Humility was a vice in Ancient Greco-Roman culture. It is also a vice to modern Enlightenment thinkers. Seeking humility is truly a “scandalon” or scandal. It is an offense, a literal stumbling block. It brings you low to the “humus” or soil of the earth.
But Jewish thought, and as a result Christian thought, prized humility as a character virtue. Beautiful and good for its own sake, it also moves a person toward others and finds social good for the sake of finding shalom or eudaimonia as individuals in community.
Humility is fundamentally recursive and self-regarding, but also fundamentally relational and others-regarding. Humility, I think, is a state of low-self concern matched with an ownership of limitation and finitude. It moves us toward solidarity with those “beneath us,” reflecting our utterly dependent and socially embedded nature.
“The question is, Will you and I follow Mary’s vision of greatness?”
But it is most definitely a stumbling block. We love to praise humility, but we hate to seek it.
Make Mary Great Again
Mary’s humility is especially scandalous for us power-hungry Western Christians.
We’ve been living life upside-down. We’ve sought power, influence, honor, strength, government office, employee of the month, homecoming king, productivity, likes, retweets. But life at the top is lonely. We’re baffled when our formulas fail. We’re shocked when greatness doesn’t feel so great. We still wonder—stupefied—why life doesn’t seem to work.
And so the magnifying (making great) eschatological vision spoken by the Mother of God should come as the pain of failure to the contemporary American church. If it is offensive, it is because we are upside-down and she is right-side-up. And like the Mother she is, she has words and example to guide us.
The question is, Will you and I follow Mary’s vision of greatness?
Where Did Jesus Learn Humility?
And another question is, Where do you think Jesus learned that the first shall be last and the greatest are servants and exaltation comes through humility? (Matthew 23:11-12)
Mary the Mother of Jesus is a 14-year-old middle-eastern girl, about to become a political refugee, shameful to her family and her betrothed, the kind of person that “gets put away quietly.” We would ignore her, at best. Maybe we would do much worse.
It is this despised and oppressed body that becomes pregnant—very full indeed—with God. The Logos enters the Chaos through her. Word made flesh burrowing and borrowing and plunging into her womb, as Rilke said. It was Mary’s flesh offered to Christ’s. Those pluripotent cells reduplicated, feeding off her humble body. The morning sickness, the aching lower back, the blood and waters of delivery. Radical particularity. Radically unknown. Upside-down.
“Advent is an earthquake at dawn.”
But almost immediately, we affirm with her, the Magnificat. We want it to make sense. We want to get it. This moment is so glorious and ecstatic for us. We see the better, lower road whereby humility leads to our ultimate good. Rilke thinks of Mary as somehow growing, able to bear countless others, every other creature throws light and finds themselves righted by this complete reception of one’s humble estate, a productive humility that bears many children full of life. She was “the forest no one had explored.” “Her simple and unself-centered Mary-life” of humility offers “paths leading everywhere.”
Advent is an earthquake at dawn. For those of us whose eyes have not been adjusted, its light is blinding and disorienting. It moves the earth under our feet, it causes us to stumble from our prideful heights. Our eyes are still fixed on the way of power, success, wealth, and brutal self-exertion and self-magnification. Our feet are still planted on the sand of our own glory. But Mary’s little way sees clearly in this dawn of light, and deftly moves through the world restoratively, for it is already low to the ground and prepared for God’s own humble way of love.
“I have sought Joseph’s privilege and power, but came away empty. I want Mary’s humility, but I’m afraid of what that will mean.”
Prayer for Humility Like Mary’s
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
I have sought Joseph’s privilege and power, but came away empty.
I want Mary’s humility, but I’m afraid of what that will mean.
Make me hungry, empty, weak, dependent, low.
Bring me to the rich soil where the ignored, the oppressed, the shamed, the excluded, and the wretched sit together, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
I daresay, make me humble.
The Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55)
And Mary said “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
And Then that Girl the Angels Came to Visit, by Rainer Maria Rilke
And then that girl the angels came to visit,
she woke also to fruit, frightened by beauty,
given love, shy, in her so much blossom, the forest
no one had explored, with paths leading everywhere.
They left her alone to walk and to drift
and the spring carried her along.
Her simple and unself-centered Mary-life
became marvelous and castlelike.
Her life resembled trumpets on the feast days
that reverberated far inside every house;
and she, once so girlish and fragmented,
was so plunged now inside her womb,
and so full inside from that one thing
and so full – enough for a thousand others –
that every creature seemed to throw light on her
and she was like a slope with vines, heavily bearing.
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