St. Paul teaches us a lesson in humility

Father John A. Kiley

Occasionally in the Scriptures the reader will come across pre-existing hymns that were lifted, so to speak, by the sacred author and incorporated into the revealed word of God. Possibly, the first account of creation from Genesis with its very stylized first day, second day, third day, etc., arrangement was a poetic prayer read in the Jerusalem Temple. The Song of Songs was quite likely a secular love poem adapted for Temple use. St. Luke’s incorporation of songs placed on the lips of Zachariah, the Virgin Mary, the Bethlehem angels and Simeon might also represent some devotional material in use before that evangelist actually put pen to paper.

Certainly, Scripture scholars are in agreement that the rhythmic lines found in the second reading at Mass this coming Sunday from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians was an early hymn celebrating not only the daily humility of the man Jesus Christ, but even more so the cosmic humility of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, “…who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” It might be possible here to see a contrast between the Eternal Son of God refusing to hold on to his Divine prerogatives and our first parents, Adam and Eve, who reached out and grasped the forbidden fruit precisely because Satan had promised that in doing so, the two would become “like God.” Cosmic humility, on the part of the heavenly Son of God, compares alarmingly with the cosmic pride on the part of Eden’s first couple. The Incarnation, from its eternal beginnings in the mind of God through to its disastrous consequences on Good Friday, was a double act of humiliation: the Son of God renounced his Divinity; the man Jesus relinquished his life. St. Paul writes emphatically: “Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death.” And then, St. Paul most likely added on his own, “even death on a cross.”

St. Paul’s celebration of the humility of Christ both as Son of God and as Son of Man is meant to have everyday consequences for the family of believers. St. Paul’s introduces this hymn about the humbled Messiah with these practical words: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but for those of others.” These are challenging words when taken seriously and, frankly, literally by the sincere believer. Humility is not simply accepting the place in society that one might deserve. Humility is not merely the refusal to “put on airs” and be realistic about oneself. Humility, as Christ’s example well shows, is to embrace a state lower than one deserves, even to seek out the lowest place, always esteeming others even when they might not deserve such consideration. Humility is not honesty. Humility goes beyond honesty and willingly accepts a lower place, always advancing the good of others while disregarding one’s own advantage. Clearly such humility is a uniquely Christ-like quality, often admired in print but even more often ignored in practice.

The conclusion of the Pauline hymn might indicate that humility allows for a bit of self-interest. The reader might conclude that humility in this world is the certain path to exaltation in the next world. St. Paul writes expressively, “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Reflecting on these words, some might argue that Jesus’ lowering himself resulted in his being raised up to the Father’s right hand. It would appear that Jesus’ willingness to put the interests of others ahead of his own comfort turned out to be his path to glory. But let’s be clear. Glory was not a consequence of Jesus’ humility; exaltation did not result from Jesus’ choosing the lowest place. The opposite was true. Jesus was humble because Jesus was already secure in His Father’s eternal love. Jesus knew that the lowest human place was nothing, was insignificant, was of no consequence, compared to the eternal love that he inwardly enjoyed. Humility does not lead to glory. Rather glory, an abiding sense of God’s eternal love, leads to humility. Human rank, place, and status evaporate in the awesome awareness of God’s possessed, appreciated and aroused love.