Christ the King Catholic Church
Don Shula was the legendary head football coach of the Miami Dolphins who led that team to two Super Bowl Victories and the only perfect season in the history of the NFL. In spite of being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and having a stadium named after him at his alma mater of John Carroll University and an expressway named after him in Florida and a bronze statue of him placed in Sun Life Stadium, Shula has always remained a very humble man.
He tells a wonderful story of an experience he had while vacationing with his wife and children many years ago in northern Maine. It was raining and so he and his wife, Dorothy, decided to take their five children to a matiness movie in the small town’s only theatre.
When they arrived for the movie, there were only six other people in the theatre and the lights were still on. When Shula and his family walked in, all six of those people stood up and applauded. Shula waved and smiled.
As he sat down he turned to Dorothy and said, “We’re a thousand miles from Miami and they’re giving me a standing ovation. They must follow the Dolphins all the way up here.”
Then a man came over to shake hands with Shula. And Shula beamed and asked the man how he had recognized him. And the man answered, “Mister, I don’t know who you are. All I know is that just before you and your family walked in, the manager of the theatre informed us that unless four more people showed up, we wouldn’t have a movie today.”
It was only natural for Shula to think that the people in the theatre and the man who came over to shake hands with him knew who he was. But, when it turned out that he didn’t, Shula was the first to laugh at himself and the first to tell the story to others. Only a humble man could laugh and tell this story with the obvious delight with which Shula did.
It’s a great story because, in part, it tells us something about Don Shula. But it also is a beautiful illustration of today’s scriptures. Shula has been a devout Catholic all of his life, and he must have learned early in life the wisdom that Ben Sirach imparts in today’s first reading. “Conduct your affairs with humility. Humble yourselves the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” In spite of all of the accolades he has received, Shula is a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously and a man who can laugh at himself. He is a man who has conducted his affairs with great humility.
What is this virtue of humility that the scriptures extoll? What does it mean to be humble? I think that humility is one of the most misunderstood of the Christian virtues we are called to cultivate in order to live a good life in the sight of God.
We can begin by saying what humility is not. Humility is not ‘make believe.’ It’s not the talented artist denying that he or she is gifted. It’s not the skillful surgeon denying that he or she is talented. It is not the person gifted with compassion denying that he or she has a special gift of the heart.
C.S. Lewis, in his book, “Mere Christianity,” says that humility is not thinking less of self, but thinking of self - less.
Jesus exhibits all of the virtues in their perfection and he is the best example of humility. As we read in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, “He emptied himself taking on the form of a servant.” The eternal God makes his home with us in our wounded humanity. In Jesus we see what true humility is. After a miracle he didn’t pretend that it was nothing. After a miracle he directed the praise to God, the Father, who is the giver of every good gift. If C.S. Lewis is correct and humility is thinking of self-less, on the cross we see the greatest example of humility the world has ever seen.
True humility, Gospel humility, isn’t denying our gifts. It’s recognizing those gifts for what they truly are – gifts that have been given to us by God and gifts that are not ultimately meant only for us and for our enjoyment or benefit, but gifts that are meant to be shared with others. The humble person recognizes his or her gifts and delights in using those gifts for the glory and honor of God, the giver of the gift.
In his video, “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Lively Virtues,” Bishop Robert Barron says that humility is the virtue that counteracts the deadliest of sins, which is pride. Theologically, pride is the act of turning myself into God. It is the original sin. It is what Adam and Eve did in the story of humankind’s fall when they bit into the devil’s lie that by eating the forbidden fruit they could become gods. Echoes of that original sin abound today. Every time I think that I am the criterion of good and evil, or that the world revolves around me or that I will do what I want, we hear the echo of original sin. “When freedom runs amuck,” Bishop Barron says, “pride abounds.” I think we can characterize the times in which we live in just this way.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the following in a decision upholding Roe v. Wade. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.”. In Justice Kennedy’s conception of reality, we determine the meaning of existence. There is no need for God and there are no absolutes.
According to Bishop Barron, humility is the antidote to the deadly sin of pride. Humility is recognizing our place in the cosmos. There is a God and it is not me. There is a center of the universe and I am not that center. Saint Thomas Aquinas says, “That a person should recognize and appreciate his own good qualities is no sin. Humility consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds.”
Mary, the model disciple, embodies all of the Christian virtues in her life. I response to the Angel Gabriel’s startling message that she would be the mother of the Son of God, Mary responds: “Let it be done to me according to your word.” In Mary we see an example of true humility. She allows God to set the agenda for her life and accepts the mission she is given to be a conduit of God’s love to the world.
In her great hymn of praise, the Magnificat, she doesn’t deny the great things that have happened in her life, but she recognizes that it is God who has done these great things. What is her response to God and God’s plan for her life? “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed.” Mary recognizes that God has done great things for her and the praise is directed not to her – but to God.
Humility, like all of the virtues is related to the queen of virtues which is love. Saint Thomas Aquinas defines love as “wanting the good of other – as other.” No strings attached. This is the love that we have come to know in Christ – a love that gives without counting the cost. A love that is more concerned with the other than self. The love we see on the cross.
Jesus, the wise observer of humanity that he is, noticing how people were scrambling to get the best seats for themselves at a banquet, tells the parable that we have just heard in today’s Gospel. This parable is repeated every day in our lives. People scramble to get the best seats on the tour bus for themselves. People rush to get ahead of another shopper heading for the checkout lane. Drivers cut off other drivers to make it through the traffic light. People come early to Mass to get the front pews in church – well, maybe not!
The proud person lives his or her life looking into a mirror and thinking, “It’s all about me!” That was certainly the attitude of the guests at the wedding feast in today’s Gospel. The humble person knows it’s not all about him or her. It’s all about others.
The scriptures today remind us of the virtue of humility. Virtues are good habits that are cultivated and become second nature to us. Vices, on the other hand, are bad habits that are cultivated and, unfortunately, become second nature to us. The scriptures call us to cultivate the virtue of humility in our lives. Remembering last week’s Gospel, in which Jesus calls us to strive to enter through the narrow gate, humility is one of those narrow gates. Humility doesn’t come naturally and it doesn’t come easily to us as human beings. Just look around the world in which we live. Where freedom runs amuck, pride abounds.
Humility is not thinking less of self, but thinking of self - less. We can begin to cultivate this virtue as we go forth from church today. May we not strive to be the first to get to the doors of church to get out of church, but strive rather to be the first to get to the doors of the church to open them for others. It’s really that easy – and that hard!