Thursday, October 24, 2013

Humility and Liturgy

Thirtieth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Here’s another twist to the parable. A bishop, the rector of the parish and the sacristan were praying fervently in church. All three supplicants were protesting their unworthiness.
The bishop, in a subdued voice, was overheard repeating the following mantra, “Lord, I am a great sinner… Lord, I am a great sinner!”
The rector, who was kneeling next to his bishop, did not want to be outdone in his humble protestations, as he repeated “Lord, I am truly a sinner … Lord, I am truly a sinner!”
Kneeling behind the two was the old sacristan of the Church, whose prayer was filled with tears and sobs and with little else, who cried out: “Lord, I have sin! Lord I have sin!”
Both bishop and the rector had to stop praying when it became obvious that their efforts were being drowned out by the escalating sobs and cries of the third man. The bishop turned to the rector with indignation and complained, “Look at who’s trying to be a sinner!”

Pride often poses as humility. It strategises to be honoured while looking all humble. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference because pride resides within the heart and not on the face.  Our outward appearances stripped down, no frills, flaunting bare simplicity (or simplistic), a humble façade, can often veil our pride.  Pride can pose itself in a dumb down crowd pleasing form of religion or a Spartan white washed minimalist form of liturgy. Pride is a seasoned player at disguising itself as virtue.  Pride began in the Garden, when Adam wanted to “be like God”. Seen in this light, we now recognise the true face of pride – it is narcissism – the worship of self, the enthronement of man over God.

Humility, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word humus, which means “ground” or “soil”. It reminds us of the second creation account (see Gen 2:7) in which God forms the first human beings from the dust of the ground and breathes life into them. It is an admission of our own vileness in comparison to the infinite greatness of God. Thus bowing, prostrating, and genuflecting, gestures that physically moves the body closer to the ‘ground’, gestures that suggest submission, respect, humility, reverence and obedience, comes naturally to the humble supplicant. Humility considers Christ and His glory.  It does not feel the need to hide the glory of God. St Paul in the second reading speaks of all the blessings that he has received from God and gives Him glory. False humility, on the other hand, conceals the glory of God, and in doing so pushes oneself to the fore. 

The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in today’s gospel stands out in bold relief and presents two paradigms of prayer or worship. Here we see by sharp contrast the utter worthlessness of self-righteousness, self-exaltation, and self-praise in praying. The Pharisee seemed to be rigorously schooled in prayer, by training and by habit, but he prays not. Words are uttered by him, but words are not prayer. Pride, self-righteousness, and narcissism have entirely poisoned his supplications. His entire praying has been impregnated with self-praise, self-congratulation, and self-exaltation. God is not glorified; man, however, is elevated.

On the other hand, the tax collector, smitten with a deep sense of his sins and his inward sinfulness, realising how poor in spirit he is, how utterly devoid of anything like righteousness, goodness, or any quality which would commend him to God, falls down with humiliation and despair before God, while he utters a sharp cry for mercy for his sins and his guilt. A sense of sin and a realisation of utter unworthiness have fixed the roots of humility deep down in his soul. The tax collector stood at a distance and would not even look up toward heaven. His posture reflected his deep reverence for the transcendence of God. This is the picture of humility against pride in praying.

The tax collector thus provides us a not just a model of humility or contrition, but presents to us the condition sine qua non of worship. Celebrating good liturgy requires a good dose of humility. Liturgy, in fact, best articulates the real meaning of humility – the glorification of God rather than of man. Blessed John Paul II reminds us that “the celebration of the Liturgy … must be characterised by a profound sense of the sacred. Both the individual and the community must be aware that, in a special way, through the Liturgy they come into the presence of Him who is thrice holy and transcendent. Consequently, the disposition required of them is one that can only flow from that reverence and awe deriving from an awareness of being in the presence of the majesty of Almighty God.” It is unfortunate that many see such emphasis of reverence and transcendence as a barrier to popular worship.

