Humility is considered by St Augustine to be the foundation of all other virtues – the trait that lays the groundwork on our journey toward holiness. During his own conversion, “he came to see clearly that only a person with humility can follow Christ.”
We can often spot when humility is present in someone’s life but translating that to our own lives is not so simple. In addition, since humanity can never exemplify humility to its fullest extent, we struggle to see the full picture of how it can change hearts and shape our world.
So how are we to comprehend this ever-important virtue? Look to our savior Jesus Christ, in whom every human characteristic was perfected and enriched. We find the essence of humility in the human nature of Jesus.
Taking Human Form
“He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” [Philippians 2:7-8].
Consider for a moment the absurdity of God becoming human. Pope Francis refers to the incarnation as a “scandal.” Even in our human brains this concept does not seem right. As the God who created and sustains all of time and space, He still became one of us in order to save us from ourselves. Not only that, He came as a baby! The most innocent, non-threatening image of all, except for maybe a lamb. But He became the sacrificial lamb too! Maybe He is trying to tell us something?
The Servant to All
Throughout history slaves and servants have been on the lowest rungs of society. Lowering oneself to serve another human being is considered below most people – a humiliating act deemed unworthy of the rich and noble.
So, what did our Lord and Savior do? He came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). What kind of God would not only become like those He created but SERVE them during His time on earth? God’s love for us is expressed in Jesus’ humility. Through this love God allowed Himself to be placed BELOW most of society and die a criminal’s death. How could He go to such great lengths for us? And how can we imitate that today?
St. Paul may give us a clue. In his efforts to win over as many souls as possible, Paul made himself “a slave to all.” He said, “To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.” Does this not sound like someone who has channeled the character of Jesus Christ in his love for others? Jesus lowered himself to the form of a slave in order to set an example of how we ought to do the same for others. Likewise, Paul was unfazed by the societal norms of servants and slaves being the lowly class and was more concerned with converting hearts to God.
This is both hard and humiliating, but Paul knew it will bring us closer to the heart of Jesus himself.
The Deepest Ignominy
“Humility cannot befit God, who has no superior, but is above all. . . .Though the virtue of humility cannot attach to Christ in His divine nature; it may attach to Him in His human nature and His divinity renders His humility all the more praiseworthy, for the dignity of the person adds to the merit of humility; and there can be no greater dignity to a man than his being God. Hence the highest praise attaches to the humility of the Man God who to wean men’s hearts from worldly glory to the love of divine glory, chose to embrace a death of no ordinary sort, but a death of the deepest ignominy” [St Thomas Aquinas- Summa Contra].
As St. Thomas Aquinas so eloquently states, Jesus’ humility is worthy of the highest praise because of His divinity. As such, it becomes the highest endeavor in our journey of becoming more like Him.
Imagine how Jesus must have felt being crowned with thorns and spat on by lowly human beings. He must surely have known that with a mere thought he could wipe out the temple and establish His eternal throne on earth. The temptation must have been surreal. But His humility and deep love for us enabled him to overcome the power of sin and death in order to save us for eternity, instead of just during our physical existence.
How often are we placed in a similar situation when our pride is damaged? We are humiliated by those who are “beneath” us and our human instincts push us to fight back to avoid further humiliation. Sometimes we are mistreated at work and become angry because of the injustice. We are disrespected by our children and grow irritated or frustrated by their demeaning behavior. And sometimes we are scorned by our family or friends so we rise up in our own defense to avoid being socially humiliated and to retain our place of pride. Worse yet, some of us undergo suffering and trials that seem unjust and become distraught with God or deny Him entirely.
How can we possibly justify our prideful behavior during an unjust situation when the God of the Universe suffered, “was crucified, died, and was buried” and still remained humble? What could ever be more unjust than that? I tend to think that the human side of Jesus may have felt at least a twinge of temptation to defend His pride just as we do. But in accepting derision and scorn and still continuing to love fiercely, Jesus set an example of how we can and should do the same.
Strength Under Control
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves” [Matthew 11:29].
The virtues of humility and meekness are greatly misunderstood today. Many times we envision a meek person as a push-over, maybe hunched over, soft-spoken, and easy to manipulate. But Jesus was both humble and meek, and He is the ultimate demonstration of all human goodness and virtue. What does that mean for our interpretation of humility? Jesus surely wasn’t a push-over. He stood up the Pharisees, called them brood of vipers, overturned tables in the temple, and withstood the devil’s temptations for 40 days in the desert. And His deep love for humanity clearly indicates the presence of humility in His life. So what are we missing?
The word meekness is translated from the Greek word “praus,” which refers to a horse trained for war. These wild stallions would often retain their fierceness and courage but were disciplined to be “meekened.” So, “meek in the sense that biblical writers meant it refers to strength that is under control” [Aleteia.org]. This gives us a much clearer picture of the man Jesus truly is. He was not ruled by His emotions but harnessed His power and used it for the good of humanity. He knew what He was capable of but still humbled Himself in order to save us from death.
Jesus can be hard to comprehend. We have a difficult time understanding, for instance, how He can be both perfectly just and perfectly merciful, simultaneously. Much of the Catholic faith paradoxically revolutionizes our way of thinking in this manner.
For instance, how can the eternal God become fully man but remain fully God? And why would He? How does He manage to become the servant to all of humanity and still an omniscient being? Why did He send us His Son to die for those He created?
Jesus sacrificial love for us is embodied in His astounding humility. He lowered Himself to the form of a human in order to save us. Jesus humbly presents Himself as a baby and a sacrificial lamb, in order to entice our hearts. He allowed Himself to be beaten, scourged, and humiliated. Through humility, He showed His love for us, in that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
And what’s more, He encourages us to do the same.