orthodoxy) to save us from something, but to bring us joy no matter the conditions we must endure. Humility, that coming-down-to-earth – literally, making oneself dirt -- anticipating others’ needs, eating humble pie, is offered to all as the key to joy.

If pressed to define religion, many might say it’s all about getting from here to there, from earth to heaven. But with St. Paul’s poetry, connecting the essence of divinity to a humble human status, maybe we’ve got it all wrong and the goal of true religion is more about coming down to earth than living up in the clouds.

How do we practice humility, then? How best to imitate Jesus’ emigration from divine to human, from heaven to earth? St. Paul says “bend the knee.” An apt gesture in the face of the divine majesty, but maybe he just wants us to touch the earth with these bodies of ours, so we might be reminded of our rather humble place in the scheme of things. It’s not as scary as we might fear, though. Humble pie, like hummus, might seem unfamiliar at first but, with practice, can be savored with delight. Humility, too, is an acquired taste.

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