The Franciscan Humility Challenge

With the passing of Halloween, it is officially Christmas season… at least for department stores, television advertisers, and Franciscans. That is an odd combination, I will admit, and some of you may be singing the Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the other…” Are Franciscans also invested in the commercialism of Christmas? No, not exactly.

I mentioned in passing last year that Christmas was probably the most important celebration for St. Francis. While Easter celebrates the Resurrection of our Lord and the fulfilled hope of our salvation—a pretty big thing to celebrate for sure—Christmas marks the end of our waiting and the beginning of the fulfilled promise. As Simeon says in the Gospel of Luke, “My eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people, a light to reveal you to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32). The Incarnation for Francis was the height of human history: God became human. What a marvel. What a miracle. What a joy of our faith.

So what does this have to do with beginning the Christmas planning on November 1st like those needing to sell us something? Well, because it was such an important feast for St. Francis, he exhorted his friars to prepare for it to an even greater extent than the Church required in the season of Advent: “Let them fast from the Feast of All Saints until Christmas” (Rule of St. Francis III.5).

For us, fasting doesn’t have to mean the literal use of the word, that is, to abstain from food or drink at certain times; fasting can mean abstaining from luxuries more broadly, or even being more intentional with our time so to do something more purposeful, like prayer.

This year, I have come up with something new, and I would like to invite anyone who is interested to try it with me. We all know that humility was probably the highest desire of Francis’ life, that he wished to always be the lowest and least important. We also know that one of his chief reasons for loving this virtue so much was in fact the Incarnation, the humility of God to become human, to be born in such an insignificant way, and to be presented to shepherds, among the dirtiest and least important people of society. For this reason, I will be taking the newly created and aptly named “Franciscan Humility Challenge.”

The purpose of this challenge is to actively seek opportunities to give up control and to be humbled every day. What do I mean by this? Well, so much of our lives is working to get our own way. In our jobs, relationships, families, and interactions with strangers, we find ourselves in conflict with others who want something different from us: Who is in charge? What movie should we watch? Where should we go? Whose turn is it? Who gets to make the decision? Conflicts can range from inconsequential decisions like which station to listen to on the radio in the car, to significant decisions like which car to buy.

For me, what I see in these situations is an opportunity… an opportunity to exercise my ability to be humble like Jesus. The practice of letting go of my will and letting others make decisions, humbly assenting to the desire of someone else, is not just nice pleasantries to keep people happy. It is an active decision to imitate the will of our Lord Jesus, “who humbled himself even to the point of death, death on a cross,” and to put into practice what I pray every day in the Our Father: “Thy will be done.” It’s no coincidence that these words follow immediately after “Thy kingdom come”: the true reign of God’s kingdom is the complete submission of our wills to the will of God. The Kingdom of God is trusting in God above all else.

But how can we expect to do that, a great task, if we struggle to give up our wills in even small situations? Like anything that is difficult, we need practice and preparation to be ready. Why not do so now as we prepare for Christmas, the celebration of God’s great act of humility?

If you feel up to the challenge, I feel a need to clarify two things. The first is that humility cannot be confused with being a doormat, that is, letting others cause us harm because we are unable to stand up for ourselves. Submitting our will to another must always be done willingly, and from a position of privilege and self-assurance. It is our very confidence in our situation, in who we are and who God is, that allows us to give up our will and accept the consequences. If it is done out of fear, under compulsion, or desperation, this is a different situation. There is a huge difference between humility of will and allowing ourselves to be abused, and we need to make sure we know the difference.

The reason for this is the second point, and ultimately the whole point of the challenge: we are doing this to imitate Jesus and so share in the Father’s joy. If we submit our will to another but in doing so feel angry or hold resentment towards the other, we have missed the point. The point is to be free of our need to be in control, and to take joy in the fact that God is in control. This is the great joy of our Christmas celebration, and the truth that we hope to make true in our lives.

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