The Triduum most often evokes thoughts of sacrifice, compassion, and service. Between the washing of the feet, the agony in the Garden, and the Passion, these notions are front and center during Holy Week, and for good reason! As it turns out, Jesus wants us to actually do these things:
So when he had washed their feet [and] put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it. (John 13:12-17, NAB)
Our prayers (and religious social media posts) have focused throughout Lent, and now in a more heightened way during Holy Week, on these notions of giving up, even giving of ourselves, which is great. This happens every year, though, and after Easter these notions seem to fade away until the next Ash Wednesday.
I propose that the proper origin of these movements is all-too-easily forgotten, in part because we don’t like it, and in part because it lurks somewhat in the background of how our culture has come to understand service & charity. Lent began with a reminder of this origin, when we had dust smeared on our foreheads and someone looked us in the eye to remind us that we and the dust aren’t all that different. Humility is the key, and yet humility is simultaneously reviled and misunderstood.
Humility in modern parlance is synonymous with being put down, lowering yourself beneath others, beating yourself up, or being excessively meek (seriously, just look at what thesaurus.com has for synonyms of humility). Clearly none of these are positive; rather they’re spurned and mocked, characterized as guilt-ridden notions of a bygone era that humanity is fortunate to have done away with. Exhorting someone to be humble is seen almost as an insult, the sort of act that disrespects the goodness and worth of the person, trying to convince them that they’re lesser than they are.
Embracing true humility would not convince someone that they’re lesser than they actually are. It might call them to see they’re lesser than they think they are, though (and it also might call them to see they’re far more than they think they are). True humility is not about demeaning someone into a false understanding of self, but rather calling them to a true grasp of who and what they are: part of God’s Creation.
Authentic humility will not only bring us closer to the Lord, but also free us from so much of the materialism and self-concern that enthralls us. The Latin root humus (“ground”) shows us that humility is rooted in the notion of earthliness, which to a modern ear (so used to the technological marvels of humanity rising up above the ground) is certainly repulsive. To the Christian, however, to be of the earth and close to it is quite wonderful: we are dust and to dust we shall return, and this status isn’t degrading–rather it’s elevating, as it showcases that we come from a part of the glorious Creation of God! A part, in fact, that gives God all the more glory by virtue of having been utilized to bring forth the Image of God in humanity, and then being put under our dominion and given as gift to us. How wonderful it is to be close to the ground!
Additionally, humility inherently lends itself to compassion (from “com-passio”, “suffer with”). The one who suffers has been laid low, and is now close to the ground–they’ve literally been humiliated, forced into a humble position. How else can I “suffer with” them than by being humiliated alongside them? If I want to serve others, if I want to love others, I must humble myself to suffer alongside them.
Is Jesus the Christ, the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, who suffered by the hands of and for humanity, not this? Is He not the fullness of divinity and humanity? Is He not the literal embodiment of all that it means to live?
Truth be told, there’s simply no room for this authentic humility and compassion in the American context of individualistic building-up from bootstraps. In a sense, the very notion is the opposite extreme: rather than lying down to suffer with another, I am compelled to step on the other to build myself up. For this reason (among others), the Gospel struggles to find a true footing in our culture. For that same reason, however, humility is all the more important in the life of the disciple of Christ. John 13:17 echoes again: “If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it“.
Jesus doesn’t wait until the events of Holy Week to make this clear, but rather He does so throughout the Gospels. Most notably we see this emphasis in the very first of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:3). Though Matthew mentions Jesus preaching to the crowds before the Sermon on the Mount, these are the first actual words of His ministry that the evangelist gives us. Right off the bat, poverty of spirit. In other words, blessed are those who are unattached, who aren’t seeking to soar to the greatest heights of achievement, who aren’t bogged down in their souls by the concerns of the world. Blessed are those who seek one thing: the will of God, so that they may understand and follow it. Such a focus is simple, and therefore is close to God’s Creation. Such a focus is humble.
Where does this leave us? Realizing that it is impossible to authentically sacrifice of oneself without simultaneously being authentically humble. To sacrifice without humility is to hold something back, perhaps even to expect something in return. Only in a truly humble act do we authentically give, only in a truly humble act are we authentically compassionate.
Only in a truly humble life do we authentically witness to the glory of the Risen Lord.
Is the service we do authentic? Are our sacrifices authentic? Are they done from humility and a poverty of spirit? The mission trips we plan and/or go on, the service hours we log for the sake of a requirement at our school or place of work, the assistance we give to the homeless person outside our window at the stoplight, are these authentic acts of compassion, rooted in humility, witnessing to the glory of the Risen Lord? Or are they motions we’ve become too familiar with, hoops we know we need to jump through, and acts of latent dismissal towards those deemed lower than us, but pathetic enough to be pitied all the same?
When youth and young adults who have left the Church are asked why they left, a recurring theme in their responses is the lack of authenticity in those they encountered while a part of it. We would be foolish (and this finger points at myself as much as at anyone else) to think that a lack of authenticity doesn’t indicate a lack of humility as well.
This Holy Week, start a practice of looking at where opportunities for authentic humility are in your life. I imagine there are ways in which you are already being humble, but there will always be more. Don’t look for opportunities to “go down to someone’s level” in order to serve them. Rather, recognize that you were never above their level in the first place, because you are both imperfect human beings, struggling to understand that which will truly fulfill you. You’re both already on the ground, suffering, even if you both have refused to recognize it. Being humble, then, simply means joining that person to suffer with them, so that hand-in-hand you may become poor in spirit, understand what the Master teaches, and then do it.