We read in the Gospels that Jesus emptied Himself when He came down to live in our midst. We realize the Eternal Word was made flesh and took upon Himself a humiliating existence — subject to the consequences of our sinner condition, but without sin. We know that part of His humiliation was to leave something and Someone great in order to live among lesser things and lesser beings.
But was this all? If so, then none of us can empty his being of self, for we cannot go from something great to something lesser.
Simply then, our problem consists in how one grows in the Spirit of Jesus: resembles Him, thinks like Him, sees the present moment like Him, and empties his being of self. He assumed our nature so we could become sons of the Father.
The New Commandment
Since we are to be holy in whatever state of life we are, wherever we are, whatever our talents, it is necessary for us to look deeper into the new commandment and see the answer to our dilemma.
The new commandment asks us to love each other in the same way Jesus loves us. To arrive at a solution as to the “how” of holiness, we will look only at one aspect of God’s love for us. God loves us as we are at the moment and He loves us enough not to force our will to love Him in return or to force a change in us. He watches over us, moves us, broods over us, directs us, forgives us, gives us grace upon grace, extends His mercy when we repent and pricks our conscience when we refuse repentance, brings good out of the evil in our lives and gives us light to change.
His love constantly gives and adapts itself according to our will and disposition. He will not demand more than we can give, He will not force us to go further than we wish to go. He pours His love and grace upon us as we crawl, walk, run or fly towards Him.
Is this the secret of emptying ourselves? Is this how to love our neighbor? Is this how we change and then let that change change others? Is holiness something we pray for while waiting for the big event to happen, or is it a source of strength for ongoing growth?
Holiness and Relationships
People live, work, walk, play, shop, study, and eat with other people. There are few desert dwellers who live alone without depending in some way on people. Relationships, then, pose our biggest obstacle and our greatest aid to holiness. People are there, the command to love them given, but, unfortunately, our use of that command is meager.
We sometimes think that loving means feeling affection, but God cannot command us to “feel.” Love is a decision, but in what does that decision consist? Is it an act of the will that says “I love you” and then forgets the whole thing? Is it to forgive once in a while, hope the occasion never arises again and then become unloving when mercy is again in order?
How do we empty ourselves so Jesus can radiate through us? Perhaps the one word that describes best what Jesus did and what we are to do is the word “accommodate.” Every individual we meet is different than we are. Members of the same family differ one from the other. Friend differs from friend, husband from wife, sister from brother, nation from nation. All these differences make “feeling” love difficult and isolated to specific individuals according to our tastes and their personalities.
Jesus offered many helps and among them is the reality that what we do to the least, we do to Him. But even this is hard to do consistently, because we find it difficult to see Jesus in unpleasant situations, imperfect people and impossible circumstances. We are constantly waiting for others to be more Christ-like, thinking our response will be more peaceful. However, we cannot permit our responding to the call for holiness to depend upon the conversion, change or attitudes of others. What happens to us if they never change, never act like Jesus, never love us and are never converted?
Loving the Irritating
What happens to our call to holiness when difficult situations occur and the people concerned are irritating, irritable and consistently vindictive? Does Jesus desire us to be as a reed shaken by the wind? Did He die and shed His Precious Blood so we would permit ourselves to be buffeted on every side by the passions, temperaments and other disagreeable traits of our neighbor?
Do we have legitimate excuses for our lack of virtue as we complain that obviously God did not call us to holiness since we do not live in a state of life devoid of “people” problems? Are we really saying that if it were not for “people” we could be holy? Yes, we are, and Jesus knew this when He gave us the new commandment.
Jesus dealt with everyone He met on the level of light, virtue and generosity at which their souls had arrived. He knew what the rich young man could do so He asked for all, but the man would not give all. It was, however, the rich young man who went away sad, not Jesus. Since the Source of Jesus’ peace was the Father, He could ask, receive a “no,” accept the person in his present state of soul and continue to love him.
Jesus knew what Judas would do when He called him, but this did not prevent Him from calling him. He dealt with Judas on the level where he was at the moment. Judas, at that moment was zealous, eager and looking forward to the Kingdom. Jesus accepted him where he was and as he was. He continued to love him by giving him light, warning him that we cannot serve two masters and enduring his bad dispositions.
Our reaction to people is the opposite of Jesus. We judge the motives we do not see, shortchange possibilities by the remembrance of past performances and then lose hope for any change that might occur in the future.
As Jesus Loved the Apostles
We also see how Jesus loved Peter. He called him, gently corrected his shortcomings, warned him of his coming denial, gave him a forgiving glance when he failed and forgave him completely when Peter made three acts of love. Never for a moment did Jesus even think of taking away the office He gave Peter as head of the Apostles. He saw his shortcomings, lived with them, made His plans around them, used them to make Peter grow and entrusted him with power and authority. This is loving.
We can be sure the Apostles were not always a comfort to Jesus. They did not understand His mission or His plan of redemption. His parables were beyond them, His desire for suffering a mystery, His revelations difficult to understand, His teachings too deep for their minds to penetrate. Sometimes He was so gentle they felt they could tell Him anything and then fear gripped their souls as they saw the Yahweh of the Old Testament, in the Person of Jesus, beating the money changers in the Temple. He made demands that seemed severe and made even more difficult when His life was an example of those demands. But these men followed Him, sacrificed for Him and that was loving Him.
