We hear in the troparion for today’s feast that, with the birth of Mary, God has annulled the curse that sat upon the human race, and instead has given His blessing. With Mary, the dawn of the new humanity, a redeemed humanity, begins. As Christ is the New Adam, so she is the New Eve. So often on the feasts of the Mother of God, we hear the passage from Hebrews, which reminds us that Mary is the true Holy of Holies, the living tabernacle of the living God. But on this feast, the Church gives us this marvelous passage from Philippians, which depicts for us the humility of Christ. The Church is telling us that this same humility is characteristic of the Holy Virgin as well. It is why she was counted worthy to be Queen of Heaven, just as Christ’s humility earned Him a name which is above every name in heaven and on earth. Pride, disobedience, and self-justification brought God’s curse upon our first parents Adam and Eve, and through them upon the whole human race. So now, God’s blessing is returned through the humility, obedience, and self-renunciation of Christ and His immaculate Mother. This humility is the hallmark of all the angels, all the saints, all of the saved. No one can enter heaven without possessing some measure of it.
How do we acquire this humility for ourselves? How do we enter into it and participate in it? How do we come to have the mind of Christ of which St. Paul speaks? First, we should be convinced that there is no other way to do good and to please God, and that the acquisition of such humility is therefore worth any cost or sacrifice to achieve. For it is nothing other than the kingdom of heaven, the tree of life in paradise, the pearl of great price. If it were not so valuable, why else would we undergo the necessary labors to acquire it? Why would sacrifice ourselves for it? We have to trust, even against our own reason and experience, that there is nothing sweeter, nothing more beautiful, nothing more peaceful and desirable than Christ-like humility. Because everything in our fallen nature and our broken culture, which is dedicated to the gratification of the passions, tells us that there is nothing more bitter and grievous than humility. We are taught by our society not merely to indulge our passions freely and to gratify our own will as far as possible, but even to take pride in doing so openly and shamelessly. In vain do we pacify our conscience with the thought that our indulgence is benign as long as we do not actively harm others. For there are also sins of omission, and when we serve ourselves exclusively—or even just primarily—an astonishing amount of good goes undone. This accounts for the sorry state of the world today, just as much as the evil that is perpetrated actively and intentionally.
Simply put, we live in a society that caters to the needs of the fallen human ego. We understand ourselves to be a mere collection of autonomous individuals, whose primary purpose in life is to maximize their pleasures and their happiness. From an early age, we are taught the value of thinking for ourselves, without any recourse to tradition or authority. We learn to cultivate our own persona, to define ourselves by a whole panoply of preferences, opinions, tastes, ideas, identities, and ideologies. We are led to believe that giving free rein to this process is the only way we can find our authentic self and live a fulfilled life. Perhaps deep down, we sense that this is all trite and superficial, but everyone else does it, so what is the alternative? As more and more of our life is subsumed by the internet and social media, we may reach the point of forgetting that there is any other kind of life. Instead, we hasten to loudly broadcast our own opinions and accomplishments to the rest of the world, we demand only our rights and balk at our responsibilities, we cling to our own partial, self-constructed vision of the good life.
Consider, then, the mind of Christ, who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God (Phil. 2:6), that is, He thought it not a thing to be grasped, to be held onto jealously at all costs, as His rightful possession. If the Lord Jesus did not consider His divinity as something to cling to, what then should be our attitude to all that we possess in this life, whether by right or by might? Is there any honor, any privilege, any skill, any talent, any beauty or charm, any intelligence or education, any wealth or knowledge that we should consider our inviolable possession, in which we take pride and by which we define ourselves and our own worth relative to others? But all of these things are utterly worthless in God’s sight, because they have no enduring eternal value.
So what did God choose to do in light of His pure, exalted nature? Did He rest content and complacent in His own perfection, smug and self-satisfied at how much better and more blessed He is than the foolish and sinful race of men? No. He made himself of no reputation, or better put, he emptied himself (Phil. 2:7). He took all that He was, and moved by ineffable pity, He freely poured Himself out for the salvation of His creatures. He emptied himself, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:7). But this did not exhaust the unsearchable depths of God’s love for the human race. Though He was the only sinless one, God among men, omnipotent and almighty, worthy of all reverence, glory, honor, and worship, Christ, being found in fashion as a man … humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Phil. 2:8).
