This past summer, I had a chance to go on a program at Notre Dame with several other priests from around the country. One of them told us a story. He is from Washington, DC, but his family lives around Hagerstown. The priest was going to Penn Station in Baltimore to pick up his brother and give him a ride home. As his brother was arriving around 1PM, he had not had a chance to have a significant lunch, so he went to a snack stand in the station and bought himself those little cheese crackers with peanut butter in them.
Anticipating his brother, he sat down in the waiting area. Eventually, a young lady sat down next to him; and after a little while, he noticed that she was reaching over to the little table between them and taking a cracker and eating it. “How bold!” he thought to himself, but he figured, I guess we will share these. All the while, he marveled at the rudeness of the girl who was taking his crackers.
Finally, his brother’s train arrived and he met him. They walked to the lot where the priest’s car was, and as he was helping place the luggage in the trunk, he heard a little rustling sound. It was coming from his jacket pocket. When he investigated, he pulled from his pocket a completely unopened pack of cheese and peanut butter crackers.
Yes, we all laughed at his story too. He told it as an example of being humbled. And this is what the Lord is calling us all to in our each of readings this weekend.
Humility. It is at the heart of the Beatitudes that Jesus shares with His disciples. It is what keeps our mouths shut when we would say something stupid and hurtful. It is what allows us to consider the possibility that we might be wrong.
The prophet Zephaniah speaks of humility as something that is even vital to our salvation: “perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.” Saint Paul bluntly reminds the people at Corinth that they are not all that and a bag of chips either. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” In fact, he implies that they were “foolish … weak … lowly … despised … [counting] for nothing.” Not really much of pep talk if you consider just that!
However, humility requires that we be mindful of where we are from – of just how dependent on grace and others we actually are. At some point in our lives, we are foolish, weak, despised, lowly, counting for nothing – and it is a good thing for us to remember that. Otherwise, what need have we for God – or anyone else, for that matter?
As we look at the Beatitudes, we probably see ourselves somewhere in there at some point or another of our lives. But these are meant to be permanent dispositions – not “moods” – for Jesus. The revolution of the Kingdom of Heaven is precisely that the poor in spirit are blessed, precisely because they are poor in spirit – not because they “put up with it” for long enough and now they are rich. The Kingdom of Heaven does not seek to replace one form of oppression or injustice with another – regardless of what we want to call it.
So what do we have to learn from this school of humility this weekend? Remember that we live in America – perhaps the most powerful nation on earth. Recently, we have heard cries to “Make America great again!” And there are many among us who are hopeful for this possibility – myself included. However, there is a right and wrong way to go about it, and our faith can give us the guideline. Jesus knows that we are capable of greatness; in fact, he calls us to it. “Blessed” is not just a word indicating a nice pat on the back. Rather, it is a call to us – an invitation – to live as Jesus does: meekly, poor in spirit, thirsting for justice. In short, humbly.
We do not achieve this beatitude by simply reversing the oppression that we feel we have experienced – as white people, as Catholics, as Christians, as Americans, as men or women, as heterosexual or homosexual. That would be the opposite of what Jesus blesses today. Instead, we become great by considering where we were when God called us; by remembering where we came from. At some point, all of us were immigrants or refugees, we were bullied for being different, we were persecuted as Christians by countless regimes. At some point, we were wrong. These should be lessons in humility – like an unopened pack of cheese crackers, not spears to be thrown now that we have the upper hand.
Our Lord’s words come today as a soothing message – an invitation to holiness. He shows us where to begin – where we all began – in humility. May His example – and His alone – be our guide, so that we all can be as great as He knows we are.