Humility and the First Sunday of Lent

The Temptation of Christ, Simon Bening, 16th c. (wikipedia commons)

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time (Lk. 4:13). ⧾

On Ash Wednesday we began our observance of the holy season of Lent. By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 510). As this mystery is described and revealed by St. Luke, the temptations endured by Our Lord are three in number and they reveal to us something of how the devil can also tempt us. St. Ambrose explains that there are three special weapons which we are taught the devil is wont to arm himself with, that he may wound the soul of man. One is of appetite, another of boasting, the third, ambition (St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, St. Luke, Vol. III, p. 145).

St. Ambrose further explains that St. Luke would not have said that all temptation was ended, had there not been in the three temptations which have been described the materials for every crime; for the causes of temptations are the cause of desire, namely, delight of the flesh, the pomp of vain-glory [and] the greediness of power (Ibid., p. 151).  What St. Ambrose calls greediness for power is what St. Augustine describes in his monumental work, The City of God, as the lust of domination (libido dominandi); the lust for power, advantage and glory. Our Lord clearly taught us that this is the way of the world and not the way of the Christian: ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever will be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mt. 20: 25-28). The whole of Divine Revelation is seen in the humility of the Creator in becoming incarnate and the humility of the creature in welcoming Him. Appropriating this humility and understanding its absolute necessity is the work of a lifetime and it is the path that is especially set before us during the holy season of Lent. In a certain sense Lent allows us to unite ourselves in a particular manner to the mystery of Our Lord’s humility.

St. Augustine acknowledged that great is the effort needed to convince the proud of the power and excellence of humility, an excellence which makes it soar above all the summits of this world, which sway in their temporal instability (The City of God, Bk. 1, Preface). Our prayers and sacrifices are especially needed in these perilous times as the summits of this world sway in their temporal instability. First and foremost however, it is an effort that engages each one of us in our own interior struggle to conform ourselves to the gentle and humble Heart of Our Saviour. Humility is a foundational virtue; the one upon which we must establish our life. On Ash Wednesday, when we were marked with blessed ashes, we made a public expression of sorrow for sin, of our resolve to undertake Lenten discipline and we were visibly marked with a visible sign of the power and excellence of humility.  The traditional forms of penance undertaken during this holy season, namely, prayer, fasting, penance, and almsgiving allow us to enter into the mystery of our Lord’s obedience and humility. By self-denial, discipline and other forms of penance we humble our sinful pride (Preface III of Lent, The Roman Missal) and with minds made pure we are better able to understand the meaning of our Lord’s Passion. Our external forms of penance express an internal attitude of submission to the will of God, of trust in His Providence, of compassion for others, especially the poor; the materially poor and the spiritually poor. The devotions which are also traditionally associated with this holy season such as the Stations of Cross likewise help us to conform ourselves to the mystery of Our Lord’s humble obedience.

In our own particular manner, and in the concrete circumstance of our life, each one of us is engaged in a disciplined effort to conform ourselves to the pattern of Our Lord’s life and especially His Sacred Passion. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us in very simple terms that the passion of Christ completely suffices to fashion our lives. Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what He desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue (Collatio 6 super Credo in Deum). This is why Our Lord left us the Mass as the Memorial of His Sacred Passion. In the Mass we participate in Our Lord’s Sacred Passion for the world’s salvation and we are one with Him in His self-offering to the Father. When this mystery truly becomes the defining mystery of our own individual existence then the lust for power, advantage and glory have no appeal for us and we desire only the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Our Lenten obedience and our union with the mystery of Jesus in the desert lead to the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The saving knowledge or science of the Cross is at the heart of authentic Christian discipleship and so above all we pray for the grace to come to a deeper awareness of the power of the Cross and of our own participation in this Mystery. This is at the heart of authentic discipleship because Our Lord Himself tell us that a disciple is not above his teacher, but every one, when he is fully taught will be like his teacher (Lk. 6:40). Let us ask Our Lord for this grace: that we may come to a deeper understanding and love of the Cross. The Cross is the fulfilment of all the prophecies and Jesus Crucified is both the power and the wisdom of God. Therefore, we should glory in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered (Gal. 6:14). ⧾