So we come quite literally to the crux of the whole matter. The way of Christ-like humility is the way of the Cross, which is foolishness to the world and deeply repugnant to our fallen ego. For the ego considers its own rights to be non-negotiable, its own life and activity essential. When it ponders the lengths of self-denial and sacrifice necessary to fulfill Christ’s commandments, to truly follow Him to the Cross, the ego loudly protests with its own plausible justifications, pointing to its seemingly good deeds and alleging the impossibility of truly attaining to such depths of humble, self-emptying, self-sacrificing love. We might think, “It’s just too idealistic and impractical, or perhaps it’s just beyond me; that’s just not how I am. I couldn’t live like that.”
But we should know that all such protestations and excuses will not be able to assuage the pangs of conscience we will inevitably feel when we must stand before Christ, and look upon His meek and loving gaze, and behold the marks of the wounds He bore for our sake. And if we dare to object and say, “Yes, but You are God,” He will point to His Mother, and then to the countless multitude of men and women who share our nature, with all of its proclivities and infirmities, and yet found within themselves the courage to follow Christ without sparing themselves, without shrinking from the toil, the suffering, and the utter humiliation of the Cross. If we do not repent now, while we have the capacity to do so, if we do not “change our mind” and exchange it for the mind of Christ, we will discover that this life of ours centered on the passions and the ego will be justly rejected before the judgment seat of Christ. We will find that it is only fit to be cast into the flames of hell, which we kindled in ourselves by our selfish and passionate life.
Lest we despair, then, over our weakness and lack of resolve, lest we be crushed by a sense of self-loathing, hatred, or resentment on account of our spiritual wounds, whether inflicted by ourselves or by others, we must ever keep in mind the unfathomable love of God for each one of us. As St. John the Theologian says, We love him, because he first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19); and St. Paul likewise says, God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). It was God’s boundless love for us that not only prompted Him to create us, but to empty Himself and to bear full responsibility for our salvation. It was His love that showed us the path of the Cross, and even now gives us the strength to follow it according to our measure. St. Silouan the Athonite engaged in superhuman labors to acquire Christ-like humility; he endured untold temptations from demons and experienced firsthand the spiritual torments of hell. But he always said that he could not have endured it all if Christ had not first revealed to him just how much He loves mankind. We dare not plunge ourselves into the abyss of humility and total self-abasement if we are not tethered to the conviction and awareness that God is love, and He loves us unspeakably, boundlessly; that He Himself will justify and console the soul if it will unsparingly condemn and deny itself; that He will come and dwell in our hearts if only we would empty ourselves of our own will, our own reasonings, our own designs, rights, interests, agendas, preferences, opinions, theories, ambitions, and fantasies. Without the knowledge that God is love, the truth about ourselves and our own sins would simply drown us in despair. And this is precisely the spiritual sickness we see engulfing our world, which has forgotten the love of God.
But we are Christians, and we must have hope. The final verses of the today’s epistle are full of this hope of resurrection, of the glory and triumph that follow the pain and humiliation of the Cross. For it is only because Christ suffered the shame and torment of the Cross that God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9). So too with all the saints, their glory is fully commensurate to how eagerly they emptied themselves, humbled themselves, and followed Christ to the Cross. And as the Church reminds us today with this passage from Philippians, no one followed Christ so eagerly, so wholeheartedly and self-abasingly as did the Mother of God. This is the path we are all called to tread, whether monk or layperson. So let us respond gratefully to God’s love, let us despise the shame of the Cross, let us embrace the toil of the narrow way. For if we fail to make this inner self-renunciation, all of our spiritual efforts will fail to bear fruit and we will labor in vain. But if we do humble ourselves and joyfully carry our Cross, we will stand triumphant and unashamed before Christ, His most-pure Mother, and all of the saints. Amen.