From “Homily VIII,” New Series of Homilies for the Whole Year (1909)
Jesus does not bid us take the lowest place, that by so doing we may gain the highest and be praised by men, which would be most blame-worthy; but he wishes to teach us, that as men in the world are modest in order that they may gain honor and esteem, so should we be humble and love the lowest places, not to be the observed of men, but of God, who will give us our reward in heaven. The advice of Christ may be put in this way: “When bidden to come to a feast, do not take the first place, but the last; and this not in the hope of being called later on to the first, but from a feeling of genuine modesty; if on the contrary you take the first place, you may have the shame of seeing yourself sent down to take the last.”
The saints, who followed in the footsteps of Christ, have all in their lives exemplified this modesty. They have been one and all more desirous of being lowly and retiring than worldlings are of being prominent and holding the first places. Who can ever forget the beautiful description left us by St. Jerome of Eustochium and Paola? They were both very rich and noble Roman ladies, descended from a long line of consuls and senators and of famous conquerors. And yet the two ladies, taught in the school of Jesus Christ, lived as if they had been the most humble of maidens and had come of the most lowly stock. They lighted the fires, they swept the floors, they mended their own clothes and those of others, they served at table, and day by day they performed all the ordinary household duties; and they did all this, not certainly to excite admiration and to gain the praise of being humble and modest, but from a profound sense of their own lowliness and to please him, who being God, made himself man and the poorest of men, and who being master and lord of all, came not to be ministered unto, but to minister. This is the true humility taught in word and work by Jesus Christ.
The entire teaching of Jesus Christ in this discourse, which the evangelists call a parable, is summed up in this admirable sentence: “Every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” This is a great law running through all things and ruling all creatures, rational and irrational, both in the natural and supernatural orders, and which Jesus Christ willed should be verified in himself. Would you, says St. Augustine, erect a building lofty and secure? Begin by digging the foundation deep and wide. Would you have a tree grow up strong and challenge the fury of the storm? It must be rooted deep in the soil. Would you have a man, highly gifted by nature, gain the good will of the people, enjoy the sympathy of all, and rise to great power and fame? Let him be modest and live among the people. A monarch is never so great as when he enters the huts of the poor, comforts the afflicted, and stands by the humble bedside of some unfortunate victim stricken with a contagious disease. When were the angels confirmed in grace and assured of the possession of eternal glory? When they bowed down before their Lord, recognizing him as such even in his assumed human nature, so far inferior to theirs. When was Jesus Christ, the Man-God, crowned with glory, when did he go up on high, every knee in heaven, on earth, and in hell bending before him, and every tongue singing a hymn to his name, which is above every other name? When he made himself obedient unto death, even unto the death of the cross. And, on the contrary, when will a house totter and fall to the ground? When will a tree be tom up by the hurricane? When the foundations are not deep enough for its height, when the roots have not taken a film hold in the soil. When is a great man, a sovereign, a genius, scorned and hated by the people? When he is proud and haughty. When were the angels cast out from heaven? When they rose up against their maker, as if they were his equals.
The words, “whoso exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoso humbles himself shall be exalted” are the story of the whole human race, and, says a distinguished writer, sum up the life, the very existence, the mission, and the entire work of Jesus Christ on this earth, which had been abandoned to the delirium of its pride. Humility is an absolute condition to entrance into his kingdom. Whosoever relies on himself and trusts to his own wisdom, to his own virtue and strength, will ever continue miserable and sink into his own nothingness. This is the story of humanity in rebellion against God. Whosoever acknowledges his own nothing- ness will be borne up by God himself and share in the ineffable glory of his life. Such is the story of the humble incorporated into Christ.
Geremia Bonomelli (1831-1914) was an Italian Catholic bishop and theologian, who helped to set up mission churches for Italian emigrants across Europe and advocated for the church’s freedom from state interference. His New Homilies for the Church Year were a series of expositional sermons on the liturgical Epistles and Gospels that shaped Catholic preaching in the early twentieth century.