The Christ Encomium
[Ezek.18:25-28; Phil.2:1-11; Mt.21:28-32]
There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, ‘Be like the bamboo; the taller you grow, the deeper you bow’.
In other words, be humble. Humility is important in some cultures, but not so much in ours. Our society seems to regard humble people as weak and passive, but that’s not humility. True humility means understanding your strengths and weaknesses and knowing how you fit into the world.
Henri Nouwen, in his book Bread for the Journey, says that our society believes that the only way to go is up. He says, ‘Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record – that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame.’
Many of us work hard to climb that ladder at work or in our social lives. But isn’t this just feeding our pride? In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis describes pride as ‘posing and posturing.’ [i] And he warns that if you are proud, you cannot know God, for a proud person is always looking down on things and people, and if you’re looking down you cannot see anything that’s above you. [ii]
In today’s second reading, St Paul is worried that the Christian community in Philippi has been split by rivalry and division. He reminds them of God’s deep love for them and the compassion and mercy they’ve had for each other. He says that if they want to live in Christ with all the joys the Christian life brings, then they must be united, sharing the same divine spirit and purpose.
But this can’t happen, he says, if they’re filled with vanity and selfish ambition. They need to start living as Jesus did, by always putting others first.
Paul then describes Jesus, using an ancient hymn of praise which is often called The Christ Encomium. Jesus was equal to God, but He emptied himself and became an ordinary man. He lived as a humble servant and even accepted death on a Cross. This, Paul says, is how we should live our lives.
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI explained this passage. He said that God deliberately makes Himself small for us so that we can understand Him, welcome Him and love Him.
God doesn’t come with power and outward splendour, Pope Benedict said, for He doesn’t want to overwhelm us with his strength. Instead, He comes to us as a defenceless baby, in need of our help and He does this because he wants our love.
And he added that by loving God and learning to live with him, we will discover the humility that is the very essence of love. [iii]
In 1622, St Francis de Sales described humility using the example of spiders and bees. He said, ‘Don’t act like the spider, who represents the proud; but imitate the bee, who is the symbol of the humble soul.
The spider spins its web where everyone can see it, and never in secret. It spins in orchards, going from tree to tree, in houses, on windows, on floors – in short, before the eyes of all.
The spider represents the vain and hypocritical who do everything to be seen and admired by others. Their works are, in fact, only spiders’ webs, fit to be cast into the fires of hell.
But the bees are wiser and more prudent, he said, for they prepare their honey in the hive where no-one can see them. Besides that, they build little cells where they continue their work in secret.
This represents… the humble soul, who is always withdrawn within herself, without seeking any glory or praise for her actions. Rather, she keeps her intentions hidden, being content that God sees and knows what she does.’ [iv]
Jesus and Mary both lived like bees, working quietly in the background. Pride and upward mobility meant nothing to them.
In 2017, Pope Francis said ‘Mary shows us that humility is not the virtue of the weak, but of the strong who do not mistreat others to make themselves feel important.’
He said that humility is like an emptiness that leaves room for God. We know that because God has done great things in the world thanks to humble people, and this shows that the humble person is powerful, not because he’s strong, but because he’s humble.
Pope Francis also said, ‘Behold the grandeur of the humble and of humility.’
Then he added: “I’d like to ask you – and also myself – but don’t answer in a loud voice, just answer in your heart: ‘How’s my humility?’” [v]
Yes, how is your humility? Is it something you cultivate?
[i] Lewis, CS. Mere Christianity. Fontana Books, London, 1969:111.
[ii] Ibid. p.108.
[iv] St Francis de Sales, Sermon for Ash Wednesday, 9 February, 1622