Humility in the Presence of God
February 8, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8) Reading II (1 Corinthians 15:1-11)
Gospel (St. Luke 5:1-11)
In the readings this morning, we see a pattern that is identical in each of the three readings. We see the holiness of God and we see the unworthiness of the human creature. If we look, for instance, at the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear the seraphim, which are the highest of the choirs of angels, praising God. The word seraph means “a fiery one”, one who is on fire with the love of God. These are the creatures that are the highest of any creature that God created. Our Lady, of course, is even higher than they because of her love, but by nature they are the highest creatures that God made. And as they look upon the face of God, they cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, the God of hosts!” Now the reason why that threefold holy is there is because in Hebrew they do not have superlatives. In English, we could say “the holiest” or “the most holy”; but in Hebrew, if they want to say that someone is holy, they would just use the word “holy”. If they want to say that this person is more holy, they would say “holy, holy”. If they want to say that this is the holiest person of all, they would say “holy, holy, holy”. So this is the statement from the seraphim themselves proclaiming the absolute holiness of God, that one cannot become any more holy. We see that made very clear.
We see the same thing in the Gospel reading. Saint Peter, seeing what Jesus has done, falls at the knees of Our Lord and proclaims the holiness of Christ as he looks at himself and prays, “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” recognizing his own unworthiness to be in the presence of God. The prophet Isaiah, in the first reading, looking upon the presence of the holy and divine throne room then looks at himself and says, “Woe is me, I am doomed! I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips.” Saint Paul, in the second reading, speaks to us about the death and resurrection of Christ and then looks at himself and recognizes that he is the least of all the apostles because he himself persecuted the Church. Yet, at the same time, I suspect that if we had all the apostles standing here before us they would all tell us the same thing. Peter would say, “No, no, no, Paul, you persecuted the Church in your ignorance. I, on the other hand, knew that Jesus was God and I denied Him three times. I am the least and the worst!” The others would say, “No, no, no, Peter, we ran away and we abandoned the Lord in the time of His need. We are the worst! We are the least!” And if you read every single saint who has ever lived over the last 2,000 years, they all say the same thing: “I am the worst sinner of all! I am the least!”
Would that Americans would begin to have such an attitude. Humility is the last virtue that Americans seem to want to acquire. It is certainly not anything that we can remotely call “the American virtue”, but it is one that is absolutely essential because we look again at the response of God, and in each case He called these men to Himself. With the prophet Isaiah, God says, “Who will go? Whom shall I send?” and the prophet says, “Here I am. Send me!” With regard to Peter, Jesus says, “From now on you will be a fisher of men.” With regard to Saint Paul, he says, “I am what I am by the grace of God.” In each case, these men acknowledged their own unworthiness, and yet in each case they accepted the call of God to do the work for which He was calling them.
But we also know that in each case there was a purification that needed to happen. With Isaiah, we hear it immediately. The angel took one of the flaming embers from before the altar of God and came over and touched his lips and purified him, burning out the imperfections and the impurities. The same needs to happen for each one of us. Saint Paul tells us that after this life (for those who are not perfect) there will be a purification as if in fire. It is the same in this life. Each one of us needs to be purified and that purification burns. It is very painful in the heart, and yet it is essential because if we are not purified, number one, we have no part of God, and number two, we will not be able to do the work to which He is calling us. None of us likes being purified very much, but each one will have to be purified. We can do it here, in which case it translates into merit and greater holiness. Or we can wait until we are in Purgatory where it will do us no good at all, as far as growing in holiness; it merely removes what is unholy. But the fact is that each one of us will need to be purified.
If we just think back over the course of our own lives, think about the way God has worked to purify your own heart. He has put you into situations that are very difficult, exceedingly painful at times, and we would not wish it on anyone. Yet, after it is over, most of us would probably also say that we would not trade it in for anything because the lessons that we learned, the virtue that develops is greater than anything else. We are grateful sometimes if the suffering is over, but the fruit of the suffering is very evident in our lives. We see then that it is the mercy of God burning the impurities out of us.
And it points out something else which is extremely important in the readings today: It is that as we come before God we must always keep firmly in mind Who it is to Whom we are praying and Whose presence we are in; and at the same time to keep firmly in mind who it is that is doing the praying and who it is who is in the presence of the Almighty One. The seraphim call out, “Holy, holy, holy!” In the Book of Revelation, every time the song is sung the elders fall to their knees and throw their crowns on the ground and bow down with their faces to the ground before the throne of God. How about us? We walk before the Lord with arrogance in our hearts so often. Our demeanor and our disposition are anything but reverent. We come before God as though somehow He is less than we. We lay out all of our arrogant demands then we walk away – and then we get angry when it does not happen the way that we commanded God to do it. That is not the way to pray. We must first recognize the holiness of God and then we must recognize our own unworthiness – to fall to our knees like Peter and say, “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”; to say with Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips”; to say with Saint Paul, “I am the least of all, and the least worthy to even be called a Christian, let alone a Catholic, because of all sinners I myself am the worst.”
