Advent 01, Year B

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No one who waits for you is disgraced (Ps. 25:3)

Humility means, for one thing, that we consider ourselves to be the low, common and taken-for-granted ground, soil or earth (humus in Latin), or its synonym, clay, dust or dirt (pulvis in Latin and h?’?d?mâ in Hebrew). As Adam’s offshoots, we are dirt too and to dirt we shall return (Gen. 3:19).

But if humility is to be more than just unhealthy low self-esteem, it means, for another thing, that we proclaim someone to be the most high and the almighty. And in him we rejoice because he looks with favor on our lowliness and raises us from the dust (1 Sam. 2:8; Lk. 1:48, 52). Humility, as Father Robert P. Maloney, C.M., puts it, citing St. Vincent de Paul’s writings, is the recognition of our lowliness and faults, which is accompanied by exuberant confidence in God (The Way of Vincent de Paul: A Contemporary Spirituality in the Service of the Poor [Brooklyn, N.Y.: New City Press, 1992], p. 40).

The humbling fact, therefore, that we are clay does not at all mean that there is no uplifting possibility for us. If we confess humbly both our utter poverty and our glaring sinfulness and hand ourselves over with confidence to the Lord; if we acknowledge that God is our father and that we are the clay and he the potter:—we will experience that God, as the second reading affirms, is faithful and that he will see providentially to our being lifted up. By the power of his breath or spirit, the Divine Potter molds the clay that we are into living beings (cf. Gen. 2:7). By his surpassing power, he enables us jars of clay to contain his treasure (2 Cor. 4:7).

And when the Lord shall have done with the clay whatever he intends to do with it, whether for noble purposes or for common use (cf. Rom. 9:21), the result—the piece of pottery that, according to St. Augustine, is shaped in instruction and fired by tribulation (cf. the non-biblical reading in the Office of Readings for the Saturday of the Thirty-Fourth Week in Ordinary Time of the Liturgy of the Hours)—will be wholly unexpected, never heard or seen before. It is going to be nothing less than the fulfillment of our wish that God “would rend the heavens and come down”—though in a shocking and jolting way, most likely, and not necessarily in the pleasantly surprising and spectacular manner that we expect our wish to come true.

For what the clay proposes may not be what God disposes and what common sense or conventional wisdom imagines to hear or see may very well not be what God has in mind doing for those who wait for him. God does rend the heavens and does come down: he becomes Emmanuel, God-with-us, and thus breaks “the dividing line between divinity and humanity by taking on human flesh in Christ” (Barbara E. Reid, O.P., “The Expectant Months,” in the November 24, 2008 issue of America, p. 31).

With God so descending that we may ascend, our familiar world is now turned upside down and suddenly unfamiliar: the last becomes first, tax collectors and sinners receive justification, the least ends up the greatest, death means life, weakness is strength, foolishness surpasses wisdom, a barren wife and a virgin conceive and give birth, a daughter of David is conceived without sin, such silence as St. Catherine Labouré’s projects an eloquence that extends through all the earth, death leads to life, self-emptying makes for self-fulfillment, poverty spells rich blessings, poor Lazarus gets carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham while the nameless rich man finds himself in torment in the netherworld. It goes without saying that for one to be especially watchful and doubly alert in an upside-down world, one must have eyes and heart for the least of the brothers and sisters, so that one recognizes the Lord Jesus in them—in their thirst, in their hunger, in their loneliness, in their misfortune.

And those who are truly watchful and alert are so poor themselves that they cannot help but identify with the poor and recognize them. Convinced, as was St. Vincent, that no poor person could possibly be poorer than themselves, the truly watchful and alert not only do not judge or disdain anyone, but they also earnestly wait for God; they are certain that their absolute need for him will be matched by the gratuity of his mercy (Father Hugh F. O’Donnell, C.M., “Vincent de Paul: His Life and Way,” Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac: Rules, Conferences, and Writings, ed. Frances Ryan, D.C., and John E. Rybolt, C.M. [New York: Paulist Press, 1995], p. 17).

Full of mercy and compassion, the Wounded Poor One meets those who, watchful and alert, wait for God and look to him to heal them and to satisfy their hunger and thirst. He invites them to eat his own body and drink his own blood. Lifted up himself like the serpent that Moses lifted up in the desert (Jn. 3:14), he offers them healing and guarantees their ultimate exaltation from the earth with the promise, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (Jn. 6:54). Surely, those formed from clay cannot have a better destiny to look excitedly forward to than this.