When Jesus breathed his last and died on the cross, an onlooking centurion was heard to proclaim: "Truly this man was the Son of God." Through what we can only presume was a gift of grace, this man was able to discern God’ face in Jesus’ suffering, and to see divinity revealed in humility.
However, not everyone shared the centurion’s assessment that day. The idea of a suffering, humble God is a hard thing to accept, because we expect God to be powerful, not weak. That’s why Jesus had so many detractors who mocked and goaded him to save himself, and come down off the cross. The ancient Church fathers speculated that this is what caused the fallen angels to rebel. According to the this line of reasoning, Satan and his followers simply could not endure the knowledge that one day the Son of God would be a weak and limited human being. As St. Augustine wrote, they could not bear to see the all-powerful become tired, eternal happiness weep, and life itself suffer and die.
We too can struggle to reconcile ourselves with the image of a humble God, because we’re often not very humble. Pride is a temptation and a sin that we have to contend with our entire lives. Pride can spring from a great love of self- an arrogance that conceives of ourselves as superior to others based on income, looks, education, profession, social standing, ethnic background, or some other worldly criterion. It drives us to squander our time and energy trying to get people to acknowledge our importance- to take notice of our accomplishments, or maybe even our suffering, if we think our victimhood can attract the attention we seek. Prideful attitudes of superiority, ironically, can also be a mask for feelings of inferiority and powerlessness.
Spiritual pride is a very real danger too. We can become self-righteous, thinking that we’re holier than others because of our religious practices and observances. Spiritual pride can lead people to use forgiveness to demonstrate moral superiority, and shame their offenders. Spiritual pride can also delude us into thinking that we know better than God, or that perhaps he owes us something. It’s said that after having once lost an important military battle, King Louis XIV of France was heard to exclaim: "Does not God realize how much I have done for him?"
It was because of our pride and lack of humility that led God to humble himself to share in our humanity. In gratitude and faith, we need to humble ourselves, first and foremost, by recalling that we are not God. There’s an old saying that the two most important lessons in life are: First, there is a God; and second, I am not he. As God spoke to St. Catherine of Siena, "You are she who is not, and I am who is!"
We can learn humility by following Jesus along the way of the cross. "If you seek an example of humility," wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, "contemplate the crucifix!" As we heard, Jesus endured many humiliations on the way of the cross: He was abused, mocked, reviled, placed between common criminals, had lots cast for his clothing, and a scoffing inscription was placed over his head.
As we carry our crosses, we too may face humiliations. Hard as these might be to bear, they might at times have a silver lining. For instance, the popular priest Benedict Groechel was once the liaison of the New York Archdiocese with Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Once Groechel and Mother Theresa had a friendly argument about policy, which Groechel lost. Afterwards, Mother Theresa asked: "Well, how do you feel about the whole thing?" "Humiliated," admitted Groeschel, "but unfortunately not humbled." "Cheer up!" she said. "Humiliation could be a road to humility." And she’s right, of course. Humiliations can serve to prick our pride and deflate our over-expanded egos.
However, Jesus bore the cross, not just as a sign of his humility, but supremely as a demonstration of his love. But humility and love go hand-in-hand, of course. Indeed, true humility is a by-product of love; it’s not something that we can pursue directly. In fact, trying to become humble on one’s own is likely to backfire and become and exercise in pride! As C.S. Lewis once said, "A man is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility."
The only way to become truly humble is for us to open ourselves to God’s love. The more we do this, the more we’ll come to love others just as God loves them- equally and unconditionally, without regard for rank or importance. And we’ll come to live life, and to do what we do, not from a desire for recognition or affirmation, but out of selflessness and generosity. In other words, we’ll learn that in love, what counts is just loving, because love is its own reward. As St. Therese, the Little Flower discovered, "I found happiness the day I forgot myself and began to serve others."
We can’t expect ourselves to be transformed overnight. The way of the cross is a long, hard road. Jesus fell three times from exhaustion in the course of an afternoon; we can expect to fall three thousand times or more in the course of a lifetime. Yet we should never become discouraged. St. Bernard once said that on our spiritual journey we can face in one of two directions: We can look at ourselves and be saddened by our failings, or we can look at God and rejoice that we are lovable in his sight: lovable enough to die for; lovable enough to spend an eternity with.