Every time I preach God’s Word as a priest, my hope is that it both affirms faith and moves those who are sceptical towards that gift. But as I do so, I often ask myself the question: what was it that moved me to faith in the first place? What was it about the story of Jesus in the Gospels that first moved my heart to believe in him? The answer to that question is pretty straightforward. For me it was the love of Jesus that drew me to faith in him as the Son of God. What was most captivating about Jesus’ love was how it was directed in two directions: outwards and downwards. On the horizontal level, it flowed outwards to the poor, to the sick and to those on the edges of society. But as Son of God, Jesus also carried the love of God downwards to those who had descended beneath their dignity and raised them again to new hope and life. It is this nature of God’s love as humble and descending that I would like to reflect on here.
The first place we see the humility of God expressed in the life of Jesus is at his conception and birth. The infinitely powerful God took on the limitation of the human condition to become one like us in all things but sin. Each Advent and Christmas as we ponder the circumstances of his birth and contemplate the vulnerable Christ child in the crib with the eyes of the heart, a moving sense of God’s humble love reduces us to our knees in adoration and praise. With his birth to a lowly maiden in poverty, his experience as a refugee, his presentation in the Temple with two turtledoves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb (cf. Luke 2:24), we begin to notice the theme of humility running throughout the stories of Jesus’ early life. It seems like the Father willed that his Son descend to the experience of millions of people who would also know the plight of poverty and material insecurity. Later at his baptism, Jesus had no need to descend into the waters of the Jordan for he was without sin. Yet, he choose to do so out of solidarity with us who know the burden of sin and a desire to lift us out of the mud of slavery towards true freedom. This was his mission for God “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy out of the ash heap” (Ps. 113:7).
As he arrived in Jerusalem for his passion, he entered the city on a donkey as a sign of humility and peace (cf. Matt. 21:5). At the Last Supper, he descended on his knees to wash the disciples’ feet—a humble task of service reserved for slaves. There at the first Eucharist he left us the memorial of his death whereby he would give himself thereafter to those he loved in every place and time through the sacrament of his Body and Blood.
With his death on Calvary, Jesus choose to “empty himself” for he was “humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross” (Phil. 2: 7-8). On the cross Jesus went down to the depths of where the human spirit could descend in suffering and despair in order to reach all those who would go there. In his agony, he descended to the point of utter abandonment even by God when he cried out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). But the Father did not leave him in that hell but raised him on high and together with him, all who would believe. Because of Christ’s descent out of humble love to the God-forsaken, no one would ever be without hope.
The dramatic descent of Jesus from heavenly glory to his humble birth, his life and the hell he experienced on the cross was not just expressed in actions. Throughout his saving journey from the heights to the depths, his actions were pervaded by a spirit of humility for he was “gentle and humble of heart” (Matt. 11:29). In his teaching he warned those who would exalt themselves that they would be humbled and promised those who humbled themselves that they would be exalted (Matt. 23:12; Luke 14:11). In order to learn Jesus’ way of love, his followers would also need to make that humble descent.
Many of the great saints grasped the great paradox that God’s greatness had revealed itself in the humble love of Jesus. St. Paul appreciated that “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). St. Augustine (354-430) marvelled at Christ’s humility by contrasting the greatness of his divinity to the depths he had stooped to meet us in love: “He was being suckled at the breast and he was holding the universe together. He was lying in a manger and feeding angels” (Sermon 123, 3). For Augustine, Christ is the magister humilitatis…the teacher of humility (On the Gospel of John, 90) who shows us that all Christian love rests on the foundation of humility.
For St Isaak of Syria (613-700), “humility is the garment of God…Therefore, everyone who clothes himself in garments of humility becomes clothed in Christ himself.” The heart of St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was moved by God’s humility when he contemplated the birth of the Jesus and his presence in the Eucharist. About his birth, Francis marvelled: “Though he was rich, he wished, together with the Most Blessed Virgin, his Mother, to choose poverty in the world beyond all else” (Later Admonition and Exhortation, 4-5). Concerning the Eucharist he exclaimed: “O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation he hides himself under an ordinary piece of bread! Brothers, look at the humility of God and pour out your hearts before him!” (Letter to the Entire Order, 27-29)
St Bonaventure (1221-1274) beautifully described God’s humble love as bending down to us: “The eternal God humbly bent down and lifted the dust of our nature in to unity with his own person” (Sermon II on the Nativity of the Lord). For the great Franciscan, the greatness of God’s love is seen by bridging polar opposites: “God’s power is his humility; God’s strength is his weakness; God’s greatness is his lowliness” (The Mind’s Journey to God, 6.5).
For St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Christ’s humility is like a mirror for in it we see our own pride: “While we are on this earth nothing is more important to us than humility…by pondering his humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble” (Interior Castle, 1, 2, 9).
So what can we take from this revelation of God’s humble love in Jesus that was grasped by the saints? For us in the Church, it takes us back to a truer image of God that emerges from Scripture and Tradition—that God’s nature is humble descending love that is offered to all. For us who believe in God, it emphasises the importance of his nature as love that both spreads out to the edges and goes down to the depths. It immerses us in the truth that true love is, by nature, always humble. C.S. Lewis once wrote that being humble was much more than a question of virtue or imitation of Christ but a way to know God and accept salvation: “As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you” (Mere Christianity).
For people like Francis, Mother Teresa, and Dorothy Day, they came to know the God above them by meeting him below them. They grasped the great paradox that because Christ had descended to the depths and took the lowest place on the cross, it is among the lowly and “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (Matt. 25) that he is to be found. These are the contemplatives of prayer and apostles of mercy who teach us that the more love ascends to God, the more it descends to love of neighbour.
Often I fear that our search for God ends in frustration for as we try to ascend to him, God is descending to us which means we miss each other! It is like two friends on an escalator in a shopping mall who meet while one is going up and the other is going down. Yes, God’s saving love raises us up but only after we have encountered him in humble lowliness both in ourselves and in others. So often we miss the point that the power of God’s unconditional love lies in his humility that allows itself to be hidden, powerless and even rejected.
As we continue the great work of evangelization in our time, let God’s humility continue to confound and amaze us. God’s indescribable love and humility is what produces love and humility in us. As we proclaim the Gospel with courage and conviction in a world of many false gods of power and control, may we do so with hearts that have been moved to faith by the humility of our God who descends from the heights to the depths so that we can be raised from the depths to the heights.