If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all. (Mark 9:35)
If we really want to understand what this means, I think we have to meditate on Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate.
Christ had made what St. Paul calls His “noble confession.” That is, Jesus had declared His true identity. He possesses absolute authority. There is only One Who rules all. Christ, only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, is that One.
Here He stands, the One Who actually is truly the first, standing before a feckless Roman careerist with highly limited insight, and less courage. The Emperor of All Things stands in the dock, at a shabby excuse for a tribunal of justice, accused of blasphemy for declaring what is true. And, because this new, divine Adam loves you and me as much as He does, He bows His head, accepts His death sentence without protest, and takes up His cross.
Lately, the airwaves have coursed with news of Pope Francis and his visit to these shores. This week we will certainly see a lot of Pope-Francis coverage. Your unworthy servant will have the privilege of concelebrating Mass with His Holiness on Wednesday afternoon in Washington, when the pope will declare the Apostle of California, Fr. Junipero Serra, a saint. Holy Father will use Fr. Serra’s language, the original vernacular language of the Church in North America…Spanish.
Anyway, people love Pope Francis for his humility, as well we should love him for it. He occupies the office with the world’s greatest responsibilities in a perfectly unassuming way. Now, those of us with functioning memories can recall that Popes Benedict XVI, John Paul II, John Paul I, Paul VI, and John XXIII all occupied the office of Successor of St. Peter with unassuming humility, also. But that doesn’t make Pope Francis’ humility any less powerful and beautiful. To really understand the power of the pope’s humility, though, we have to try to understand its source.
The Holy Father does not practice humility because his enormous ability to influence people and events embarrasses him. Much less does he practice humility in order to out-humble previous popes. No. Humble Pope Francis is as humble as he is for one reason, the same reason that humble St. Francis walked the streets of Assisi as humbly as he did: because of the humble Savior.
One of the best devotional exercises we can do, I think, is to try to imagine how the world would look to us if we had never heard of Jesus Christ. Of course, we can never completely succeed in imagining this. Most of us have fed on Christ as our spiritual food since our earliest years. But, since the world around us has fallen back into paganism, we can do this spiritual exercise a lot more successfully than our grandparents could.
So, let’s ask ourselves: Could anyone really practice humility, the virtue of humility, in a world without Christ? Pagan nations have not generally prized humility as a virtue in their own citizens, though of course they loved having humble slaves. As the Lord Jesus said, “The pagans lord it over each other. The masters insist on making their authority felt.”
Ambitious pagan people jockey for position, stab each other in the back, claw their way to the top, stomping on the heads of their closest associates—and for what? Status in a puny pecking order.
Years ago, I had friends among the aspiring avant-garde artists in New-York-City. One of them said to me, after a supposed friend of his had trashed him viciously in order to get a leg up for an obscure gallery show: “It’s par for the course. The fighting is so fierce because the stakes are so low.”
Meanwhile, here stands Christ—with power, glory, eternal beatitude in His sovereign hands. With those very hands, He grasps the cross He carried for us.
Of course, the most humbling thing for us about Jesus Christ’s incandescent humility is this: this is Divine Mercy for us. We have to humble ourselves enough to see that… 1. For all our vain human ambitions, we have absolutely no hope at all for anything truly good, without Christ, and 2. He loves us enough—loves us, lumps and all, foolishness and all—Almighty God, our Creator, loves us enough to stand before Pilate and bow His head, so that we won’t have to, when the day of reckoning comes.
There is nothing we ever could have done, or ever could do, to deserve such love. Yet He loved us enough to satisfy for our sins as one of us. This is even more humbling. We can say, “Look, Father! Our brother Jesus is just! The human race does not totally suck. Not at all. We have Jesus, and all of His saints, especially His Blessed Mother!” And when we cry out to Him like this, which is what we are doing every time we pray Holy Mass together, He smiles and says, “Yes, My children. Yes.”
The humble pope will soon give us a special holy year, a jubilee year, of mercy. So that we can share more fully in what Christ has humbly done for us. Jubilee Year of Mercy begins December 8, the fiftieth anniversary of the conclusion of the second Vatican Council. More on that as the day gets closer. In the meantime, let’s pray for our Holy Father’s safe travels and rejoice that he has come to visit us!