Sunday, December 18, 2011

Humility Incarnate

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. That tremendous list of names which was just read is St. Matthew’s genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is read each year on the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ to remind us that the Son of God did not simply drop out of heaven in human form to pass among us as a visitor, but truly became man, assuming our nature and everything that goes with it, including a complete and even somewhat checkered family tree. The message this genealogy brings is not only that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, the rightful heir of the throne of David, but even more wonderful, that He has condescended in great humility to join our race and unite Himself to each and every one of us, eternally. I don’t suppose the human mind can quite grasp the humility of such an action. It is perhaps best summed up by the words of the following hymn: “With mystic apprehension of the divine commandment, the bodiless angel quickly appeared in the house of Joseph and said to the unwed Maiden: Lo, He who in His descent didst bow the heavens is housed unchanged and whole in thee; as I behold Him in thy womb, taking on the form of a servant, I marvel and cry out to thee, Hail, O Bride without bridegroom!” Even the archangel Gabriel is portrayed as being “mystically apprehensive” by the unimaginable thing he is witnessing take place, and almost unable to speak for wonder over it. The great King of kings, the eternal God, has taken on the form of a lowly creature of dust, and shares one nature with those who willfully transgressed His laws and dishonored the glory of His image and despised and killed the holy prophets He sent to correct them. Even the heavens are bowed and nearly shattered at the passage of the Holy One through their midst. Mountains quake before Him and seas are parted at His presence, and yet the uncontainable God is contained within the womb of a young maiden. O wonder of wonders! O incomprehensible mystery! O depths of divine compassion and humility! Furthermore, when the King comes, is He received in a royal palace and carefully attended to by servants befitting His majesty? Not at all. Instead, He is born in a cave and laid in a manger, surrounded by oxen and donkeys. His royal bed is not feathers but hay; His kingly vesture not silk but swaddling cloths. He enters into His world under the most rude and humble of circumstances, and comes meekly and without complaint to be greeted only by Joseph and Mary. Any wealthy or great persons who came to Bethlehem that night surely had no problem gaining rooms at the inn. Important people and those with means always seem to find a way to obtain the best. It’s always been that way, but in our day it seems that even those of us who are neither rich nor important still expect to be treated as if we were. We feel entitled to receive a level of comfort in life and can become quite upset when situations fall below our standards, or people fail to rise to our expectations. We have a long way to go to learn the humility of God in order to be content to receive less than we think we deserve or to be more gracious to those around us. How often we forget that we are but dust, and forgetting this important fact become quick to complain or take offense? Would it not be better for us to imitate Christ to willingly accept less and be patient, kind, and forgiving with all? Doubtless as Christ lay in his little cave not far from the inn, many important people walked past Him on their way to their rooms, unaware of the glory that was just a few feet away. He was hidden from them for one particular reason, namely that they would have had to bow down to enter into His cave, and the haughty do not do such things easily. The shepherds who kept watch at night and who heard the angelic choir singing His praises, these were simple men and not too proud to dirty their knees crawling into the cave, and thus could enter in to behold the God hidden from those “greater men” who passed by. What this tells us is that the humility of God, though utterly beyond the comprehension of men and of angels, must at some greatly inferior level still be imitated by us, if we are to not pass by our Savior unknowingly but truly find and glorify Him. Everything in this world militates against such humility, and this is especially so in our country. Even in this sluggish economy, we still enjoy a level of comfort and convenience unprecedented in human history. We have access to a remarkable quality of life and health and recreation and varieties of experiences and foods and pleasures. And once our souls have experienced these delightful things, they do not surrender them easily. Unless the Church compels us to enter into a period of fasting, we would never think of abandoning our tasty foods to live on a miserable diet of rice and beans and pasta. Yet many people on this planet still do not eat even that well. Our “fasting” periods would be considered feasting periods by people in many third world countries. And here’s the thing: how can we possibly enjoy so many benefits and luxuries and conveniences and not have these deeply affect our souls? It doesn’t matter that these things are the norm in our culture, they have never really been the norm for humanity, and they can easily render our souls slothful and inattentive to spiritual things, as well as utterly spoiled and unwilling to struggle. Even now, during a season in which the Church asks us to simplify our lives and diets and be faithful in our prayers and remember the poor with almsgiving and just generally humble ourselves in preparation for the Nativity of our Savior, we may be so caught up in the Christmas blur of consumerism and travel and home decorating and family and parties that we are simply too busy to pay attention to spiritual things. Should we not stop to ask ourselves if we might be the ones passing by the glory in the cave by being too focused on nearly everything other than Jesus Christ? Once again, the humility that Christ demonstrates by assuming our lowly humanity in order to raise us to glory with Himself is both incredible and unimaginable. So also is our own lack of humility, as evidenced by the fact that we might pay so little attention to our Lord, or show so little gratitude or devotion to Him in return. It’s not that we are a bad people, but we may be a people simply lacking in Christian humility. If we are a people used to having what we want, doing things our way, and enjoying the good things that life brings us--in other words, just your average, 21st-century Americans--how does any of this train us to become humble people? We all know how difficult it is for us to pray regularly and faithfully, to pay attention during prayers or during the services, to pay tithes and alms, and to just generally show mercy, kindness, and forgiveness to others. Is it possible that this difficulty is caused by a lack of humility within us? If we were a more humble people, would we find it more natural to pray attentively and with warmth, to give generously to others, and to forgive freely as we ourselves have been forgiven? I think so. The divine humility initiated our salvation, as the Son who existed as God made Himself of no reputation, took the form of a bondservant, and came in the likeness of men. He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross for our sake and for our salvation. If our salvation began with the humility of the Son of God, it surely can only find a place in us if we humble ourselves before Him and put to death our pride. We strike a blow against pride every time we force ourselves to stand before our icons and pray whenever we don’t feel like it, or come to church when we’d rather not. Whenever we go against our fallen will to pay a tithe or give generous alms, to volunteer for service, to turn away from a temptation or a besetting sin, to struggle against a fleshly passion, to obey the word of God, to forgive an insult, or to right a wrong we’ve done to another--whenever we compel ourselves to do any of these good things, we strike another blow against pride and make a petition to God to grant us the divine gift of humility. I pray we would never forget the great humility that our Lord eternally reveals through His incarnation. May we not be too proud to follow His example and find our salvation in Him! +To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.