We see then that Jesus grew in experimental knowledge and His Apostles made progress in grace and wisdom by mutual acceptance and by accommodating themselves to each other.
Jesus slowly brought their sense of values to higher levels by living His life according to those values. He spoke in parables to penetrate their level of light and intelligence. He forgave them often and then asked that they forgive seventy times seven. Knowing their repugnance for suffering, He would mention the coming Passion often and then soften the blow by the promise of His Resurrection. When they would ask Him questions that He had already answered, He would put forth sublime truths more simply without making them feel ignorant. He tried their patience by asking them to feed five thousand men with a few loaves and fishes and then multiplied that food to give them the joy of doing the impossible.
He had confidence in what was inside of them and patience to wait for it to blossom, but in the meantime, He met them where they were, knowing that the grace that came from rising would bring out those beautiful qualities hidden within.
His holiness brought out their darkness and that darkness disappeared in the Light. Once they learned to do to others as He had done to them, they too became lights in the darkness. They too were capable of bringing out of the most abject, beautiful qualities of soul. They became part of the Light “that enlightens all men” (John 1:9).
Perhaps we could call this ability “understanding adaptability.” They themselves received Light from Jesus and since the Source of that Light was unending, that Light burst forth and touched others. St. Paul described this “adaptability” when he said, “everybody is to be self-effacing. . . . nobody is to think of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interest instead. In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus; His state was divine, yet He did not cling to His equality with God, but emptied Himself to assume the condition of a slave” (Phil. 2:3-7).
The secret of emptying our being of self, of loving our neighbor as God loves us, of living the beatitudes is:
- To accept God on His terms.
- To accept ourselves as we are.
- To accept our neighbor as he is.
When we accept God on His terms, we do His Will — when we accept ourselves as we are, we realize our weaknesses and our total dependence upon His grace. This dependence makes us realize God’s Will is superior to our own and this reality permits us to see our neighbor in a new light. We accept him as he is. When our neighbor is angry, then we are called by God to be gentle at that moment, for our neighbor is in need of seeing gentleness — we are self-effacing.
When our neighbor’s personality possesses harsh qualities, we show our love by not voluntarily provoking those qualities in any way. Past experience shows us what upsets a person so in their presence we are careful not to do or say those things that cause anger. We are self-effacing. We are taking upon ourselves that person’s weakness and lifting it up to God by acting like Jesus. This is what it means to “empty oneself and assume the condition of a slave.” “Bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). We are vigilant and watch for those things that please others — providing they are not sinful — avoid those things that annoy, adapt ourselves to their likes and dislikes, their talents and their weaknesses.
This puts us in a position of self-effacing love. We become living examples of the beatitudes. “You are light in the Lord; be like children of light,” said St. Paul to the Ephesians, “for the effects of light are seen in complete goodness and right living” (Eph. 5:8-9).
When we adapt our conversation, our temperament, our knowledge, our virtue, our likes and dislikes to our neighbor’s present state of soul, we are loving him as God loves him — we are a light in the darkness — we are Children of God. We truly follow St. Paul’s advice: “Try, then, to imitate God, as children of His that He loves and follow Christ by loving as He loved you, giving Himself up in our place as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).
This is dying to self, this is giving up our lives for our neighbor, this is holiness wherever we are, in whatever state we are. “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Few are called to actually lay down their lives for their neighbor, but we can all lay down our reactions, conquer our own weaknesses, put aside our very selves and accept our neighbor as he is at the present moment — and that is spiritual death.
Jesus did not always like the apostles’ way of acting, but by adapting Himself to their temperament, praying for them to His Father, giving them a holy example of conduct, He loved them and that love changed them.
We find the apostles and the first Christians doing this very thing after Pentecost, for we read in the Acts: “The whole group of believers was united in heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). Unity of heart and soul is impossible unless everyone, or at least most, are “self-effacing, thinking of how to please others more than themselves.”
Jesus put it very graphically when He told the apostles, “You call me Lord and Master and rightly: so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet” (John 13:13-15). Here He is speaking of each of us possessing a loving and humble spirit as we serve one another. That service is not only in things, but in bearing and forbearing, by careful anticipation of another’s temperament and weaknesses, by self-effacing love.
To persevere in this bittersweet task of holy living we must maintain a deeply rooted vertical relationship with God, the foundation of which is humility and self-knowledge.
Going Out to Others
Spiritual Power cannot be contained within itself — it must go out to others.
Thus it is we are commanded to love God with all our strength, heart, mind and soul and our neighbor in the same way God loves us — it is the same love flowing between God and the soul, the soul and its neighbor.
It is difficult, but the burden of the cross is light compared to the cross of uncontrolled emotions, anger, insistence on one’s own opinion, the frustration of trying to change others rather than being changed oneself, resentment, regrets and guilt. Accepting the present moment like Jesus did is certainly a lighter burden.
Grace is in whatever happens to you at the moment. How will you use it? For or against yourself?
“You who are holy brothers and have had the same heavenly call should turn your minds to Jesus” (Heb. 3:1).
In everything that happens, Jesus is sounding the call to holiness. Let your lives ring out like a clear sounding bell: “Jesus is the Lord. Jesus loves you.”