Many a Catholic resent what they call “pomp and pomposity” in the celebration of the Eucharist. It appears to them as though this is contrary to the spirit of poverty which Christ displayed throughout His life, from His birth in a stable to His death on the Cross outside of the city of Jerusalem. This simplistic analysis, completely overlooks a crucial event in His life however, which is directly connected to the Eucharist, namely the anointing at Bethany. Christ had no problem, and even delighted in the “pomp and pomposity” with which Mary, the sister of Lazarus, poured a costly ointment on His sacred feet. It was Judas who protested. That’s ‘humility’ for you!

Ever since the election of Pope Francis, there has been heightened discussions on how Pope Francis personifies the ideal of a simplified, humbled, version of liturgy free of ostentatious trappings of his predecessor. Certainly, there seems to be a preference for less elaborately ornate liturgical vestments. But this does not make Pope Francis the poster boy for what passes as ‘humble’ liturgy. In fact, there is nothing humble about liturgy that is shorn of beauty, mystery, awe, and grandeur which is ultimately due to God, and never for man. This is certainly far from the intention of Pope Francis himself. One can easily discern his solemn disposition during every celebration of the Mass – his outer and inner vision is directed only to God. The problem is that many wrongly read into this an overt effort to remove the symbols of power and office and to put in place poverty and humility. The detractors of liturgical finery just don’t get it – that there is no conflict or contradiction between humble and sublime liturgies. Great humility and great beauty are not mutually exclusive.

He who rejects beauty in the mass forgets that the liturgy, as pointed out by St John Chrysostom, the Great Doctor of the East who was also a lover of the poor, is a foretaste of ‘heaven on earth.’ Therefore, one who thinks he is stripping the liturgy of unnecessary accoutrements that would hinder accessibility of the poor to the liturgy, actually ends up denying them the beauty and treasures of heaven. Denying the beauty of the mass to the masses is sort of like denying food to the hungry. The poor normally have no access to the grandeur or opulence of the king’s palace, but within the liturgy, they are transported into the most magnificent palace of the King of Kings. To deny them this right would be patronising and condescending, and in fact discriminates against the poor – it is saying that the poor are unworthy of beauty, unworthy of beatitude. There is nothing humble about this. In fact, it reeks of hubris. Humility is about forgetting self, not forgetting beauty which serves to honour God and give him glory.

Have you noticed how we have regressed to performing mere perfunctory head bows (often with great reluctance) from the days when we used to genuflect whenever we came before the presence of Christ in the Eucharist? This seems to suggest an so absorbed in our own self-importance that we bow to no one, not even to God. Abba Appolo, a desert father of the Church reminds us that "the devil has no knees; he cannot kneel; he cannot adore; he cannot pray; he can only look down his nose in contempt. Being unwilling to bend the knee at the name of Jesus is the essence of evil." Our thrust for democratisation now threatens to reduce God to the level of humanity – He’s just one of the guys who does not deserve our bowing and genuflections. But when a good man, a humble man, a man who recognises his own unworthiness, is in the presence of greatness, he knows how to abase himself whether it be in posture or expression.  The humble man does not presume familiarity in the presence of greatness for that would certainly be contemptuous.

Today, instead of abasing ourselves humbly before our awesome and mysterious God during the reenactment of the Sacrifice of Calvary at every Holy Mass, we delude ourselves into thinking we are being humble when we strip the liturgy of its majesty and beauty, when we abolish our kneeling and profound bows, and substitute our sacred hymns that sing of the majesty of God for folksy ditties that speak about ourselves. True humility, can never be subjecting God to the humiliation we are simply witnessing in the impoverished and lackadaisical celebrations of our liturgy. True humility, as the parable and St Paul teach us, leads to exaltation - not of ourselves but of the God who created us, saves us, and loves us. Pope Benedict has reminded us that it is in the liturgy that the renewal and reform of the Church begins. And it is here that we must begin our lesson in true humility.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.