Let us consider for a moment the texts of today's Mass, Tuesday in Passion Week, for they will help us to distinguish 'true godliness' from 'false godliness'.** We shall be speaking about humility, for this is the virtue which helps us to recognise, at one and the same time, both our wretchedness and our greatness.
Our wretchedness is all too evident. I am not here referring to our natural limitations, to those great ambitions that people dream of but, in fact, never achieve, if only for lack of time. I am thinking rather of the things we do badly, of our falls, of the mistakes that could have been avoided and were not. We are continually experiencing our personal inadequacies. Moreover, there are times when it seems as if all our failings come together, as if wanting to show themselves more clearly, to make us realise just how little we are worth. When that happens, what are we to do?
Expecta Dominum, hope in the Lord. Live by hope, full of faith and love, the Church says to us. Viriliter age, be of good heart. What does it matter that we are made of clay, if all our hope is placed in God? And if at a certain moment you should fall or suffer some setback (not that it has to happen), all you have to do is to apply the remedy, just as, in the normal course of events, you would do for the sake of your bodily health. And then: off to a fresh start!
Haven't you noticed the way families look after valuable ornaments or decorative pieces, a vase for example; how they take care lest it get broken? Until one day the baby happens to be playing nearby and knocks it over. The precious souvenir is dashed to pieces, and all the family are very upset. But they immediately set about repairing it. The pieces are gathered up and carefully glued together, and in the end it is restored to its former beauty.
However, when the broken object is a simple piece of crockery or just a piece of earthenware, it is usually enough to get some simple rivets, clips of iron or other metal, to bind the fragments together. The pot or vessel thus repaired takes on an original charm of its own.
We can apply this lesson to our own interior life. When we are faced with weaknesses and sins, with our mistakes even though, by God's grace, they be of little account — let us turn to God our Father in prayer and say to him, 'Lord, here I am in my wretchedness and frailty, a broken vessel of clay. Bind me together again, Lord, and then, helped by my sorrow and by your forgiveness, I shall be stronger and more attractive than before!' What a consoling prayer, which we can say every time something fractures this miserable clay of which we are made.
Let us not be surprised to discover our frailty. Let it not come as a shock to see how easily our good behaviour breaks down, for little or no reason. Have confidence in the Lord, whose help is always at hand. 'The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?' No one. If we approach our heavenly Father in this way, we will have no grounds for fearing anyone or anything.
If we turn to Sacred Scripture we will see that humility is absolutely necessary when we are making ready to listen to God. 'Where there is humility, there is wisdom', says the book of Proverbs. Humility means looking at ourselves as we really are, honestly and without excuses. And when we realise that we are worth hardly anything, we can then open ourselves to God's greatness: it is there our greatness lies.
How well Our Lady, Jesus' Holy Mother, understood this! She, the most exalted of all God's creatures that have existed or ever will exist upon this earth! Mary glorifies the power of Our Lord, who 'has put down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the lowly'. And she sings of how his divine providence has once again been fulfilled in her: 'because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid, behold henceforth all generations shall call me blessed'.
Mary becomes transformed in holiness in the depths of her most pure heart on seeing the humility of God: 'the Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you; and therefore the Holy One to be born of you shall be called the Son of God'. The Blessed Virgin's humility is a consequence of that unfathomable depth of grace which comes into operation with the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in the womb of his ever Immaculate Mother.
When St Paul considers this mystery he too breaks into a joyful hymn which we can savour today word by word: 'Yours is to be the same mind which Christ Jesus showed. Though being by nature God, he did not consider being equal to God a thing to be coveted,' (for he was God by essence) 'but emptied himself, and took the nature of a slave, fashioned in the likeness of men, presenting himself to us in human form; and then he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to death on a cross.'
In his preaching, Our Lord Jesus Christ very often sets before our eyes the example of his own humility. 'Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart,' so that you and I may know that there is no other way, and that only our sincere recognition of our nothingness is powerful enough to draw divine grace towards us. St Augustine says: 'It was for us that Jesus came to suffer hunger and to be our food, to suffer thirst and to be our drink, to be clothed with our mortality and to clothe us with immortality, to be poor so as to make us rich.'
