Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from an Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal
Theme: Humility, US Elections-2, Annunciation to Mary
Volume 6 No. 384 November 18, 2016
 
III. Featured Articles: Humility

Mary's Humility

by Il Santo Rosario

"Humility," says Saint Bernard, "is the foundation and guardian of the virtues." He is right, for without it no other virtue can exist in the soul. Were a soul to possess all the virtues, all would disappear were humility to go. But, on the other hand, as Saint Francis de Sales wrote to Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, "God loves humility so much, that whenever he sees it, he immediately goes there." This beautiful and necessary virtue was unknown in the world in early days. But the Son of God came on earth to teach it by his example, and he willed that we should endeavor to imitate him in that virtue particularly: Learn of me, because I am meek and humble or heart (Mt 11:29). Since Mary was the first and most perfect disciple of Jesus in the practice of the virtues, she naturally excelled in the practice of humility. For this reason, she deserved to be exalted above all other creatures. It was revealed to Saint Matilda that it was humility in which the Blessed Mother particularly excelled, even from her very childhood.

The first effect of humility of heart is a lowly opinion of oneself. Mary always had such a humble opinion of herself that, as was revealed to the same Saint Matilda, although she saw herself enriched with more graces than all other people, she never put herself ahead of anyone. Abbot Rupert, commenting on the passage of the sacred Canticles: You have wounded my heart, my sister, my spouse...with one hair of your neck (Cant 4:9), says that the humble opinion Mary had of herself was the hair with which she wounded the heart of God. Not that Mary considered herself a sinner. Humility is truth, as Saint Teresa remarks, and Mary knew that she had never offended God. She also knew that she had received more graces from God than all other creatures. A humble heart always acknowledges the special favors of the Lord in order to humble itself all the more. But the Blessed Mother, because of the greater light which made her aware of the infinite greatness and goodness of God, was also aware of her own nothingness. That is why she humbled herself more than everybody else, saying with the sacred Spouse: Do not stare at me because I am swarthy, because the sun has burned me (Cant 1:5). That is, as Saint Bernard explains it: "When I approach him, I find myself black." This is true, says Saint Bernardine, because the Blessed Virgin was always vividly conscious of the majesty of God and her own nothingness. When a beggar is given a costly gift, he does not show off with it in the presence of the donor. He receives it humbly and remains conscious of his own poverty. So when Mary saw herself enriched with grace, she humbled herself; reminding herself that it was all God's gift. That is why she told Saint Elizabeth of Hungary that she looked upon herself as a worthless creature and unworthy of the grace of God. And that is why Saint Bernardine says that "after the Son of God, no one in the whole world was ever so exalted as Mary, because no one ever humbled himself to the extent that she did."

Moreover, it is characteristic of humility to conceal heavenly gifts. Mary wished to conceal from Saint Joseph the favor which made her the Mother of God. At the same time it seemed necessary to reveal the secret to him, if only to remove from his mind any suspicions as to her virtue which he might have entertained on seeing her pregnant. Saint Joseph, on the one hand, did not wish to doubt Mary's chastity; and yet on the other hand, being unaware of the mystery, he was minded to have her put away privately (Mt 1:19). And he would have done so had the angel not revealed to him that his spouse was pregnant by the operation of the Holy Spirit.

Again, a soul that is truly humble does not allow herself to be praised. And if praises are showered on her, she refers them all to God. Mary was disturbed at hearing herself praised by Saint Gabriel. She was also disturbed when Elizabeth said: Blessed are you among women....And how have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me?...Blessed is she who has believed (Lk 1:42,43,45). Mary referred everything to God, and replied in the humble words of her canticle: My soul magnifies the Lord (Lk 1:46). This was the same as saying: "You praise me, Elizabeth, but I praise the Lord, to whom alone all honor is due. You wonder why I have come to visit you, while I wonder at the divine goodness that has come to me. And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Lk 1:47). You praise me because I have believed; but I praise my God, because he has exalted my nothingness. He has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid (Lk 1:48)." Our Lady said to Saint Bridget: "I humbled myself so much, and have merited so much grace, because I knew that of myself I possessed nothing. That is why I did not want to be praised. I desired only that praise be given to the Creator and Giver of all things." Referring to the humility of Mary, an ancient author says: "O truly blessed humility, which has given God to men, opened heaven, and delivered souls from hell!"

