Humility and obedience in Christ

By Most Reverend Daniel E. Thomas

The Catholic Standard & Times presents the last of a six-part series authored by the auxiliary bishops of Philadelphia to aid readers in their Lenten preparation during this year of St. Paul.

Humility and obedience: two words which are hardly the friends of current culture. After all, in the world, humility and obedience get you nowhere fast! Instead of humbling ourselves, we are encouraged to promote ourselves. Instead of obeying anyone or any rule, we are told that fierce independence is the way. Humility and obedience are at odds with the way of the world. They are its enemies.

But humility and obedience are not only the friends of the Christian life, they are its very lifeblood, a lifeblood which flows directly from the Cross of Christ!

Paul, writing from prison, rejoices that the good news of Christ’s life, death and resurrection are proclaimed, whether he is free to travel or in chains. He goes on to tell the Philippians what will make his joy complete: that they might be of a single mind, acting not out of vanity, but out of a humility of mind that leads them to each other’s service.

Paul wishes to foster in the Philippians an attitude of corporate humility, through and in Christ. He prefaces his words chosen for our reflection here with “Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus.” That “mind” is more than the intellect, it is the essential character whereby Christ freely and obediently gave Himself to the will of the Father by accepting the redeeming death on the Cross.

In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul employs a Christological hymn in which the early Church professed its faith in Jesus, the Son of God, who humbled Himself to become human like us, even unto death, and was raised up by the Father. Paul offers us this example of a humility so great that nothing, not even His spaninity, is used as a shield: “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at.” This humility leads not to disgrace, but to love, and God’s glory.

How can we cultivate a humility and obedience of such depth that it cares nothing for pride or position? In his rule for monastic life, St. Benedict devotes a chapter to humility, sketching for his monks the way to move toward such a humility where all is done in the joy of God’s love.

The first four of Benedict’s steps call us to look to Christ’s example. As part of the Trinity, Christ lives in an intimate awareness of the Father and Holy Spirit. Similarly, humility begins for us when we are aware of God’s active presence in our lives and act accordingly.

Second, we grow further in humility when we place doing God’s will above our own. As Christ prayed to the Father at Gethsemane, “Let it be as you, not I, would have it.”

In his third point, Benedict directs the monks, and our, attention to this hymn in Paul’s letter to the Philippians: humility develops when we submit ourselves to the will of a superior, imitating Christ in “becoming obedient to the point of death.”

Benedict’s fourth step would certainly have been familiar ground to Paul, imprisoned so many times for preaching the faith. Be patient and steadfast, even joyful, when our obedience places us in difficult situations. Humility and obedience which unite us with Christ, and with each other, as it does for Paul, can bring us deep peace and even joy.

In our everyday lives, humility and obedience may show themselves in such simple ways as recognizing that my spouse was correct and I was wrong; that my boss or superior probably knows more about the situation than I do; that my parents have my good at heart and a far greater wisdom than me; that my way is not the only way; that if the Lord offers forgiveness to me, how ready I should be to offer forgiveness to those who offend me; that without the moral compass and the guidance of the spouse of Christ, the Church, I would be lost.

To become humble and obedient like Jesus, we need regularly to examine our conscience to determine whether we “have the mind of Christ.” Instead of what I desire, what I will and what I choose, the question needs to be: what does Jesus desire, what does Jesus will and what does Jesus choose?

In the power flowing from His Passion, death and resurrection, we can make the conscious choice to die to ourselves and live only for Him. In Him and in His suffering we learn what humility and obedience can be! When we choose to come face to face with God, listen to His will and see ourselves for who we really are, we are free to confess “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

With this reflection, we complete our Journey with St. Paul through Lent. We do so inspired by his words and encouraged by his witness. As we prepare to enter Holy Week, we are mindful of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians proclaimed to us on Palm Sunday, to imitate the Lord Jesus who emptied Himself even unto death, death on a cross.

Jesus’ humility and obedience were the means which opened the way to our salvation. Our humility and obedience in Him keep us on that way, so that one day, we too might be exalted with Him.

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.- Philippians 2:6-11

Lenten meditation

Recall and share, perhaps in your Lenten journey, when you have been asked to empty yourself.

Can we believe what Jesus reveals to us – that emptying does not lead to destruction, but rather that through dying we are raised to new life?

Have you ever experienced being raised up?