'God resists the proud, but gives his grace to the humble,' the apostle St Peter teaches. In any age, in any human setting, there is no other way, to live a godly life, than that of humility. Does this mean that God takes pleasure in our humiliation? Not at all. What would he, who created all things and governs them and maintains them in existence, gain from our prostration? God only wants us to be humble and to empty ourselves, so that he can fill us. He wants us not to put obstacles in his way so that — humanly speaking — there will be more room for his grace in our poor hearts. For the God who inspires us to be humble is the same God who 'will refashion the body of our lowliness, conforming it to the body of his glory, by exerting the power by which he is able also to subject all things to himself'. Our Lord makes us his own, he makes us divine with a 'true godliness'.
What is it that impedes this humility, this 'true godliness'? It is pride. Pride is the capital sin that leads to 'false godliness'. Pride encourages one, even perhaps in very trivial matters, to follow the subtle prompting which Satan made to our first parents: 'your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil'. Elsewhere in the Scriptures we read that 'the beginning of the pride of man is to draw away from God'. Indeed this vice, once it has taken root, infects a man's entire way of life, until it becomes what St John calls superbia vitae, the pride of life.
Pride? About what? Sacred Scripture finds both tragic and comic expressions to stigmatise pride: Why are you so proud, you who are but dust and ashes? Even in life, you are vomiting your entrails. A slight illness: the doctor smiles. The king that reigns today will be dead tomorrow.
When pride takes hold of a soul, it is no surprise to find it bringing along with it a whole string of other vices: greed, self-indulgence, envy, injustice. The proud man is always vainly striving to dethrone God, who is merciful to all his creatures, so as to make room for himself and his ever cruel ways.
We should beg God not to let us fall into this temptation. Pride is the worst sin of all, and the most ridiculous. If, with its multiple delusions, it manages to get a hold, the unfortunate victim begins to build up a facade, to fill himself with emptiness, and becomes conceited like the toad in the fable which, in order to show off, puffed itself up until it burst. Pride is unpleasant, even from a human point of view. The person who rates himself better than everyone and everything is constantly studying himself and looking down on other people, who in turn react by ridiculing his foolish vanity.
When we hear pride spoken of, perhaps we imagine it as despotic, domineering behaviour. We associate it with the clamour of the mob acclaiming the passing victor, who, like a Roman emperor, bows his head lest his glorious brow graze the white marble of the high triumphal arches.
But let us be realistic. This type of pride is found only in people with crazy imaginations. We have to fight against other forms of pride that are more subtle, and more frequent: against the pride of preferring our own excellence to that of our neighbour; against vanity in our conversations, thoughts and gestures; against an almost sickly touchiness that takes offence at words and actions that are in no way meant to be insulting.
All this can be, and is, a common temptation. A person can come to see himself as the sun and centre of all those around him. Everything must centre round himself. And to satisfy this unhealthy urge, the proud person will sometimes even fake pain, sadness or illness to attract attention so that others will make a fuss of him.
Most of the conflicts arising in the interior life of many people are products of their own imagination: 'the things people have said, what they are thinking, whether I am appreciated…'. The poor soul suffers, through his pathetic foolishness, harbouring suspicions that are unfounded. In this miserable mood everything makes him bitter and he tries to upset others also. All this because he doesn't wish to be humble, because he hasn't learned to forget himself in order to give himself generously in the service of others for the love of God.
Let us turn once again to the Gospels, and look at ourselves in our model, in Jesus Christ.
James and John, through their mother, have asked Jesus for places at his right and at his left. The other disciples are angry with them. What is Our Lord's answer to all this? 'Whoever has a mind to be great among you, must be your servant; and whoever has a mind to be first among you, must be the slave of all; for the Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'
On another occasion they were going to Capharnaum. Jesus may have been walking ahead of them as he did on other days. 'And there, when they were in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they kept silence, for on the way they had' once more 'been disputing among themselves which of them was the greatest. Then he sat down, and called the twelve to him, and said, "If anyone has a mind to be the first, he must be the last of all, and the servant of all." And he took a little child, and set him in the midst of them; and taking him into his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes such a child as this in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes, not me, but him who sent me."'
