Originally published in The Snickle Journal, a Catholic zine for young adults based in North Carolina.
On the feast of the Visitation, I preached on the Magnificat prayer of Mary (Luke 1:46-55). A curiosity within the passage is what we might consider irony between humility and exultation. Mary exemplifies humility so perfectly: she calls herself merely “His lowly servant.” Although by every right, she might call herself Chosen One or Queen, she instead claims her identity in lowliness. Yet, even in this humility - perhaps precisely because of it - we see Mary as exalted.
Reflecting on the day of my ordination as a deacon, the interplay between humility and exaltation struck me in a particular way. On the day of perhaps my proudest moment, the moment in which I am made a cleric of the Church, I am in control of practically nothing.
The only words I really get to say for myself are, “Present”, “I do”, and “Amen.” The majority of my speaking parts are merely acquiescing to humiliating questions. Do you promise to pray the Divine Office under pain of sin? I do. Do you promise to be celibate pretty much forever? I do. Do you promise to be a worthy servant at the altar? I do. Do you promise respect and obedience to whoever wears the pointy hat? I do.
We move on to the next order of business: lying on the floor for five minutes. During the Litany of Supplication, as the Church calls on the Lord and the saints on my behalf, my face is on the marble. My friends and family have to look at the bottom of my shoes. Next, the bishop lays his hands on my head as I say and do nothing. Another deacon comes and dresses me. Finally, after Mass, the bishop calls me back to the rectory and gives me the parish assignment he has chosen for me.
Truly I can understand the words of Christ to Peter in John 21:18, “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”
The ordination rite itself seems to reflect the humility which the Lord foretells to Saint Peter. Although I waltz into the sanctuary of my own free will, I walk out having bound myself to the will of another. I stretched out my hands to be vested by someone else and directed where to go. Though I am very happy to go to my parish assignment (St. Mary in Kutztown, Pa), there is no choice for me to accept or reject; only obedience now.
I walk out having bound myself to the will of another.
How ironic it all is! In objective terms, a man should be humiliated to undergo these things. Yet, the Church sings in exultation to have men enter Holy Orders. My soul, too, is moved not to abasement, but joy.
I think, too, that the same must be true in the vocations of family life. How humiliating to do other people's dirty laundry; to change diapers; to suffer through morning sickness; to surrender one's hard-earned wages to the needs to the family. Yet, how exalted to be a spouse, a parent! How blessed to find one's identity in self-giving, in laying down one's life for those he loves.
Humility is hard. I do not pretend that one day of symbolically humble actions make for real humility. Neither do I believe myself to be praise-worthy as Mary was to Elizabeth. Instead, I pray for the grace to imitate her example, to truly embrace the life God has called me to. I hope to grow to receive humility without shame, but with the true heart of a servant.