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How great are you?
The famous boxer Muhammed Ali loved to say, “I am the greatest!” Once when he was sitting on an airplane before take-off, he did not fasten his seat belt. The stewardess politely reminded him to fasten it. He responded: “Superman don’t need no seat belt!” Without hesitation the stewardess replied: “Superman don’t need no plane either!” Ali fastened his seat belt.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus needed to remind the Apostles that humility is the key to greatness. The disciples had just listened to Jesus predict His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, but they were more interested in discussing who among them was the greatest. So Jesus sat them down and said: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Over and over again, Jesus had to teach them this lesson. Even at the Last Supper, after Jesus gave them His Body and Blood, “a dispute arose among them about who was the most important.”
St. Augustine came to realize himself the importance of Jesus’ teaching. When asked by a monk, “which if the first of all the virtues?” He replied, “Humility.” “And the second?” asked the monk. “Humility,” replied the saint. “And the third?” Augustine answered, “Humility”. Without the foundation of humility, there can be no life of virtue. In fact, it can be asked if there is salvation.
For, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux teaches, “humility is the mother of salvation.” Because the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity humbled Himself, we celebrate His Incarnation. He did not need to brag about being God. Because Jesus humbled Himself to death on a Cross, we have salvation. If we would be great, then, we must follow the example of the Lord who, though God, made Himself ‘the last of all and the servant of all.’
The enemy of humility is, of course, pride, the first of all the deadly sins. Having been in Jesus’ company and listened to Jesus speak, it is no wonder that St. James says in the 2nd Reading, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and even foul practice.” Such vices arise from a disordered sense of self—a lack of true humility.
Remember the case of the Pharisee in the Temple. He was filled with pride and knew that he was perfect, as he proudly stood erect and told God that he was not like the rest of men. He did all the prescribed rituals—prayer, fasting, almsgiving. He considered himself obviously better than the tax collector who was praying with his head down in the corner of the Temple who bowed his head and repeatedly prayed: “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” As Jesus said, it was the humble publican who went home with God’s blessing and was “right with God”, not the proud Pharisee.
Would we like to be great?
If so, Jesus teaches us the way of humility. He knew Who He was and never claimed to be anyone other than the “Son of Man”. By this He meant He was one with everybody. This identification with others allowed Him to consider everyone His brothers and sisters. Even more, it permitted Him to serve them out of love, for He loved them as Himself. So He could wash their feet and die for them on the Cross.
Truly it can then be said, “the humility of God is the mother of our salvation.” Therein we see the supreme divine greatness of God. To share in this greatness all we need to do is be humble enough to follow the Way of Jesus and imitate His humble service to God and others.