Doesn't this way Jesus has of doing things move us to love him? He teaches them the doctrine and then, to enable them to understand it, he gives them a living example. He calls a little child, one of the children running around the house, and he lovingly embraces him. How eloquent Our Lord's silence is! With it he has already said everything. He loves those who become as little children. He then adds that the reward for this simplicity, for this humility of spirit, is the joy of being able to embrace him and his Father who is in heaven.
When the time for his Passion draws near and Jesus wants to illustrate his kingship in a very vivid way, he makes a triumphant entry into Jerusalem, mounted on a donkey! It had been written that the Messiah was to be a king of humility: 'Tell the daughter of Sion: Behold your king comes to you, meek and seated on an ass, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.'
Now it is the Last Supper. Christ has prepared everything to bid farewell to his disciples, while they, for the umpteenth time, have become embroiled in an argument about which one of the chosen group is to be considered the greatest. Jesus then 'rising from supper, laid his garments aside, took a towel and put it about him. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of his disciples, wiping them with the towel that girded him.'
Once again he preaches by example, by his deeds. In the presence of the disciples, who are arguing out of pride and vanity, Jesus bows down and gladly carries out the task of a servant. Afterwards, when he returns to the table, he explains to them: 'Do you understand what it is I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and you are right, it is what I am. Why then, if I have washed your feet, I who am the Master and the Lord, you in your turn ought to wash each other's feet.' This tactfulness of Our Lord moves me deeply. He does not say: 'If I do this, how much more ought you to?' He puts himself at their level, and he lovingly chides those men for their lack of generosity.
As he did with the first twelve, so also, with us, Our Lord can and does whisper in our ear, time and again, exemplum dedi vobis, I have given you an example of humility. I have become a slave, so that you too may learn to serve all men with a meek and humble heart.
'The greater you are, the more in all things abase yourself, and you shall find favour with God.' If we are humble, God will never abandon us. He humbles the arrogance of the proud, but he saves the humble. He frees the innocent man, who is rescued because his hands are clean. The infinite mercy of Our Lord is not slow in coming to the aid of those who humbly call upon him. And then he acts as he truly is, as God Almighty. Although there may be many dangers, though the soul may feel harassed and find itself surrounded on all sides by the enemies of its salvation, it will not perish. This is not merely something that was true in days gone by. It continues to happen now.
As I read today's Epistle, I pictured Daniel there surrounded by hungry lions and, without wishing to be pessimistic, for I cannot say that 'old times were better' since every age has its good and bad aspects, I was thinking that at the present time there are also many lions running loose, and that we have to live in this environment. They are lions looking for someone to devour: tamquam leo rugiens, circuit quaerens quem devoret. What can we do to avoid these wild beasts? Perhaps our lot won't be the same as Daniel's. While I am not one for miraculous solutions, I love the wondrous greatness of God when he performs them, and I realise that it would have been easier for God to allay the prophet's hunger, or to place food in front of him. Yet God did not do it that way. Rather he arranged for another prophet, Habacuc, to be transported miraculously from Judea to bring him food. God did not mind working a great miracle here, because Daniel was in the lions' den not through any fault of his own, but on account of the injustice of the devil's hirelings, because he was a servant of God and a destroyer of idols.
We ourselves are also called to destroy many idols, not by doing anything spectacular but by living with the naturalness of an ordinary Christian, sowing peace and joy around us. In this way we will topple the idols of misunderstanding, of injustice, of ignorance, and of those who claim to be self-sufficient and arrogantly turn their backs on God.
Don't be frightened; don't fear any harm, even though the circumstances in which you work are terrible, worse even than those of Daniel in the pit with all those ferocious beasts. God's hand is as powerful as ever and, if necessary, he will work miracles. Be faithful! With a loving, responsible and cheerful faithfulness to the teaching of Christ. Be convinced that our times are no worse than those of other centuries, and that Our Lord is always the same.