It is also characteristic of humility to serve others. Mary did not hesitate to go and help Elizabeth for three months. Saint Bernard aptly remarks: "Elizabeth wondered why Mary had come to visit her; but - what is still more remarkable - that she came not to be ministered to, but to minister."

Humble persons are usually retiring and choose the least honorable places for themselves. Therefore, as Saint Bernard remarks, "when Jesus was preaching in a house (as we learn in Saint Matthew), Mary, wishing to speak to him, would not enter of her own accord but remained outside, and did not avail herself of her maternal right to interrupt him." And when she was with the Apostles waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit, she chose the lowest place, as Saint Luke relates: All these with one mind continued steadfastly in prayer with the women and Mary, the Mother of Jesus (Acts 1:14). Saint Luke was not ignorant of the Blessed Mother's merits, which should have caused him to name her first. However, Mary had taken the last place among the Apostles and the women. And therefore he described them, as an author remarks, in the order in which they were. Saint Bernard says: "The last has rightly become the first, because being the first of all she became the last."

Finally, people who are sincerely humble do not look for favor. In fact, they love to be despised. That is why we note that Mary did not show herself in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday when the people received Jesus with so much honor. On the other hand, at his death, she did not hesitate to appear on Calvary. She was undeterred by fear of the ridicule she would incur when it became known that she was the mother of the criminal. On one occasion, Mary said to Saint Bridget: "What is more humbling than to be called a fool, to be in need of things, and to believe oneself the most unworthy of all? Such was my humility, O daughter. It was my constant joy and desire to please my son in this way as much as I could."

Venerable Sister Paola of Foligno was privileged to see in an ecstasy how great the humility of the Blessed Virgin was. Giving an account of it to her confessor, she was so filled with astonishment that she could only say: "Father, you can never understand how great the humility of the Blessed Virgin was! There is no humility in the world comparable to the humility of Mary." On another occasion, Our Lord showed Saint Bridget two women. The one was all glamour and vanity. "She is pride," he said, "but the other one whom you see with her head bowed, courteous to all, devoted to God alone, and considering herself as a nobody, is humility, and her name is Mary." God chose that way of letting us know that Mary is the personification of humility.

There can be no doubt, observes Saint Gregory of Nyssa, that of all the virtues there is perhaps none more difficult for our nature to practice, tainted as it is by sin, than humility. At the same time, we cannot evade this truth: We can be true children of Mary only if we are humble. "If you cannot imitate the virginity of the Blessed Virgin," says Saint Bernard, "imitate her humility." She detests the proud, and invites the lowly to come to her: Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me (Prov 9:4). Richard of Saint Lawrence writes: "Mary protects us under the mantle of her humility." The Blessed Mother explained to Saint Bridget what her mantle was. "Come," she said, "and hide yourself under my mantle. This mantle is my humility." She then added that meditation on her humility was a cloak or mantle with which we could warm ourselves. But since a mantle gives this service only to those who wear it and not to those who merely think about it, she said: "Mary's humility will not help anybody except those who endeavor to imitate her." And she concluded with these words: "Therefore clothe yourself, my daughter, with this humility." O how devoted Mary is to humble souls! Saint Bernard says: "She recognizes and loves those who love her. And she is ready to help all that call on her, especially those who resemble her in chastity and humility." So the saint exhorts all those who love Mary to be humble: "Strive to imitate this virtue of Mary, if you really love her." Marinus or Martin d'Alberto, of the Society of Jesus, used to sweep the house and collect the trash out of love for the Blessed Virgin. One day Mary appeared to him, as Father Nieremberg relates in his life, and thanked him saying: "I am very much pleased by this humble action which you do for love of me."

It follows then, O my Queen, that I can never really be your child unless I am humble. But surely you understand that my sins, after having made me ungrateful to my Lord, have also made me proud? O Mary, you must provide the remedy. By the merit of your humility, make me truly humble, and help me in that way to become your child. Amen.

Humility Brings Blessings From Above

by Sarah Jane Doohan

"Show me, O Lord, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath. Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it."
-
Psalm 39:4-6

David never holds any of His feelings back when he pleads with His Heavenly Father. Every heartfelt song/prayer is written with so much anguish and humble spirit behind it. David's words can teach us to pray to God in the same fashion. There is an undeniable closeness between God and David that the Psalms show us. In Psalm 39 David is recognizing how small we all are in God's eyes. Imagine that, a King humbling himself enough to see the futility of holding onto material things in our short life compared to eternity. His son Solomon writes in this similar style in Ecclesiastes about how meaningless life is without God in it.

We are born with a sinful nature, and one of those are obvious from the get go. Selfishness. Most children outgrow it once they are shown there are others besides themselves. But some children never learn as they grow up and continue to put themselves first. These days "self" is promoted to a disturbing level. Oh I understand the need to have confidence and take care of yourself, but so many go far beyond what God would want for us.

Numerous places in the Bible you will see how much God desires a humble attitude from us. Over and over He blesses the humble. (2 Chronicles 34:27) Let us sit back and listen to ourselves at how often we are using the words "I, Me, My, and Myself" when speaking to others. Do people see us as self absorbed? Do we listen to others, or do we dominate conversations about "our" thoughts.

One of the most incredible blessings God ever granted in the Bible went to David's son Solomon. Solomon was very young and had just taken rule after his father had passed away. Because of Solomon's humble request for wisdom to the Lord, he was blessed with more than he ever could have conceived. We can learn so much from both David and Solomon's words. The knowledge God gave to Solomon would make our geniuses and modern/ancient philosophers pale in comparison. We have the privilege to read the Proverbs for practical living advice.

So God said to him, "Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for both riches and honor so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life."
1 Kings 3:11-14

Two of my favorite verses that I need to constantly remind myself to follow are:

When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.
- Proverbs 10:19

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my redeemer.
- Psalm 19:14

Source: destinedforheaven blog

The Humility of Being Human

by Katherine Britton

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness."
- Philippians 2:5-7

I'm a Christmas carol snob, I guess, as I scorn most songs written in the past 30 years. I do have notable exceptions, however, when the lyrics go beyond the kitsch of "All I Want for Christmas Is You" and other such piffle. We have more than enough American Christmas songs, but there's always room for a thoughtful reflection in the canon of carols. So yes, I make an exception for the CCM favorite "Welcome to Our World." Here are some of the lyrics:

Hope that you don't mind our manger
How I wish we would have known
But long awaited Holy Stranger
Make yourself at home
Please make yourself at home

Fragile finger sent to heal us
Tender brow prepared for thorn
Tiny heart whose blood will save us
Unto us is born
Unto us is born

So wrap our injured flesh around You
Breathe our air and walk our sod
Rob our sin and make us holy
Perfect Son of God
Perfect Son of God
Welcome to our world

So many Christmas songs focus on the joy of the season, and rightfully so. It's a joyous time, both culturally and spiritually. But occasionally I need to view the holiday from a different perspective - that is, from the viewpoint of heaven. From God the Son's perspective, becoming human was - to put it mildly - a huge demotion. Christmas began with an act of submission and humility on the part of the Son. The Creator consented to become one of the creation, with all of our blood, sweat, and tears. From the heavenly perspective, the Incarnation arrived with sorrow, as part of the Godhead separated himself physically from the Father. Christmas signals an arrival into our world, but a departure, however brief, from a greater world.

Jesus' demonstrated humility is just one of the reasons the Incarnation should inspire such awe in us. Yes, the Incarnation dignified a downtrodden humanity. But the Incarnation also required sacrifice we can't begin to describe. All this before the ultimate shame of the cross.

The Puritan Thomas Watson meditated on Christ's humility with these words:

"He came not in the majesty of a king, attended with [a bodyguard], but he came poor; not like the heir of heaven, but like one of an inferior descent. The place he was born in was poor; not the royal city Jerusalem, but Bethlehem, a poor obscure place. He was born in an inn, and a manger was his cradle, the cobwebs his curtains, the beasts his companions; he descended of poor parents.... He was poor, that he might make us rich.... He lay in the manger that we might lie in paradise. He came down from heaven, that he might bring us to heaven."

Intersecting Faith & Life:

As you consider the joy of this holiday season - whether you're anticipating the unwrapped smiles, lighting the Advent wreath, singing carols, making cookies, or whatever - take time to consider the counterpoint. Our joy is Christ's first sacrifice.

Further Reading:

The Grace and Greatness of True Humility - by Al Mohler
Hebrews 2:6-11

Source: Crosswalk.com - The Devotional

The Grace and Greatness of True Humility

by Dr. Albert Mohler

CNN founder Ted Turner once remarked, "If I only had a little humility, I would be perfect." In a strange and almost perfectly ironic sense, this statement encapsulates the spirit of our age--an attitude that gives lip service to humility while celebrating self-promotion. Humility is hardly a hallmark of our age.

From the playing fields of athletics to the trading floors of Wall Street, humility appears to be an accessory few persons believe they can afford. The dominant personalities and cultural icons of our day are most often individuals adept at self-promotion and projection. Sadly, this confusion about the true calling of humility is found even in the church, where humility is too often seen as a gift granted to the few, rather than as the command addressed to all.

C. J. Mahaney seeks to set the record straight in his new book, 'Humility: True Greatness'. The leader of Sovereign Grace Ministries--a group of highly-committed gospel churches--C. J. served for twenty-seven years as pastor of Covenant Life Church, located in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. C. J. is a friend from whom I have learned much, and in his newest book he has much to teach us about the nature of true humility.

One of the central problems of our times is the fact that our reflex is to define humility in basically human terms. Thus, humility can dissolve into an endless and pointless process of comparing ourselves with others. C. J. understands that this is just not the right place to start.

Instead, C. J. defines humility as "honestly assessing ourselves in light of God's holiness and our sinfulness." That sets humility in an entirely new light. "That's the twin reality that all genuine humility is rooted in: God's holiness and our sinfulness," C. J. explains. "Without an honest awareness of both these realities . . . all self-evaluation will be skewed and we'll fail to either understand or practice true humility."

From the onset, C. J. admits the awkwardness of writing a book about humility. "If I met someone presuming to have something to say about humility, automatically I'd think them unqualified to speak on the subject," he observes. So, just why did C. J. write this book? "I'm a proud man pursuing humility by the grace of God," he explains. "I don't write as an authority on humility; I write as a fellow pilgrim walking with you on the path set for us by our humble Savior. I can only address you with confidence in the great and gracious God who has promised to give grace to the humble."

The eclipse of humility can be traced to our celebration of human pride. "The sad fact is that none of us are immune to the logic-defined, blinding effects of pride," C. J. instructs. "Though it shows up in different forms and to differing degrees, it affects us all. The real issue here is not if pride exists in your heart; it's where and how pride is being expressed in your life. Scripture shows us that pride is strongly and dangerously rooted in all our lives, far more than most of us care to admit or even think about."

In making this argument, C. J. is solidly within the Western tradition of theology, perhaps most magisterially represented by Augustine, the greatest of the Church Fathers. According to Scripture, pride is not simply one sin among others. In a very real sense, it is the very root of all sin--demonstrating the ambition of the human heart to assert the human will over God's will.

C. J. helpfully defines pride as "when sinful human beings aspire to the status and position of God and refuse to acknowledge their dependence upon Him." Of course, pride did not begin with human beings. C. J. helpfully points to Satan's rebellion as explained in Isaiah 14:13. "Led by the prideful Lucifer," C. J. explains, "powerful angelic creatures possessing beauty and glory far beyond our comprehension arrogantly desired recognition and status equal to God Himself. In response, God swiftly and severely judged them."

Thus, pride stands at the very core of sin. As C. J. explains, pride is directed towards one solitary end--self-glorification. "That's the motive and ultimate purpose of pride--to rob God of legitimate glory and to pursue self-glorification, contending for supremacy with Him. The proud person seeks to glorify himself and not God, thereby attempting in effect to deprive God of something only He is worthy to receive."

The knowledge and confession of pride is rare in our times. Most modern persons would be hard pressed to identify with Jonathan Edwards, who once acknowledged his own sin by confessing, "What a foolish, silly, miserable, blind, deceived poor worm am I, when pride works." To the modern prophets of self-promotion and self-esteem, this looks like a sick-souled individual in need of therapy. To the contrary, Edwards understood the deadly danger of pride and his own inclination to self-deceit.

In our day, C. J.'s assertion that humility makes for true greatness runs against the very maxims by which our culture measures greatness. In essence, this is just one more indication of how deeply pride has infected humanity. In the culture at large, pursuing greatness amounts to a projection of the self. In C. J.'s words, this comes down to individuals who are "motivated by self-interest, self-indulgence, and a false sense of self-sufficiency," who are pursuing "selfish ambition for the purpose of self-glorification." This is contrasted with true greatness which is biblically defined as "serving others for the glory of God."

The awareness of sin is a necessary corrective. "That's why we need to stay close to the doctrine of sin--because it helps us to see the presence of pride and protects us from those hardening effects," C. J. explains. "The doctrine of sin was specifically designed for this, and it's sufficiently potent to put pride to death in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit."

Of course, sin is a problem we can't solve. The only antidote to the problem of sin is the grace and mercy of God demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ. "Our situation couldn't be more serious," C. J. reminds us. "Prior to our conversion we were sin's prisoners, and even after our conversion we continue to fight the presence of sin, though we're freed from the power and penalty of sin. And if you aren't aware of this danger, you'll never sufficiently appreciate the significance of His death. It's this captivity to sin and continued tendency to sin that necessitates the Savior's death as a ransom for many. That's the price the ransom requires: the life of God's only Son."

Throughout the book, C. J. offers helpful suggestions about how Christians can seek and find true humility. With wonderful pastoral advice, C. J. suggests that believers should begin and end the day in a spirit of gratitude to God. "I found that it's possible for me to charge into my day motivated by self-sufficiency," he admits. "But I've also learned that the very act of opening my Bible to read and turning my heart and mind to prayer makes a statement that I need God." Likewise, the end of the day "offers us a unique opportunity to cultivate humility and weaken pride, as well as to sense God's pleasure. How? By reviewing our day and carefully assigning all glory to God for the grace we've experienced that day."

Most helpfully, C. J. also points to the necessity of finding humility through participation in the life of the local church. "We're all in need of grace. There's no one you know who doesn't need more of it. And God has so composed His church that when we're together in a larger corporate gathering or in a small group or even in casual conversation, we can both receive grace and communicate grace through the exchange of edifying and appropriate words." Christians inculcate humility by giving and receiving correction as a demonstration of God's grace.

"Never forget that others see what you do not," C. J. advises. "Where you're blind to sin their vision is often twenty-twenty. And by God's grace they can impart clarity to help protect you from the hardening effects of sin. Others can exhort you, encourage you, and correct you. They are a gift from God in your battle against sin. And you never grow out of this need. Never."

One of the most important sections of Humility: True Greatness focuses on the need of parents to call out humility in their children. Readers will note that C. J. has dedicated this book to his twelve-year-old son, Chad, in whom he finds obvious delight. At the same time, C. J. understands that the Christian parent's responsibility is not to make their children into objects of pride, but rather to prepare them for the demonstration of true humility. "If humility is to endure in our families and churches, it must be cultivated by parents and pastors and passed on to our families and churches," C. J. helpfully instructs.

Far too many parents fall into the trap of making their children into projects of self-expression. These children are pampered, pushed, and transformed into objects of their parents' self-projection. C. J. gets right to the heart of the problem: "Do your ambitions for your son or daughter include a certain vocation or a certain level of education? Graduation from a certain college? Professional or athletic or artistic recognition? If so, let me ask this: Are any of these ambitions in line with true greatness as defined in Scripture?"

In this new book, C. J. Mahaney has given his fellow Christians a real gift, even as he has dared to confront the self-delusions of our times. To know C. J. is to know that God has prepared him to write this book and to serve as an example of the very humility he commends. Humility: True Greatness is truly a tract for our times.

About The Author:

R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Source: ChristianHeadlines.com

Servanthood: Humility in Action

by John MacArthur

"'Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave'"
(Matthew 20:26-27).

In God's sight, greatness is marked by a humble, servant's heart.

Bible commentator R.C.H. Lenski once wrote that God's "great men are not sitting on top of lesser men, but bearing lesser men on their backs." Jesus would have agreed with Lenski's observation, but He did not see it as wrong to desire greater usefulness to God. Those standards of usefulness, however, are much more demanding than any worldly ideals for self-serving, domineering leadership. For example, Paul lists for us the high standards God has for church overseers (1 Tim. 3:1-7). God considers men great who are among those willing to be servants.

In Matthew 20:26-27, Jesus was speaking of genuine servanthood, not the "public servant" who merely uses his position to gain power and personal prestige. The original Greek word for "servant" referred to a person who did menial labor and was the lowest level of hired help. Jesus could have used a more noble word to denote obedient discipleship, but He picked this one (from which we get deacon) because it best described the selfless humility of one who served.

But in verse 27, Jesus intensifies His description of God's way to greatness. He tells us if we want to be great in His kingdom, we must be willing to be slaves. Whereas servants had some personal freedom, slaves were owned by their masters and could go only where their masters allowed and do only what their masters wanted. The application for us as believers is that "whether we live or die, we are the Lord's" (Rom. 14:8).

If you desire real spiritual greatness, you will be willing to work in the hard place, the lonely place, the place where you're not appreciated. You'll be willing to strive for excellence without becoming proud, and to endure suffering without getting into self-pity. It is to these godly attitudes and more that Christ will say, "Well done, good and faithful slave . . . enter into the joy of your master" (Matt. 25:21).

Suggestions for Prayer

Ask the Lord to help you cultivate a servant's heart.

For Further Study

Read 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and make a list of the qualifications for an overseer (elder). Meditate on the implications of each trait, and write down ways in which humility relates to these leadership qualities.

Source: Grace to You.org

The Humility of Dust

by: Jason Byassee

Ash Wednesday reminds us to act with humility, remembering that St. Augustine claims repentance, not imitation of Christ, is the task of leaders.

"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Sobering words, especially when accompanied by ashes applied to the forehead. How does one lead in light of Ash Wednesday's somber pronouncement?

St. Augustine has some partial answers, not about the first day of Lent directly, but about leading in light of our limitations (I draw here entirely on Robert Dodaro's "Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine"). In his own day in 5th-century Rome, Augustine has two opponents in mind. On the one side are errant Christians who think if they just try harder they can achieve moral perfection and stand in no further need of forgiveness, whether divine or human. On the other are philosophers for whom the Christian mandate to dispense mercy is just a melodramatic effort to subvert reason with guilt. The whiff of both errors still fills the air we breathe today.

Augustine makes the stark claim that leaders should not try to imitate Christ. The Christian statesman or judge, whom he addresses in his massive "City of God" and in voluminous correspondence, would be setting himself up to fail by trying to imitate the only sinless human being in history. For Augustine, the moral imperative on all people is to repent -- which Christ, who was by nature sinless, could not himself do. It seems stark in our day to ask anyone not to imitate Jesus and to say Jesus is unable to do something (such as repent). But for Augustine, lesson one is always that we are sinners incapable of total rehabilitation in this life. Leaders are in positions to do more harm than others if they fail to get that crucial first point.

So if we aren't to imitate Christ, whom should we imitate?

Not to worry. God is faithful, and has provided an alternative to the impossible task of Christ-imitation: the saints. Scripture is appropriately full of imperfect people through whom the God of all mercy has chosen to work. Leaders ought especially to imitate the penitential posture of Scripture's leaders. Think of King David, who committed adultery with Bathsheeba, murdered her husband and apparently went on pang-free until confronted by the prophet Nathan. He responded not only with repentance, but by authoring the slew of penitential psalms the rest of us use to this day: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51). Think, too, of St. Peter, on whom the church itself is built, going out and weeping for his sin of betraying Christ (Matthew 26:75). We might think of Augustine's final days, when he had the penitential psalms written sideways on his wall, so he could lie in his deathbed and repeat them amidst tears. The church is a treasury of imperfect leaders.

Scripture's ideal imperfect saint is none other than St. Paul, who could not have done more to subvert the Roman notion of civic greatness if he had tried. For Paul, true strength is weakness. He does not mean timidity, much less incessant niceness (neither Paul nor Augustine fit either description). Rather, Paul recommends as a public posture for righteousness the sort of openness to repentance he displayed on the Damascus Road. The appearance of any virtue in Paul, no less than in us, is unmistakably due to Christ's grace. What Roman leader was ever glorified for boasting this way? "I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me" (2 Corinthians 5:9). For Augustine, on strictly Christian grounds that he did not expect non-Christians could understand, it is only with the acknowledgement of sin and constant repentance that one can lead without a desire to dominate others.

How does this mandate to penitential leadership not leave us as quivering messes of apology, unable to do more than castigate ourselves? Augustine does think some positive traits of leadership are possible in this largely negative light. He praises the emperor Theodosius, who heeded St. Ambrose's call to repent and did so publicly. Such open acknowledgement of sin is a precondition for an emperor to be able to bear patiently the sins of others, even to the point of offering mercy to those deserving of condemnation. Such a premium on forgiveness also makes for a stronger civic society -- not, as Stoics claimed, a weaker one. For it is only with a mandate to forgive that civil fractions can be healed, strife lessened and social harmony attained. The mandate to mercy starts at the top, so powerful Theodosius on his knees in public penance comes in for praise.

There is a place for the administration of justice here as well. For Augustine, emperors are right to tear down idols and outlaw pagan worship. For only genuinely Christian worship can make possible the balm of humility in public life. The Scriptures still command us to pass judgment on sin, as all judges, even Christian, must be aware. But Christian judges also hear church passages like John 8 -- the woman caught in adultery -- and so must know that for us, mercy triumphs over justice. As Augustine writes to one appropriately worried judge, there is a place for the death penalty. But only Christ himself is righteous enough to implement it. With the woman caught in adultery, the unstated conclusion is obvious: Christ did no such thing.

Augustine's praise of constant repentance, the social adhesion of mutual forgiveness and the priority of mercy over judgment may not be enough for Christian leaders of institutions in our day. They may not have been enough in Augustine's day either. We would be right to quibble with his penchant for male pronouns and praise for state-mandated worship. Perhaps we are sinners precisely where we see no sin in ourselves.

But these reflections are appropriate for Ash Wednesday. Perhaps, with the humility of dust publicly displayed on our foreheads, we can slowly learn how to exercise our authority with some of the sort of humility David, Paul and Augustine before us have shown, glorying in weakness rather than strength; seeking forgiveness when necessary, offering it when asked, judging when necessary, remembering Christ also will judge us.

And here's the irony -- the one who praised humility rather than achievement himself achieved the laying of the theological foundation for all subsequent western Christianity, and so for western society itself. With Augustine, glory did come through weakness.

[Editor's Note: This was delivered on Ash Wednesday in 2009 at Duke University.]

Source: Faith and Leadership, Duke University

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