I took the opportunity Friday to run near the Tidal Basin in Washington. As I ran, I had the opportunity to reflect on all the great Americans who are memorialized in the grand and beautiful monuments that surround the visitor to the capital city. I thought about what makes people great, important, and worth remembering. Would we forget these human beings if there were no piles of marble and stone dedicated to their memory? And I realized that, yes, given all of the things that each of us learn, there are probably many more things that we forget, including other people and their heroic and exemplary deeds.
The monuments we build hold up for us the models of human greatness that have gone before us. But they can also serve to make us feel small and insignificant. There will be very little left behind to mark the passage of most of us through this life on earth.
But the Lord, who we know is the greatest One of all, who is God, holds up for us who know our littleness the way to be great: He says we must seek to be the last. Now, that doesn’t sound great at all, to be the last and the least. How will doing so enable us to leave a mark on the lives of others, and to make the world a better place?
Here we speak of the virtue, or good habit, of humility. Why is humility necessary? Why do we need to be humble in order to find the happiness that results from the fulfillment of living a truly worthy and good life?
History seems to be made by people who were important in the eyes of the world: kings, generals, writers, artists, geniuses of various kinds. These are the people who seem important to us because it is their stories that fill the pages of our history books and about whom films are made and who are memorialized in the great expressions of fine art in painting, sculpture and architecture that beautify the landscape and fill the great halls of our nation’s capital and museums.
Or was history made by these? Is it not rather true that none of these people could have become great or famous or successful without the untold many who worked with them, or were influenced by them, or were led by them to change the course of history for better or worse? When we stop to think about it, we realize that history is made by the many, and those who are designated as famous or great never did so on their own, but simply were pushed forward upon the tides of history as a symbol for the nameless multitudes that truly wrote the annals of history.
When we realize that everyone makes history, that greatness truly belongs to the many and that throughout history one was chosen to symbolize the rest, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln for America’s founding and struggle for unity and nationhood, Martin Luther King for the non-violent civil rights movement, or Mother Teresa for the vast army of tireless pro-life workers and advocates all over the world, we are able to understand the Lord’s teaching on greatness.
God never asks us to do what He has not already done, perfectly, himself. Jesus Christ teaches us most perfectly by his life and His death on the Cross, what his words communicate: the greatest is the one who serves all the rest. He humbled Himself to become a Man, and then, in an unthinkable act of turning against Himself, obeyed His Father’s will and submitted to the violence and destruction of the Cross in order to serve the salvation of the whole world. And, after that, He was raised above all the angels, principalities and powers, exalted to the right hand of His Father in heaven.
In the life of the Church we celebrate the saints as the greatest heroes of all; this is because they share the prize of everlasting glory with Christ, which the essence of true greatness: sharing the life and love and joy of God without end. But they won the crown of glory through the life of the Cross shared with Christ, through living the virtue of humility. They took the lower place, so that God could “lift them up high” – in salvation.
You and I will never be called to save the human race as was Jesus Christ our Lord. He has done the work of gaining for us the grace of Faith by which we are to be saved. But we are called to work, to pray, to cooperate with His grace in order to save our own souls by imitating Him. By serving others for His sake, out of love for Him, we work out our salvation by means of His grace.
When we listen to someone in pain who needs an ear, when we labor with a child over his or her homework, when we forgive someone who hates us, when we pray for someone who ignores us, when we love someone who shows us ingratitude, in these and in so many ways we serve others and thus, by grace, are exalted together with Christ to the holiness which is a foretaste of the Kingdom.
If through pride we exalt ourselves we will end in disaster. Only God can raise us up to that place where He raised Christ and from which we can never fall again, that place higher than which cannot be imagined: the kingdom of heaven.
True exaltation is inheriting everything from our rich and loving Father. Let us now, with Christ, seek to humble ourselves in love and service that we may be truly so exalted. World without end. Amen.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Now and forever.