Bottom line: In a human being, there is nothing more beautiful, more attractive than humility.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Our readings focus on a central Christian virtue: humility. I'd like to begin with a humorous story. When Oscar Wilde was visiting France, he was introduced to an upcoming author, Marie Anne Bovet. She was a good writer, but plain, even homely in appearance. She noticed that Oscar Wilde was surprised when he saw her. She said, "Come on, admit it. Am I not the ugliest woman in France?" Oscar Wilde made a profound bow and said, "In the world, madam. In the world."
You know, that woman, Marie-Anne Bovet was not only a a good writer. She was beautiful in her humility - her good-natured humility. There is nothing more beautiful, more attractive than humility. I remember seeing that at my ten-year high school reunion. I was struck by one of the girls and asked myself, "Who is she?" As I got closer I recognized her. She was a girl we boys made fun of. One of her facial features was disproportionate. Now, nothing had changed about her face (no cosmetic surgery), but she now had a nice gentle smile. She looked strikingly attractive. What had happened was that she had humbly and gratefully accepted the face God gave her - and she made the best of it. And I hope that we boys had changed in ten years - that we were better able to appreciate the spring of beauty. And, really, nothing is more beautiful than grateful, good-natured humility.
Humility is like a lamp. It enables us to appreciate true beauty, to see what really matters. When Michelangelo Buonarroti was in his mid-eighties, realizing his death was near, he confided to a friend that two things made him sad. "The first," he said, "is that I have not taken more care for the salvation of my soul." Then he added, "the second thing that saddens me is to die now, when like an infant, I am barely beginning to babble the first words of my art." Michelangelo had produced immortal works such as David, Moses, the Pieta and the Sistine Chapel. They have have such overwhelming beauty that they often leave people breathless. Yet, at the end of his life, he realized that even these masterpieces - in light of eternity - were like incomplete words. "I am barely beginning to babble."
By his humility before God, Michelangelo was like St. Paul. Today we hear that no one can boast before God. We are saved by grace, says Paul. Our salvation is a gift from God. In the Gospel, we have a famous verse - John 3:16 - I hope all of you know it by heart, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life."
Ironically, the recognition that we owe everything to God is the basis for true self-esteem. Some think that self-esteem comes from doing everything just right, achieving great things - and having others acknowledge what we do. That kind of self-esteem is very fragile. If I make a mistake, if I fail in some way or if someone criticizes me, I fall to pieces. My self-esteem comes apart because it depends on something external: my accomplishments - and whether others listen to me or appreciate me.
St. Paul - and Michelangelo - point to a deeper source of esteem. Even if I do the greatest works ever seen, they are small in comparison to God and eternity. What counts is not so much what you and I do, but what God does for us. God loves us so much that he gives his only Son so that we have life in him.
A person who had this great trust in God was the Cure d'Ars - St. John Vianney. He mentioned that one day he received two letters. One of them praised him, said what a great saint he was; the other accused him of being a fake and a hypocrite. St. John Vianney commented, "The letter of praise gave me nothing. The letter of criticism took nothing from me. I am what I am in the eyes of God and nothing more."
In the eyes of God our works matter only if they express a dependence on him. And the wonderful thing is that acknowledging our sins can bring that same result: humility, reliance on God. This doesn't mean that we should keep sinning or start sinning. No: An unrepented sin can drag a person to hell. Jesus did not come to condemn, but to give life. That means returning to him, resolving to sin no more.
In just two weeks we will celebrate Palm Sunday - the inauguration of Holy Week. What we bring to Holy Week is humility - the awareness of who we are before God. In a human being, there is nothing more beautiful, more attractive than humility. Before God none of us can boast. We are saved by grace. He loves us so much that he has given his only Son.
Intercessions for Fourth Sunday of Lent (from Priests for Life)
From the Archives:
Year A (RCIA):
Small Gesture with Enormous Promise (2008)
Seeing and Knowing (2005)
Men Who Went Blind (2002)
Fatal Blindness (1999)
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Lenten Recommendations, Parking Extension, Repair of Pews, Divine Mercy Sunday with Fr. Frank Pavone)
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