On Tuesday evening, I went to the Oxford Playhouse and watched The Two Popes. It is without a doubt one of my absolute all-time favourite films, and when I saw that the play was being put on, I couldn’t resist.
It is full of poignant one-liners, and takes a deep look at human frailty, especially in positions of power. There’s also a great lesson that God so often uses our very frailties to demonstrate his own power and bring good to the world, and it is at the moment when we think our plans are leading in one direction, that we find that God’s plans are quite different. Above all, there is nothing and no one too small or too broken or too flawed for God to redeem them and to use them.
Watching the end of the play, as Pope Francis refuses the silks and velvets and trappings of the papacy, I was reminded that it is tradition in church processions that the one who goes first is the least important, and the one who comes at the end of the procession is the most important. I remember being told of a rather comic stand-off between a bishop and a headmaster at the doorway of a school chapel – “After you!“ said the headmaster. “No! After you!“ replied the Bishop, as they eyed each other up with mild hostility.
That the first shall be last, and the last shall be first is a key teaching of Jesus. As he says in the parable from this Sunday’s reading, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. It doesn’t take the words of Jesus to make us realise that whenever we try and put ourselves on a pedestal, we invariably find that our footing is far from sure, and often more than merely our pride is dented when we fall off. We should be wary indeed of any kind of pedestal or exaltation, and above all wary of ever putting ourselves in that position. It’s bad enough when others do it to us! It is one of the things that has been most striking about Pope Francis, that he has refused to mount the metaphorical pedestal, preferring to stay on his own two feet.
As the world continues to spin and tip around us, and so many certainties are shaken or lost, keeping our footing is quite a skill. And perhaps the first step (if you will pardon the bad pun) in that direction is to keep our feet firmly on the ground, remaining humble, and remembering that we are indeed made of the ‘humus’ – the earth or clay in Latin – and that no matter what we do, or do not do in our lives, it is to that same humus that we will return.
In the end, humility is not about slavish grovelling or pretending to be less than we are. True humility is knowing ourselves, our abilities and our limitations, and using them in the service of others, without pride or boasting ever getting in the way or making us lose focus on who and what we truly are – beloved children of God, but made of frail and fragile clay nonetheless.