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Sunday: Awe-Inspiring Humility and Obedience

StationsOfTheCrossXThis Sunday’s readings (Passion Sunday, Year C) depict the dramatic confrontation between the humility and obedience of Jesus Christ and the pride and rebelliousness of his enemies — a group which, at least this Sunday, includes his apostles.

The key to the readings — and, as a matter of fact, the key to the whole Christian life — comes in the Second Reading, from St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians:

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Humility and obedience are the two prerequisites for all three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity. There is no faith without humility and obedience, because you only believe once you set your own preferences and understanding aside and accept the Church’s. There is no hope without humility and obedience because if you trust in yourself and your wits, you will fail miserably, sooner or later: Only by being small enough to trust can you hope. And there is no love without humility and obedience — except self-love.

Clearly, his attackers lack humility and obedience. The council of elders who put Jesus on trial are not humble before the actions of God or willing to be obedient to where he leads. They want to know if Jesus claims he is the Christ, not whether he is the Christ. Jesus explains their attitude: “If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I question, you will not respond.” They are totally closed.

Pilate shows false versions of humility and obedience. He claims again and again that Jesus is “not guilty” but he still flogs him and eventually crucifies him out of acquiescence. This is the antithesis of obedience: To obey is to decide to align your will with another’s for the sake of the good; to acquiesce is to nullify your will for the sake of comfort or vanity.

But the greatest failures in humility and obedience are the apostles’.

Luke’s Gospel juxtaposes them deliberately.

Jesus takes the form of bread for them; they argue which of them is the greatest.

Jesus prepares to die at his Father’s will; they flee to avoid trouble.

Christ prays in the garden, “Not my will, but yours;” they sleep, disobedient even to his request to stay up with him for an hour.

Judas betrays him with a kiss, Peter betrays him with a sword, but Jesus allows himself to be led away.

Peter won’t admit he knows him, for fear it might cause him pain; Christ won’t admit that he’s innocent, though he knows this means he will die.

Jesus endures getting slapped, spit on, ridiculed and — what is perhaps even harder to bear — humiliated intellectually emotionally: He gets betrayed by his friends, bettered in unfair arguments framed by the Sanhedrin and Pilate and then dismissed as inconsequential by Herod.

Through it all Jesus keeps his composure, forgives and counsels, and, as we know, wins totally in the end. This is awe-inspiring humility and obedience. The Apostles will learn this lesson well and become exemplars of humility and obedience in their later lives — and deaths. The Church gives us their example to change our lives as well.

The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes is vice president of college relations at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of U.S. House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Archer and then spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. He writes weekly for Catholic Vote, the National Catholic Register and Aleteia. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and nine children.