I knew an elderly priest who used to say with a smile: 'As for me, I'm always calm and peaceful.' That is how we should always be, immersed in the world, with hungry lions all around, yet never losing our peace, our calm. Always loving, believing and hoping, and never forgetting that Our Lord will work all the miracles we need, if and when we need them.
Let me remind you that if you are sincere, if you show yourselves as you really are, if you acquire that 'true godliness' by being humble and not proud, then you and I will be safe in any environment. We will always be able to talk of battles won and call ourselves the victors. Ours will be the intimate victories of God's love, which bring peace, understanding and happiness to the soul.
Humility will spur us on to carry out great tasks, but only on condition that we never lose sight of our inadequacy, and that we are convinced, and more so each day, of our own helplessness. St Ambrose says: 'Admit without hesitation that you are a servant obliged to carry out a great number of tasks. Do not swagger about because you are called a child of God. Let us acknowledge the grace, but not forget our nature. Do not become swollen-headed if you have served well, because you have done what you were supposed to do. The sun carries out its task and the moon obeys; the angels perform their duties. The instrument chosen by God for the gentiles says: "I do not deserve the name of apostle, because I have persecuted the Church of God" (1 Cor 15:9)… May we also refrain from seeking praise for ourselves,' for our own merits, which are always pitiful and small.
'Rescue me from what is deceitful and impious in man.' Once again the text of the Mass brings us to 'true godliness'. It sets before our eyes the poor material of which we are made and all our evil inclinations. And then it begs God: emitte lucem tuam, send forth your light and your truth, which have led me and brought me to your holy mountain. I don't mind telling you that I have been deeply moved while praying these words of the Gradual.
How then are we to behave in order to acquire this 'true godliness'? In the Gospel we read that Jesus 'did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were seeking to put him to death'. He, who could have eliminated his enemies with a simple desire of his will, also used human means. He, who was God and could change circumstances with a mere wish, has left us a marvellous lesson here: he did not go to Judea. 'His brethren said to him, "Leave here and go to Judea that your disciples also may see the works that you do."' They would have him do something spectacular. Do you see? Do you see that this is a lesson in 'true godliness' and 'false godliness'?
'True godliness'. Today's Offertory prayer proclaims: 'all who know thy name, O Lord, hope in thee, for you forsake not those who seek thee'. And we who are but mended vessels of clay rejoice, 'for he has not forgotten the prayers of the poor in spirit', the prayers of the humble.
Put not the slightest trust in those who present the virtue of humility as something degrading, or as a virtue condemning us to a permanent state of dejection. To know we are made of clay, riveted together again, is a continual source of joy. It means acknowledging our littleness in the eyes of God: a little child, a son. Can there be any joy to compare with that of the person who, knowing himself to be poor and weak, knows also that he is a son of God? Why do we men become dejected? It is because life on earth does not go the way we had hoped, or because obstacles arise which prevent us from satisfying our personal ambitions.
Nothing like this happens when a person lives the supernatural reality of his divine filiation. 'If God is for us, who can be against us?' As I never tire of repeating: let them be sad who are determined not to recognise that they are children of God!
Finally, we find in today's liturgy two petitions which should spring like arrows from our lips and hearts: 'O almighty God, may our ceaseless celebration of these divine mysteries help us to merit the gifts of heaven.' And 'O Lord, grant that we may constantly serve you in accordance with your will.' Service, my children, service: that is our role; to be 'servants to all, so that in our days the faithful people may grow in merit and in number'.
Let us turn our eyes towards Mary. No creature ever surrendered herself to the plans of God more humbly than she. The humility of the ancilla Domini, the handmaid of the Lord, is the reason we invoke her as causa nostrae laetitiae, cause of our joy. After Eve had sinned through her foolish desire to be equal to God, she hid herself from the Lord and was ashamed: she was sad. Mary, in confessing herself the handmaid of the Lord, becomes the Mother of the divine Word, and is filled with joy. May the rejoicing that is hers, the joy of our good Mother, spread to all of us, so that with it we may go out to greet her, our Holy Mother Mary, and thus become more like Christ, her Son.