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Ambitious in Humility

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Brothers and sisters,
in relations with one another,
clothe yourselves with humility,
because God “is stern with the arrogant
but to the humble he shows kindness.”
Bow humbly before God’s mighty hand,
so that in due time he may lift you high.
Cast all your cares on him because he cares for you.
Stay sober and alert.
Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion
looking for someone to devour.
Resist him, solid in your faith,
realizing that the brotherhood of believers
is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world.
The God of grace, who called you to his everlasting glory in Christ,
will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish
those who have suffered a little while.
Dominion be his throughout the ages! Amen. (1 Pet 5:5b–11)

Entering Notre Dame through the main entrance, one passes by Cedar Grove Cemetery. I sometimes think of the dead, welcoming us to this university, imploring us to use our time here wisely, reminding us that death comes for us all and urging us to think of that ultimate (or rather, penultimate) fate in ordering our practices here together.

Universities, as we all know, seldom tend toward instruction in humility. As in our civic discourse more broadly, within the classroom or the academic conference we are tempted to prove ourselves right, or even better, impressive in front of our peers, students or professors. We are prone to think of our contributions as solid, lasting, important. We rightly celebrate and ponder the greatest achievements of humankind, but all too often jockey for our reputation and posture in defense of our own glory.

The texts we’ve just heard [Ps 62; Ps 67; Col 1:12–20; 1 Pet 5:5b–11] offer us a salutary word at the beginning of a new semester. Rather than emphasizing the permanence or solidity of human achievement, they lay stress on its fleetingness.

“Common folk are only a breath, great men an illusion. Placed in the scales, they rise; they weigh less than a breath,” the Psalmist tells us (Ps 62:10). Elsewhere Scripture uses similar imagery to describe the stark brevity and minor significance of our lives here: smoke. A fading flower. A shadow. A vapor. A mist that appears for a moment, and then vanishes. All images to describe the transitory nature of our lives here on this earth. The Psalmist invites us to ponder the strength and stability, the power and justice, of the God of all creation, and to consider ourselves accordingly.

In attempting to shock us into self-realization, the biblical authors are not hoping that we will fizzle into a self-indulgent nihilism, but rather that we will orient ourselves away from our own tawdry glory to the one who is before all else, in whom all things cohere, the one who will have pre-eminence in everything.

The crucifix hangs in every classroom at Notre Dame, over all our teaching and learning, reminding us that we live and move and have our being in the shadow of the Cross. Jesus himself has gone before us, laying aside all his ambition for the humiliation of a state-sponsored execution. As Pascal remarked, Jesus is one “whom we can approach without pride and before whom we can humble ourselves without despair.”

We should be ambitious in the pursuit of truth and new knowledge, but let us be ambitious in the happy forgetfulness of self, in the discipleship of our common master, in the effort to say with unlying lips, ‘hallowed be your name,’ rather than in the short-sighted attempt to prop up our own name, the hollow, broken name that can only find its permanence in self-divestiture.

And may God grant us the grace and humility to bow before his mighty hand, so that in due time he may lift us high.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Editors’ Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, January 18, 2017.

Featured Photo: Cedar Grove Cemetery; Barbara Johnston

David Lincicum

David Lincicum is an associate professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame.