Eastern Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Schmemann, in “The Great Lent” (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, $16), wrote, “The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, of self-glorification and of self-righteousness. It is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself.” What we need, most desperately, is true humility. And what is humility? Father Schmemann stated the answer is found in recognizing this surprising truth: “God himself is humble!” Humility is a divine quality. And the beginning of humility is repentance.
The people of Judah living some 600 years before the time of Christ had a dysfunctional relationship with humility. We hear that they “added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations,” which included worshiping false gods in the Lord’s temple. Their actions epitomized pride, self-glorification and self-righteousness, reminding us there is nothing new under the sun.
What did God do? The description is striking: “Early and often did the Lord, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them.” Why? Because God had compassion on both his people and his dwelling, the temple, which he had consecrated for holy and proper worship. Those messengers, the prophets, were ignored; worse, they were mocked and their warnings derided.
The anger of God was inflamed because justice had been trampled and mercy had been scorned, and so “there was no remedy.” Those are chilling words, but they reinforce the fact that man, possessing free will, really can reject God. No one is forced to enter the covenant, to worship God, to accept the divine gifts of mercy and life. And so the people went into exile, severed from their homes and land for 70 years.
Perhaps the most famous expression of divine humility is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Jesus knew he would be lifted up on the cross; he knew that although he did not come to condemn the world, he would be unjustly condemned, mocked and dismissed. And he knew the reason for this murderous rejection: “But people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” Those who rejected Jesus were in exile — not physically, but spiritually. “Separation from God is death,” wrote St. Irenaeus, “and separation from light is darkness. Separation from God consists of all the benefits that he has in store.”
Those who pursue wickedness are repelled by divine humility, but those who seek truth come to the light. Nicodemus was one such man, a ruler of the Jews who recognized his need for spiritual sight, to the point of confessing that Jesus was “a teacher who has come from God” (Jn 3:2). He sat in the light, yet we don’t know how he responded; he seems to have slipped away into the night as silently as he came. His appearance and disappearance should cause us to consider how easily we can come into the light of Christ and then potentially withdraw from it. Perhaps we are not told what became of Nicodemus because he represents each one of us — and we do not know for certain if we will abide with Christ until the end.
However, as St. Paul told the Ephesians, we have been saved through faith, a gift of the long-suffering God who reaches out to us. We are called to be handiwork who have repented and have been graced with the restoration of right vision.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.