25th Sunday after Pentecost (6th after Epiphany transferred)
For the second week in a row, the heavenly Gardener teaches us about seeds. Last week we saw the Enemy insidiously sowing his cockle over the wheat. Today Our Blessed Lord uses the analogy of the tiny mustard seed to explain to us the power of the Gospel. The same thought is underlined by a second parable on the tiny bit of leaven that is put into the dough and which causes the whole batch to rise. The lesson is clear: the Gospel which introduces us into the Kingdom of God, is brought to us in the form of the humility of the Saviour. The Son of God entered this world as a tiny infant – this is what we will soon contemplate in the Christmas cycle of the liturgy –, and His coming to us through grace always takes the form of drawing us into a deep, interior communion with Him, precisely in His poverty and humiliations.
St Paul reinforces this idea to the Thessalonians in today’s epistle, which is the first of those he wrote to his disciples. When you became followers, he tells them, you received the word with much tribulation, but not without the joy of the Holy Ghost. That joy is part and parcel of the Christian life, which is one of prayer, hard work, and continual efforts to serve God and help neighbour. The following chapter of this epistle gives us one of Paul’s most touching autobiographical notes. He states that, even though his preaching of the Gospel was accomplished in the midst of many tribulations, still he made himself the humble servant of all, going so far as to compare himself to a mother who nurses her children, for he wanted to share with them, not only the Gospel of God, but his very self as well. The apostle has clearly learned this from Our Lord Himself, who though Master of all, humbled Himself to become the servant of all.
Throughout history, we see this paradigm – the only truly Christian paradigm – reappearing in various forms. When the Popes had been for too long in Avignon, God raised up a poor, weak, ignorant young woman named Catherine of Siena, to go and summon him back to Rome, and she succeeded. When France had been enslaved to English control, in order to preserve her from the great break with Rome that would occur in the following century, God raised up a poor, unskilled, seventeen year old girl to lead the armies of France into battle, to seize Orleans and have the king crowned in Rheims. And she succeeded. In the nineteenth century, when God’s Mother decides to visit our poor earth and show mercy, she chooses a poor, ignorant, sickly girl in the Pyrenees to be the object of her celestial visitations, and she teaches that poor girl to humble herself even more in order to be an adequate instrument of Divine Providence. In spite of initial opposition, Lourdes became in short order the most frequented Marian pilgrimage on the planet. And the examples could go on and on… The tiny grain of mustard seed becomes a great tree. The tiny bit of leaven gives a beautiful loaf that nourishes.
And if this surprises us, St Paul’s words to the Corinthians may come to mind : The foolishness of God is wiser than men: and the weakness of God is stronger than men… The foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise: and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong. And the base things of the world and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen: and things that are not, that he might bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his sight (1 Co 1:25-29).
Such is God’s style. When He has an important role for someone to play, He chooses a person who is lowly and humble. And if they are not, He first humbles them in order that it may be clear that the great work they are to do is not theirs but His.
St Thomas More referred to humility as “that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot”. If we want the Lord to draw forth beautiful, fragrant flowers from the garden of our soul, we must start down in the humus, the soil. We must plunge deep roots in true knowledge of the grandeur of God and our own need of Him.
The inspired words of Psalm 118 may help us: Bonum mihi quia humiliasti me – It is good for me that thou hast humbled me. Humiliation is good for us, because it puts us where we belong, and it prevents us from falling into the greatest of all evils, the pride that leaves us under the illusion that we are something when we are really nothing. It is only once we have come to understand and accept our nothingness that we can give ourselves over to the practice of all the good works the Lord has in store for us, and this without risk of our attributing it falsely to ourselves. God needs free men and women to do His work in the world. Humility alone really sets us free. It also prepares us for future consolation, as St Bernard comments: “When you perceive that you are being humiliated, look on it as the sign of a sure guarantee that grace is on the way. Just as the heart is puffed up with pride before its destruction, so it is humiliated before being honoured”.
May the most humble Virgin, exalted now to the heights of Heaven, teach us the secret of true and perfect joy which is grounded in the truth of our nothingness before God and men. May she sow in our hearts true seeds of humility so that they they may blossom and became a tree in which many birds, that is to say, many souls, may come and make their nests. May she hide in our hearts three measures, that is to say, the three kinds of humility of which St Ignatius speaks in the Spiritual Exercises and which we can summarise as the hatred of sin, detachment from all things created and the desire to be treated as Christ was treated. If she does, then we can rest assured that the loaf of bread will rise, it will be baked in the oven of humiliation. Then our body may be broken like the Lord’s, our blood may be poured out like His, to become life for others, and the earth will drink up that blood, and instead of crying out for vengeance like that of Abel, it will speak louder, like that of the Lord, and the earth will be washed clean of its great sin. Fiat. Amen.