Sunday, September 1, 2013

Year C Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 3:17-8.20.28-29; Ps 68:4-7.10-11; Heb 12:18-19.22-24a; Luke 14:1.7-14

Humility is a virtue the value of which is now and probably has always been underrated. To be humble is really to go against our fallen human nature, which bids us to assert ourselves, to hold our own, to win the argument, not to be shown to be in any way lacking physically, intellectually and, yes, even spiritually.

The Christian assembly, or, to use the word employed by the sacred author of the Letter to the Hebrews in our second reading, paneguris, meaning a festive gathering of the entire people for a public celebration, something very like what we mean when we us the word "liturgy," in an important sense, is nothing more than a gathering of sinners who recognize that our need for God’s mercy is gratuitously met in and through Jesus Christ and made perceptible to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, especially in this Eucharist.

To acknowledge each day our need for Christ is an act of humility because it requires us to recognize and acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient and that our humanity is largely constituted by our need, our incompleteness, which surfaces each time we take a self-centered approach to life. According to the author of Hebrews, what constitutes "the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven," is that they have been washed clean by being sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ, who is "the mediator of a new covenant" (Heb 12:23-24) of grace.

Sirach, in our first reading, tells us the more we humble ourselves, the greater we are, adding that it is by humbling ourselves, living in the awareness of our great need, that we "find favor with God" (Sir 3:18). As a natural virtue, as opposed to a theological virtue, humility is acquired through habit, that is, by training ourselves. The Catechism exhorts us, as people reborn in baptism, to "train" ourselves "to live in humility" (par. 2540).

Traditionally, when virtues are discussed in Christian terms, we also discuss the contrary vice that a particular virtue is cultivated in order to overcome. The vice to which the virtue of humility is opposed is envy. But even when it comes to the natural virtues, we find that we can do nothing apart from Christ, and even as we seek to cooperate with God through the experience of our everyday lives, we continue to require healthy helpings of God’s grace; the sacraments are the objective and effective means of acquiring God’s grace.

Elizabeth greets Mary, the Mother of her Lord

Not surprisingly it is the Blessed Virgin Mary who gives us a wonderful example of humility when she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who, like Sarah, the wife of Abraham, and Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, unexpectedly and by the intervention of God, conceived a child in her old age. Of course, this event is the second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. The fruit of this mystery is love of neighbor. We know from reading the Gospel of Luke that our Blessed Mother and St. Elizabeth were so happy for each other. As the great preacher St. John Chrysostom averred, "Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother's progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised" (Catechism par. 2540).

Other objective means God uses to impart grace are daily prayer, Scripture study, alms-giving, which includes acts of selfless service, especially when these require us to sacrifice something we would really rather be doing for the good of others and not done simply to make us feel better about ourselves. This is exactly why Jesus exhorted His hearers in today’s Gospel that when they hosted a meal not to invite people who would feel obligated to repay them, but to serve precisely those who were wholly unable to pay them back (Luke 14:12). Sirach also asserts, in a phrase reminiscent of something we find in St. James’ letter (i.e., "love covers a multitude sins" 5:20), that "alms atone for sins" (Sir 3:29).

The experience of Christians throughout two millennia has also demonstrated that engaging in penitential acts, such as fasting and abstinence, are also means God uses to impart His grace because by practicing them we humble ourselves, acknowledging our great need, our dependence on God.. We can be confident that these means work because the lives of holy women and men throughout the entire history of salvation bear witness to their efficacy. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up. Never forget that Jesus was never more exalted than when He hung on the Cross for you, "the just for the unjust" (1 Pet 3:18).

Love of neighbor is one of the two great commandments given us by our Lord Himself, which, along with loving God with our whole being, fulfills the Law and the prophets. In our Gospel today, just as He did elsewhere in St. Luke’s Gospel when He taught the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus seeks to answer the question, "Who is my neighbor?" "Who is the one I am to love, not to envy, not to feel threatened by and so seek to put myself above?" Jesus’ answer is a difficult one, everybody, but especially the person towards whom I am the least inclined to esteem myself less than! Stewardship, my friends, is all about discipleship, which amounts to nothing more than following Jesus, listening to Him, keeping in mind what Sirach tells us, "an attentive ear is the joy of the wise" (Sir 3:29), and doing what He says. This is what it means to step out in faith as an act of hope, an act of trust.

There is no better way to bring this reflection on God’s word to an end than with the words of our Lord Himself, spoken as a challenge to us today: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 14:11). I challenge everyone to take some time today to think and pray about how Jesus’ challenge applies to your life, to your circumstances. Consider what person, or group of people, you look down on, consider yourself better than, and then set about doing some concrete act of selfless kindness for that person or group this week. I can tell you that it is only by taking up Jesus’ challenge that you will ever see others the way Christ sees them and experience for yourself what it means to be God’s friend.

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