Homily by Fr. Thomas Leitner, OSB
FOCUS: Being a Christian makes it possible for us to be humble, to be realistic and to be humorous.
Dear sisters and brothers in the faith, St. Francis of Assisi once traveled together with one of his brothers minor who came from a noble and influential family. Francis was weak and ill and, therefore, rode on an ass. The companion, weary from walking, thought of his noble birth and was irritated by the fact that he had to trot behind the son of a merchant who, in turn, was using a riding animal.
To his amazement, the saint suddenly dismounted from the ass and said, “It occurred to me that it’s very improper for me to ride while you are walking, even though you were a great and powerful man in society!”
Now the brother began to weep, his heart was really touched; and red with shame, he confessed to St. Francis the vain thoughts that had gone through his mind. The great humility of the saint made it possible for his follower to recognize his wrongful attitude.
In today’s gospel Jesus speaks about the places of honor at a wedding feast; and he gives the advice not to choose the place of greatest honor: a more eminent person could arrive late and then the person who sits at the place of honor may be asked to step down. Very embarrassing! One should rather choose the lowest place!
What Jesus is saying here is a rule for prudent behavior at social events. But it is more than that. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled; but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” The attitude of humility, which Jesus illustrates, isn’t only politeness. Rather it’s a way of viewing ourselves and others. Also, it shows something about our relationship with God.
Our English word humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means earth or ground. Humility means: being on the ground, connected with the earth; being grounded in the earth like a tree which is rooted and, therefore, stands firm. It cannot be overthrown by the wind. It means being down to earth, realistic. It means being aware of our reality, of who we really are.
The word humility is also related with humor. A humble person doesn’t take himself/herself too seriously and can smile or even laugh about himself/herself. Stories about Pope Saint John XXIII can come to mind here: Visiting a hospital, he once asked a boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy said, “Either a policeman or a pope.” - “I would go in for the police if I were you,” the pope said. “Anyone can become a pope, look at me!”
Or: Saint John XXIII had a conversation with a newly appointed bishop who came to him—for the first time—in private audience and complained: “Holiness, since I received my new office I can’t sleep anymore.” – “Oh,” John answered with a compassionate sound in his voice, “the same happened to me during the first weeks of my pontificate. But then I saw in a daydream my guardian angel; he told me: ‘Giovanni, don’t consider yourself too important.’ Now I sleep again.” Pope John XXIII could sleep calmly in spite of his immense tasks because he was humble and humorous, because he viewed the working of God’s Spirit to be much more important that anything the he could do out of himself.
We are created by God according to God’s image and likeness. We are given, as Vatican II says, “the sublime dignity of the human person.” Humility means, seeing and acknowledging the good things within ourselves—and knowing that every good thing comes from God. All that we have, our strengths, our abilities and talents, all these are gifts from God. St. Paul writes, “It is no longer I who live. Christ lives within me.” And, “Don’t you know that you are God’s temple, that the Holy Spirit lives within you?” Our true reality is that the Triune God lives within us. Within us there is a place where God dwells in us. There our real worth, our dignity originates which we don’t have to earn and which nobody and nothing can take away from us. Humility means living this freeing message of Holy Scripture.
Dear sisters and brothers, being a Christian makes it possible for us to be humble, to be realistic and to be humorous. Aren’t we sometimes like St. Francis’ companion who was tempted to define himself through other people, in this case through the noble family into which he happened to be born?
Can we see ourselves in a way in the new bishop, worrying too much about what we, with our own strength, can do or can’t do? Jesus is calling us to humility today, to the fresh realization of where our true value comes from and of who ultimately can make our work fruitful and effective. Let’s open our hearts to this freeing gospel. If we do that then we don’t have an all too great need any more to seek the places of honor in life. Then we become similar the Christ who said about himself: “I am meek and humble of heart. My yoke is easy and my burden light.”
~Fr. Thomas Leitner, OSB