On the other hand, the Publican or Tax-Collector, who outwardly was a corrupt scoundrel and a thief, had realized that he had done evil, and was inwardly repentant. It is he who gives us the prayer of the Publican, which we say every day: ‘O God, have mercy on me a sinner’. He is an example to us of humility.
Today, therefore, the Church reminds us that our salvation is about humility. Where there is no humility, there is no salvation. And humility is the consciousness of our sin. This is why in the Gospel Christ says to us, again and again, ‘I have come into the world to save sinners’. Some people misunderstand this, for they misunderstand the universal nature of sin. The words, that Christ has come to save sinners, mean of course that He has come to save everyone, for He Alone is without sin. However, this does not mean that all mankind will be saved, for there are those who do not recognize that they are sinners, denying their sinful nature. These are like the Pharisees, who in their pride rejected Christ and had Him crucified. Indeed, to say that ‘I have no sin’ is the worst possible sin, for it cuts us off from salvation, from Christ. If we have no sin, we have no humility, and so have no salvation through Christ, Whose mission was precisely to save sinners through the example of His ultimate humility, His self-emptying.
Humility therefore is our example, our aim. But this does not answer the question: How do we obtain humility?
A clue to the answer to this question can be found elsewhere in the Gospel. This is in Christ's saying that it is easier to pass through the eye of a needle than to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, it is difficult to find salvation and be humble, if we possess lots of things, if we possess material wealth, if we are rich. To be humble we must be detached from what we own.
If this is true with regard to material things, then it is also true of physical and mental gifts.
For example, it is difficult for a beautiful woman to be humble. Almost inevitably she will fall into some measure of vanity and self-admiration and so use her beauty to manipulate others. It is this narcissism which destroys the lives of so many beautiful women.
It is also difficult for talented people to be humble. We all know stories of great opera singers, actors and artists, who rapidly so fell in love with their abilities that they became pretentious and then were disliked and mocked by the rest of the world for their foolishness.
It is also difficult for very clever people to be humble. We all know stories of University professors with umpteen doctorates, who have read many thousands of books and written many themselves, and then became pretentious and silly because of their imagined self-importance, self-admiration and priggish pride.
It is also difficult for powerful politicians and businesspeople to be humble. As we say, their power goes to their head. We can think of several examples of people who made themselves look very foolish in all political parties in the recent history of this country. As one thinker put it: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
And yet today the Church commemorates three people who lived almost at the same time, who were exceptionally gifted, perhaps the cleverest people in centuries, and yet remained humble. They prove that though it is difficult, it not impossible to be gifted and yet remain humble. They are: St Basil the Great, St Gregory the Theologian and St John Chrysostom, called all together ‘The Three Great Hierarchs’. They are commemorated in this order because all three have already been commemorated in January: St Basil on 1 January, St Gregory on 25 January and St John on 27 January. Why then do they have a separate and collective feast today, at the end of January?
The history of this present feast goes back to the year 1084, at the end of the eleventh century. At that time in Constantinople there was a great dispute about whom among these three January saints was the greatest. St Basil had great purity, St Gregory had great depth of thought, St John had great eloquence. Who then was the greatest?
The dispute was solved only when a holy bishop called John, who is himself commemorated as a saint on 24 June, was granted a vision. In it he saw all three saints. They told him that, though different, they were equal in honour. All three were exceptionally gifted or had studied philosophy and the other arts and sciences at the greatest Universities of the age, all three spoke and wrote Greek, then the language of culture and finesse of mind, to the highest degree. They were, and are, equal in honour.
Their example answers for us our original question: How do we obtain humility? We obtain humility by remaining humble in mind, by thinking nothing of ourselves, by knowing that whatever gifts we have are not ours, but God's. This should not surprise us, because this is the meaning of the words that we sing at every Liturgy: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Poor in spirit means humble in mind.
Thus, we understand that minds, like possessions, like all gifts and talents, material, physical or mental, like positions in life, are not ours, given to us so that we can reflect our sinful selves. All these gifts are leant to us for us to reflect the glory of God. Like mirrors which reflect, our minds and whatever possessions and talents we may have, are not given to reflect ourselves, fallen Creation, but the light of the Creator, to Whom be glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.
January/12 February 2006