The Humble and the Proud
I’ve wondered over the years what Elizabeth might have thought of her son, John the Baptist. At first blush he’s not what many Jewish mothers wanted in a son. He was a rather unconventional guy. He ate a poor diet, and he definitely was not a clothes horse. But it was his professional path that might have disappointed Elizabeth, if anything did. He didn’t become a rabbi, and he didn’t hang around the movers and shakers at the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, baptizing fallen-away Jews in some second-rate river may not have been in her plans at all.
But far worse than that was John’s deference to Jesus. The gospels quote him as saying he was not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus; and Jesus must increase while he must decrease. I can just imagine Elizabeth yelling at him from the front porch: “Your father and I didn’t raise you to be a doormat, you know.” Or maybe she didn’t. But it’s nice to speculate.
There’s no getting around the fact that the gospel writers attribute an over-healthy dose of humility to John the Baptist. Quite possibly they did this deliberately, wanting to make sure that no one thought of John as a rival to Jesus. Editors get to call the shots, and that may have been their purpose.
But for the sake of argument, I’d like to assume that John really was a self-effacing guy. He really didn’t mind stepping into the shadows to give the limelight to Jesus. Perhaps he really didn’t mind being #2. Perhaps he was the consummate “company man.”
Our society does not look kindly on also-rans and humble types. Instead, we lionize the successful moguls and the rampaging overachievers. Only those at the pinnacle of power deserve our unqualified respect; while losers and the quiet ones merely serve in the cast of thousands that flank the great ones.
Not surprisingly, humility as a virtue has slipped way down in most popularity polls. To many it signifies weakness and poor self-image. It leads to self-destruction, and who wants to hang around such people? They are useful only to fill in the chorus of yes-men that many corporate suites require. But as one of the leading figures of Advent, John the Baptist deserves rescue from this judgment, at least in my humble opinion.
One of the challenges of the English language is the ever-shifting meaning of words. And while some may consider humility as a sign of softness, in fact it had a rather different tone in its original meaning. Derived from the Latin word for earth — humus — it conjures up earthiness and groundedness. Far from being out of touch with their own reality, humble people are strong enough to own up both to their strengths as well as to their faults. It is the ill-informed and clueless people — the ones who live only from strength to strength — who are the oblivious ones. They are blind to their own reality, while the humble person has in many ways thought things through.
What also gives a humble person — and John the Baptist — a leg up is their willingness to accept the notion that they are not the be-all and end-all of the entire universe. Such a notion is anathema to the egomaniacs, and that is their Achilles heel. The one who imagines no personal flaws is only waiting for the inevitable fall.
Herod and John the Baptist epitomize the two extremes. Herod’s strength was self-derived, and so it must have occured to him that he could erase John the Baptist with a wave of his hand. John, on the other hand, drew his strength from outside of himself. He recognized his debt to God, and from God came his message. His principles derived from God, and they sustained him on the best of days and on the worst of days. And that laid the groundwork for his attitude to Jesus. Jesus was no threat to him, even if Jesus were to lure away some of his disciples. Jesus was the embodiment of all that John stood for, and the appearance of such a figure did not threaten John in the least. Here, after all, was one also sent by God.
A little bit of humility can be a good thing, and it can go a long way to making our lives full and complete. In humility we recognize our own limits, and we more readily lean on others for support. In humility we recognize our strengths, and we realize they are given for the benefit of everyone, and not just for ourselves. Humility allows us to see people not as threats to our power and influence, but as teammates in the game of life. Humility lets us see our gifts and realize that they come from God. What could be more reassuring than to know that the Life-force of the universe has entered into my very soul?
So there you have it. As we begin Advent and behold John the Baptist walking toward us, I think it might not be so bad to take his advice to heart. If John must decrease and Jesus must increase, perhaps that’s a good formula for me. At the end of the season we might just be better-grounded and stronger people for taking that route. Maybe I should ask for a dollop of humility this Christmas. It could very well become one of my greatest assets and the key ingredient for a happy life.
On November 29-30th I attended the regular fall meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University. Then, with two hours for the transition, I switched hats and began a two-day retreat for members of the Order of Malta in Minnesota. They stayed in the Abbey guesthouse, and in addition to the three conferences that I gave, we visited the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s. Within its vast collections it houses the Malta Study Center, the largest repository on the history of the Order of Malta outside of the National Library of Malta. In the course of the retreat we joined the monks for the liturgy of the hours, and on December 1st I presided at the Abbey Eucharist.
+Christmas at Saint John’s
While we’ve scarcely begun Advent, in at least one area Christmas cannot wait. By Christmas classes at Saint John’s University will be out and students gone. So any Christmas celebrations that involve them must begin now. One of our great traditions is an annual Christmas concert that the choirs of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict present on our respective campuses, as well as at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. The pictures in today’s post detail some moments during their many practice sessions, as well as at their concert on December 1st.
The roof repair on the east wing of the Quadrangle seemed to take forever, and the noise was the bane of the summer for many monks — myself included. Though it did not take forever, the seven months it did take certainly seemed that way. For me it was a special experience, since the workers climbed the stairs up the scaffold, where they had an unobstructed view into my fourth-floor window. Finally, on the day before Thanksgiving, they dismantled the scaffold, leaving our beautiful brick walls unencumbered. For now the copper roof looks like a shiny new penny. Sadly, it will never get the green patina that such roofs used to get. Today’s air lacks the pollutants that trigger the chemical reaction. We will have to be satisfied with a shade of deep bronze.