But then we need to listen. When we can finally humble ourselves before the Lord then we can do exactly what all the others have done before us. Instead of telling God what He is supposed to do, we can actually have the humility to ask Him what He wants us to do. And then, like the others, we will only be able to say, “I am what I am by the grace of God, not because I was ever worthy of it, not because I deserved it after all, not because God thought I was the best thing walking the face of the earth one day so He made me into whatever it was that He called me to do” but because we are the worst and the least. The only thing that we can proclaim our greatness about is our ability to sin; everything else, we need to give credit where it belongs – and that is to God. We need to recognize His mercy and we need to be grateful for His mercy.
Again, think about who it is that is coming to pray: “It is me, a sinful creature, a worm, less than dust, coming before God Who is not just holy, but He is holy, holy, holy, absolute holiness.” We have the privilege to come before Him and to pray. We need to have the right disposition. We need to come before God with humility of heart because God is calling each one of us to holiness; and not just to a little bit of holiness, He wants us to be truly holy. Holiness is godlike. God is love, which means that holiness and charity are one and the same. But remember always that the height of your charity will be equal to the depth of your humility. There is no holiness without humility because there is no charity without humility. So we need to come before the Lord and we need to begin by acknowledging who we really are in the presence of the Almighty, and then we need to beg Him for the grace to be humble.
Most of us probably do not really want that because we know that humility comes through humiliation, and none of us likes to be humiliated. But it is the only way. If we truly want to grow in holiness, we have to become like Jesus in all things. Look at the Cross. On the human level, it is absolute humiliation – stripped naked, whipped, beaten, a crown of thorns on His head, all of the humiliating things that have happened to Him – and yet, with the eyes of faith, we can look at that and say, “This is not humiliation; this is glorification.” He Himself told us that. When we read John 17, He says, “Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” – and that is to be crucified. It is no different for us. The saints would recognize the same thing: that never has God showered more grace upon them than when He has allowed them to be crucified with Christ.
So each one needs to come before God. Each one needs to recognize that in our own way we are the worst sinner that has ever walked the face of the earth. It does not mean we have done the worst thing that is possible to do; it means that, when we look at the grace God has given to us and our own infidelity to the grace of God, we are the worst. When we think about how much grace God has given us as opposed to how much He has given to some others, we can only say with Saint Augustine, “Were it not for the grace of God that man would be me. If God did not keep me from doing something worse, I would have done it.” We all know that. So we need to come before the Lord, not like that Pharisee who praised God for making Him so wonderful, but like the publican who acknowledged his sinfulness, who acknowledged his own unworthiness before the Lord. That must be first: to acknowledge that we are sinful, to acknowledge the absolute holiness of God; and then to ask the Lord, “What is it that you want of me?” Then we need to have the humility and the obedience to do whatever God wants, to be able to acknowledge with Isaiah that we are unclean, to acknowledge with Peter that the Lord should depart from us because we are sinful, to acknowledge with Saint Paul that we are the least and the worst. And then to listen to the voice of God because in His mercy He has forgiven us, He has wiped away our sins, and through the suffering in our lives He has purified us or is purifying us so that we will be able to do the work to which He has called us.
Each and every one of us has a vocation, a call from God. Sometimes, even within that vocation, He calls us to a certain apostolate to do His work, whatever it might be. We need to go before Him and ask, and then we need to be willing to do whatever He asks us to do. Not because we were the most worthy, not because we were the best, but with Saint Paul we will only be able to say, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” There is nothing more that we can say. God has called us to Himself. He has called us to a life of holiness. He has called us to share in His own work. Now it is for us to come before Him, to humble ourselves, to seek His Will and to carry it out. That is our dignity. Not because we are worthy of it, not because we deserve it or we have earned it, but because of the grace of God Who has called us to His own holiness. That is what God wants for each of us. The question now is our response. Are we willing to acknowledge His greatness? Are we willing to acknowledge our nothingness? Are we willing to do whatever He tells us to do and to carry it out according to His Will, so that, with Saint Paul and all the saints who have ever lived, we will simply be able to say, “Unworthy as I am, by the grace of God Who has called me, I am what I am and in all things I seek to do His Will”?
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.