Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Isaiah 49:1-3, 5, 6, 7 / Luke 1:57-68

We can easily understand John the Baptist to be the very embodiment of humility. After all, his entire adult ministry was consumed with directing people away from himself, of calling his people to repentance that they might be ready for the coming of the day of the Lord. In his baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, he showed deep deference, even so much as to doubt the propriety of baptizing him, the laces of whose sandals he was not fit to untie. Although some still wished to cling to this compelling and charismatic prophet, he was altogether clear. Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, must increase, while he, greater than any prophet born of woman, must decrease. The art of the Church has indeed captured his humility in the paradigmatic form of John the Baptist, his finger pointing us away from himself to Jesus Christ.

How odd it sounds, then, when the Church places in John's mouth the words of Isaiah the prophet: The Lord hath called me from the womb, from the bowels of my mother He hath been mindful of my name. And He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of His hand He hath protected me, and hath made me as a chosen arrow; in His quiver He hath hidden me. And He said to me: Thou art My servant Israel, for in thee will I glory. Here there is no pointing away from himself, no call to decrease. Here there is no protestation of unworthiness. If we did not know better, we might well accuse John of possessing an unhealthy preoccupation with his own significance.

Yet, it is because we know that the Baptist was always prompt to direct his listeners to the One who was to come and deliver the world from sin that we can learn from this appropriation of Isaiah's words something important about humility. Humility is not a downplaying of one's gifts. It is not a refusal to recognize and acknowledge gratefully the wonders God has worked in and through us. It does not require that we follow up quickly with and affirmation of others' gifts.

Rather, humility is the recognition of what is true. It is false to deny one's gifts, false to claim not to have graces where God has lavished them so generously. What would be false, however, would be to fail to see this generosity as gift, to imagine some peculiar quality in oneself that did not come from God, that compels God in justice to reward us plentifully. What would be false would be to imagine that, because of these gifts, we ought to be immune to suffering and trial, or that we should always be successful in our endeavors. False pride fears the truth about others, fears that one day it will find its better, and so masks itself with claims of being little and of no consequence. Humility is ready and willing to name and acknowledge its own talents, and is not put out in the slightest to find that there is another who is greater.

This is the message John presents to us today. We are, each and every one of us, called by God for some unique task, some role in his building up the Kingdom, some place in the Body of Christ, which no one else has been graced or equipped to fill. Each of us has an indispensable role, and irreplaceable task, and in each of us, there are gifts that will bring the nations of the world to proclaim the wondrous works God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. At the same time, each of us has a better, someone whose gift is such that we ought with gladness and joy step aside that it might shine all the brighter. Are we humble enough to bear that truth?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Third Sunday after Pentecost

1 Peter 5:6-11 / Luke 15:1-10

Look Thou upon me, O Lord, and have mercy on me; for I am alone and poor. See mine abjection and my labor; and forgive me all my sins, O my God.

Most of us do not care to be seen straightaway in the morning. To greater or lesser degrees, we like to "put ourselves together." For some this may involve no more than straightening one's hair by a cursory once-over with one's hand, followed by a cup of hot coffee. For others, it may necessitate a more thorough routine — perhaps including exercise, bathing, anointing with jellies and creams, and a carefully and strategically planned ensemble of clothes, hairstyle (no doubt fortified by an array of cosmetic products), and accessories, finished by a dash or two of a pleasing scent. The notion here, however, is the same. We care about how we are seen, and we want, if not always to look our best, at the very least to look presentable. We aim to present, if not our best self, then at least a self acceptable to others, the self we would not mind others to see, graciously concealing from them those aspects of our disheveled selves that have no role in polite company.

In doing this, we are not altogether wrong. Man is, in his very constitution, a social animal. He cannot help but caring about how well he is received in the group, in the larger human society of which he is a part. To fail to care about this, to have in truth no regard for how one is seen, how one's appearance and behavior is received by others, is not a sign of virtue, but in fact of a defective humanity. To feel shame, to perceive the disapproval of others, and so to risk by that disapproval being excluded from their company, can be and often is a natural response arising from man's social character. Indeed, this is the very reason that deliberately inducing shame in another, even when justified, ought always to be a sufficiently justified and considered act; the threat to one's sense of self and the fear of exclusion are to deeply woven into the fabric of human nature to be employed for trivial or slight causes. So, concealing our less presentable parts and putting ourselves in order can be seen not as a neurotic concern, nor a concession to vanity or vainglory, but indeed as a healthy response to those natural impulses that arise from being human.

Why, then, would we call upon the Lord to look upon us precisely in our loneliness and poverty? Why highlight to him our objection and our sins, which is to say, make even better known to ourselves and others the shameful features of ourselves that divide us not only from his love, but also from the good company of his friends here and earth and those rejoicing with him in heaven? Likewise, why would Jesus, in defending his practice of receiving and eating with sinners, only highlight to the scribes and Pharisees that the sinners are lost, wayward people in special need of help? That is, even granting that their status as sinners is known, why would Jesus speak not of their worthiness of being in his company, but rather only of the motive of the one who seeks diligently what has been lost until it is found? Similarly, why would Peter, who has echoed our desire to be "put together" in his admonition to be sober and take watch against the devil, nonetheless encourage our knowing, and indeed public, humiliation — Humiliamini, Be you humbled?

The truth is that we cannot come to the security we seek, cannot arrive at being put together as we like, apart from the full, unhesitating admission, to ourselves and to the Church, as well as to the world at large, of our limitations and our vulnerability. The Lord God has nothing to do with partial selves, has no interest in engaging the "best" and thus necessarily false self we choose to present. It is whole persons whom he has come to save, to draw up into his eternal and inexhaustible life through the work of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Spirit. For that reason, it is only the person who admits that he is already divided out from the whole, already by his own choices and those of a broken world excluded from the company for which he was made and called from before the dawn of time, who is able to move from the shame of exposing his faults and limits into the glory of the new man in Christ Jesus.

This is why the Church places on her lips for our sake an appeal to be exposed, to be exposed to God in the fulness of our exclusion and shame. We want to be shamed not that we might be punished, but that we might put an end to our rebellion once and for all. We want to be remade so that what we present to others need never be a best self, a manufactured self, a counterfeit self, but rather the whole and integrated man made perfect in the love of the living God. We expose our shame to the only one who can free us from shame forever, and in that confidence, we call out with joyous confidence to a world yearning to be made whole: Cast thy care upon the Lord and He shall sustain thee.