The Third Sunday of Advent
17th December 2023
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-end
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Last week I tried to make the positive case for repentance as something hopeful and inspiring. Today I’m going to attempt to do something similar for humility.
Humility is a virtue that is rather out of fashion. Our society places a very high value on confidence and self-belief. We teach our children that all they need to achieve what they want in life is to believe in themselves. The acquisition of the skills and knowledge necessary to flourish in life is subordinated to the building of robust self-confidence. This is an idea that is rarely questioned.
Humility is also an idea that is much misunderstood. When we think of humility, I suspect that we are really thinking of a kind of faux humility, the little games of self-deprecation that we play so as not to come across as cocky to other people. Now of course these little games have their uses, but I don’t think that’s real humility.
And then there is also a certain amount of unfortunate history associated with humility, as with repentance. Mary sings in the Magnificat that God has “put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek”, and yet the Church has at times been rather more keen to preach humility to those who are already downtrodden than it has on fulfilling these words.
In today’s gospel, one of the notable things about John the Baptist is his humility.
John the Baptist lived in a time of political and religious turmoil, a time of intense messianic expectation. We know both from passing references in the New Testament and from non-biblical sources that many would-be messiahs emerged during these years. We also know both from the New Testament and from non-biblical sources that John the Baptist attracted large numbers of followers, and it would have been natural for certain hopes and expectations to attach themselves to this charismatic preacher.
It would be very easy to get carried away on such a wave of popular adulation. It would be very easy for the success of John’s preaching ministry to have gone to his head. But he seems to have understood that his was a different role, and so he is very firm in dissociating himself personally from any messianic expectation. He says simply: “I am not the Messiah”, and when asked if he is Elijah or the prophet, he replies “I am not”.
It is humility that enables John the Baptist to very simply and plainly detach himself from any idea of his being the Messiah. A weaker person might have allowed the adulation to go to his head, a weaker person might have begun to ask themselves “but what if I really am the Messiah?”.
Humility gives us a kind of strength, the strength to understand ourselves, the strength to know what we are and also to know what we are not, the strength to know what we can be, and the strength to know what we cannot be. Humility protects us from the delusions and grandiosity that can well up within our own hearts, and also from the pressures and expectations of others.
But we also learn from John the Baptist that humility is not the same thing as self-deprecation. When he is pressed on who he is, he is quite happy to explain his actions in terms of biblical prophecy. He does not answer “Oh I’m no-one in particular”. He says “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: make straight the way of the Lord”. If you happen to be a very good badminton player or pastry chef or estate agent there is no particular moral virtue in making out as though you are not. When we do this, it is not usually because we are humble, but rather because our egos are fragile, and we are trying to protect ourselves from a possible fall or disappointment or embarrassment.
Humility is not about these little games of self-deprecation; it is rather about not allowing the things that we are good at to give us a conceited opinion of ourselves in general. God has entrusted good gifts to each one of us, and the fact that I may be a little faster on my bicycle than another person doesn’t make be better than them. Our concern should simply be to use whatever gifts have been entrusted to us for the good of others.
I started out by contrasting the Christian virtue of humility with the contemporary emphasis on self-confidence and self-belief. I think this emphasis, particularly in parenting and in educational settings, has probably arisen as a well-intentioned way of encouraging people to overcome the crippling self-doubt that afflicts so many, especially when we’re young. There are times when we certainly do need to encourage people to have more confidence and to back themselves to do something when their uncertainty holds them back. But often that’s not enough on its own. Self-confidence that doesn’t rest on some sort of substance is a dangerous and damaging thing. I’m sure we’ve all met people who seek to mask their insecurities with bombast and braggadocio. It doesn’t work: the fragile ego that lies beneath the cockiness hasn’t really gone away, and setbacks and adversities will bring it to the surface.
Much better is the path of humility and self-knowledge.
Whatever we are good at, or whatever we are not good at, we are nonetheless beloved of God; whatever we are called to do, or whatever we are not called to do, we are nonetheless beloved of God, and we have a place in God’s loving purposes. Understanding this is surely the key to humility: once we recognize it there is no need for us to build an inflated sense of our own importance, there is no need for us to bluff and brag, nor is there any need for us to play those little games of self-deprecation.
Of course this is much easier to say than it is to put into practice. Humility is hard, and of all the virtues it may be the hardest to practise. But the starting point has to be that our confidence is not in ourselves but in Christ, just like John the Baptist in today’s gospel. Once we recognize that through Him we are beloved children of the Father, once we recognize that with all our gifts and flaws and fragilities each one of us is loved even to death on the Cross, then through the work of the Holy Spirit we can begin to dismantle those complex defences we build around our fragile egos, and simply become the people that God in His love has created us to be, to whom, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages. Amen