Updated: Jul 31, 2021
In the name of the triune God: our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.
As Jesus approached Jerusalem, the people adorned the road with palm branches and with their cloaks, and then followed behind Jesus and his disciples, shouting, “Hosanna! Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” At first glance, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem might not seem to be a story of tremendous humility.
If we read the passage through our cultural context, we might envision some elaborate papal procession with massive, fluttering palm branches, dense clouds of incense, a dramatic choir, and hundreds of acolytes and torch-bearers… joyfully moving along a road with throngs of people—thousands and thousands of them on either side. And look at our procession this morning! Rev Deb walked in with all of these bishops, a gaggle of priests, and a herd of deacons… We didn’t even borrow (or steal) someone’s donkey! Where were the bagpipes?! Maybe next year. In any case, we haven’t taken the humble approach, either.
Humility is a strange thing. It isn’t something we talk about very often. Preachers don’t like to preach on it. People don’t like to practice it. It forces us far beyond our comfort zones and can lead us to harsh realizations that can be painful for the blissfully-unaware. In our modern, capitalistic context, being humble doesn’t have much staying power. Humility doesn’t buy us anything; it doesn’t give us power. It isn’t sexy. It’s a weird, countercultural thing that many people don’t seem to understand.
And yet, humility is one of the great Carmelite virtues, along with charity and detachment. That alone speaks to the strangeness of living into a contemplative vocation. In Carmelite spirituality, those three virtues (humility, charity, and detachment) are often so interconnected that it is difficult to tell where one ends and another begins. Teresa of Avila viewed humility to be the foundational virtue from which all other virtues could grow. It is the humus, after all. Santa Teresa wrote, “If you want to lay good foundations, you must try to be the least of all. If you do that, your castle will not fall.” That is the simplest definition of humility: being least of all. Humility empties us of pride, arrogance, or an inflated sense of self. Humility creates a space within us that God can fill. It allows an openness to God, which can entirely reshape and restructure our individual lives. Being humble is us accepting that God knows better than we do, knowing that God has a plan for our lives, and sensing God’s work within us.
Within the two sets of lectionary readings appointed for today’s worship—both of the Gospel texts for Palm Sunday and for Passion Sunday—I find that there’s a little something-or-other hidden in the subtext of the passages. The best way I can think to describe it is with the Latin word humus. Humus has always been a theme for Lent, though we seldom talk about it explicitly. The word humus means ground, earth, soil, or dust—the organic material that makes up nearly everything around us. In agriculture, humus is what your compost becomes. Of course, we begin Lent with Ash Wednesday—remember that you are dust, that you are humus, the dirt from which God created all of humanity. And now, at the very end of Lent and diving into Holy Week, we find humus again, but this time in two derived forms of the word: humility, from humilis, to make oneself lowly, to bring oneself to the ground; and humiliation, from humiliatus, to be made low by another.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was an exercise of humility: Jesus rides into the Holy City on a donkey. Not a horse with a braided mane, nor a gilded chariot. A humble, lowly, smelly donkey. It’s much more like Jesus is riding into Martinez in a dump truck than in a Bentley… or even a Subaru! In Jesus’ context, the donkey was a symbol of industry and peace. It would have been mostly typical for the poorest people in Galilee and Judea to own a donkey—because it enabled them to carry their goods over longer distances to sell in the nearby towns.
In the time between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his trial before Pilate, his humility is replaced by humiliation. Jesus is mocked from all sides—the Temple chiefs endlessly question him and his authority. Judas betrays him, and he’s arrested in the middle of the night. His disciples were scared and scattered. The Temple council turned him over to the civil powers, who mock him. The crowd that was once excited to welcome him to Jerusalem now taunts him and calls him a criminal, demanding his crucifixion. He stands before the crowd, and the Roman guards strip him and beat him, brutalizing his body with chains and barbs.
His humble demeanor never seems to crack under the intense pain and rejection that he faces in Jerusalem. Once viewed as a miracle-worker and a prophet—the King who would come to topple Rome —Jesus is now an object of ridicule, violence, and scorn. And despite the torture and humiliation, Jesus picks up his cross and continues onto the death that he has been promised. It was Jesus’ humble fortitude that led him to Jerusalem, knowing it was the path to his death. In his great humility—his self-emptying—“he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death upon a cross” (Phil. 2:8).
In the Epistle to the Philippians, Paul continues, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ,” [who] “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but instead emptied himself […].” Jesus’ humility, in his self-emptying, enabled him to face his eventual crucifixion, knowing that his life and ministry was part of something greater than himself.
Frequently, we equate humility with weakness. If humility is made by choice—as an active, reflexive decision, rather than a passive humiliatus, being humiliated—we assume that person to be lazy or infirm—there’s something ‘wrong’ with them; they’re just not trying hard enough! They live in rundown houses, wear old clothes, and drive beat-up, hand-me-down cars. Being humble in this era is not attractive or marketable. We live in a society that privileges wealth, property, and power over simple, humble living… especially if that life is centered on God, on being Christ-like.
In The Way of Perfection, Teresa of Avila writes, “Humility, however deep it may be, neither disquiets, nor troubles, nor disturbs the soul; it is accompanied by peace, joy, and tranquility. […] Far from disturbing or depressing the soul, true humility enlarges it and makes it fit to serve God better” (39.2). Humility creates a space within us that God can fill. It requires us to be honest with ourselves about our journeys, our relationships, and our need for God’s embracing Spirit when things feel hard. That same humility allows us to live in the comfort of God’s love even when everyone and everything around us torment us. Humility allows us the internal space to truly experience the love and tremendous mercy that Jesus shows us each and every day, even though we so-so-so-so often do not deserve it.
In the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, we are challenged to examine the ways that we interact with the world around us. Remember that you are humus, and to humus you shall return. What has Lent taught you about humility? What progress have you made? As you enter into Holy Week, are you ready to let go of the fullness of the procession and empty yourselves in order to experience the humility and completeness of Jesus’ love and Passion?