Humility: The Publican and the Pharisee

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On the eve of this day, on Saturday at Vespers, the liturgical book of the Lenten season – the Triodion – makes its first appearance and texts from it are added to the usual hymns and prayers of the weekly Resurrection service. They develop a major aspect of repentance: humility.

The Gospel lesson (Lk. 18:10-14) pictures a man who is always pleased with himself and who thinks that he complies with all the requirements of religion. He is self-assured and proud of himself. In reality, however, he has falsified the meaning of religion. He has reduced it to external observations and he measures his piety by the amount of money he contributes to the temple. As for the Publican, he humbles himself and his humility justifies him before God. If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility. 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 and it even pictures God as the One who all the time “gives credit” for man’s achievements and good deeds. Humility – be it individual or corporate, ethnic or national – is viewed as a sign of weakness, as something unbecoming a real man. Even our churches – are they not imbued with that same spirit of the Pharisee? Do we not want our every contribution, every “good deed,” all that we do “for the Church” to be acknowledged, praised, publicized?

But what is humility? The answer to this question may seem a paradoxical one for it is rooted in a strange affirmation: God Himself is humble! Yet to anyone who knows God, who contemplates Him in His creation and in His saving acts, it is evident that humility is truly a divine quality, the very content and the radiance of that glory which, as we sing during the Divine Liturgy, fills heaven and earth. In our human mentality we tend to oppose “glory” and “humility” – the latter being for us the indication of a flaw or deficiency. For us it is our ignorance or incompetence that makes or ought to make us feel humble. It is almost impossible to “put across” to the modern man, fed on publicity, self–affirmation, and endless self-praise, that all that which is genuinely perfect, beautiful, and good is at the same time naturally humble; for precisely because of its perfection, it does not need “publicity,” external glory, or “showing off” of any kind. God is humble because He is perfect; His humility is His glory and the source of all true beauty, perfection, and goodness, and everyone who approaches God and knows Him immediately partakes of the Divine humility and is beautified by it. This is true of Mary, the Mother of God, whose humility made her the joy of all creation and the greatest revelation of beauty on earth, true of all the Saints, and true of every human being during the rare moments of his contacts with God.

How does one become humble? The answer, for a Christian, is simple: by contemplating Christ, the divine humility incarnate, the one in whom God has revealed once and for all His glory as humility and His humility as glory. “Today,” Christ said on the night of His ultimate self-humiliation, “the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in Him.” Humility is learned by contemplating Christ who said: “Learn from Me for I am meek and humble in heart.” Finally, it is learned by measuring everything by Him, by referring everything to Him. For without Christ, true humility is impossible, while with the Pharisee, even religion becomes pride in human achievements, another form of pharisaic self-glorification.

The Lenten season begins then by a quest, a prayer for humility which is the beginning of true repentance. For repentance, above everything else, is a return to the genuine order of things, the restoration of the right vision. It is, therefore, rooted in humility, and humility – the divine and beautiful humility – is its fruit and end. “Let us avoid the high flown speech of the Pharisee,” says the Kontakion of this day, “and learn the majesty of the Publican’s humble words…” We are at the gates of repentance and at the most solemn moment of the Sunday Vigil; after the Resurrection and the appearance of Christ have been announced – “having beheld the Resurrection…” – we sing for the first time the troparia which will accompany us throughout the entire Lent:

Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life,
For my spirit rises early to pray towards Thy holy temple,
Bearing the temple of my body all defiled;
But in Thy compassion, purify me by the loving kindness of Thy mercy.

Lead me on the paths of salvation, O Mother of God,
For I have profaned my soul with shameful sins,
and have wasted my life in laziness.
But by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.

When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am,
I tremble at the fearful day of judgement.
But trusting in Thy loving kindness, like David I cry to Thee:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.

Source: Great Lent, Journey to Pascha. Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 1969.

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