Delightful unworthiness: I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the strap of his sandals.
What would it mean for John the Baptist to have experienced his "unworthiness" while in the presence of Christ? I find it difficult to know what that could mean because I've never had that experience; indeed, I've had the experience of enjoying something that I don't deserve, and of feeling guilty or ashamed, but that's not quite the same as the experience of being unworthy.
The word is derived from "worth;' which means "value:' To be unworthy is to be lacking in a certain value; to feel unworthy is to feel one's lack of sufficient value. But that sounds like a very negative experience. How can being in the presence of Christ turn out to be a negative experience?
When I am around a great person, a very charitable and holy person, I experience myself as having great value, because holy people pay attention to you as if they see in you a value of which you are unaware. You go away from these people feeling better about yourself, more valuable and more loved. In other words, you see a goodness within yourself that you did not previously know, because the truly great and holy will mirror that goodness to you.
Unholy people on the contrary, that is, people who have an inordinate sense of their own importance, make you feel "less;' or "worth-less," because they pay no attention to you. You simply don't matter in their eyes. They don't ask about you because they really don't care, and if you follow their conversation, you'll notice they very subtly re-direct the conversation around themselves.
But Christ would never make us feel worthless, and John the Baptist did not say he felt worthless, but unworthy to untie Jesus' sandals. He felt not that bitter sense of "worthlessness" which leaves us empty and insecure about our own interior worth, but a joyful unworthiness. He was in the presence of a greatness unlike anything that any of us could possibly experience in another human being.
Peter was so astonished at the miracle Christ worked when he instructed him to lower his nets for a catch that he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" And when Jesus told the Roman centurion that he would come and cure his servant, the centurion replied, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed."
Peter, the Roman centurion, and John the Baptist experienced an extraordinary and other-worldly goodness in the person of Jesus that gave them not merely a profound sense of their "lesser" value. To say to Jesus, "Depart from me, for I am a sinner" and "I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof" reveals such a profound sense of the extraordinary and exceeding goodness (holiness) they beheld in Christ. They actually felt that they would somehow tarnish its purity if Jesus were to enter under his roof or if Jesus were to spend more time in the presence of Peter. They loved that extraordinary and totally other goodness so much that they wanted to preserve it from the slightest stain, and they saw themselves as tarnished, stained, unworthy to be in the presence of such extraordinary goodness. That is why John the Baptist could say, "He must increase, and I must decrease."
The experience John had of his own unworthiness was a thoroughly delightful experience; it is a heavenly experience, not the hellish experience of being in the presence of the arrogant and serf-important, who are not extraordinarily good, but who desire to be regarded as such, which is why they will employ very subtle tactics to make the other feel of less worth than they.
C. S. Lewis argued that the soul will demand purgatory. The awareness of God's absolute innocence and boundless love for us will, if it does not revolt us, cause us to insist on our own self-purification. We will love that divine goodness more than we love ourselves, so we will demand to be purified in the purgatory.
Advent is a season of preparation. The first mission was a mission of repentance, and it was John the Baptist who was called to give this first mission. He offers a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, to prepare for the one who will come after him, one more powerful and so extraordinarily good that our own unworthiness will be keenly felt in his presence. Only those with a perverted love of themselves will reject that experience and try to eliminate the source of it.
God has taken the initiative. He revealed himself to Abraham and made a covenant with him. He joined a human nature to establish the new and everlasting covenant, sealed in his own blood. He awaits our response, and if we don't reply, our lives will go no further. But if we reply, if we inch forward, then God takes an even bigger step towards us.
I believe it is about inching forward and upward. "Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart, who desires not worthless things, who has not sworn so as to deceive his neighbor. He shall receive blessings from the Lord and reward from the God who saves him. Such are the men who seek him, seek the face of the God of Jacob" (Ps 24).
We take the first steps by an act of repentance. To do so, we have to become aware of what we know already of the Lord's goodness and our own unworthiness. If we repent of the sinfulness we behold in ourselves, we actually take a step forward and upward. But as I said, God will take a giant step towards you, and then you will acquire a deeper experience of the Lord's goodness towards you, and that in turn will bring you to a deeper sense of your own unworthiness. With that keener vision of our own sinfulness, we are ready to take a further step forward and upward. We are ready to repent of the new sins that have come into focus.
We must not be afraid of growing in the knowledge and awareness of our own sinfulness. It's really the reverse side and counterpart of growing in the knowledge of God's totally other goodness that is revealed in the Person of Christ. The more we know the Lord, the more we'll see ourselves from his point of view, with his eyes. That means we will see our sinfulness, our unworthiness, but we'll also see that we are the object of His infinite love. With that, we will begin to love ourselves with a proper love, one that is rooted not so much in a false sense of our own greatness, a delusion of grandeur, but rooted in God, in the sheer gratuity of His love for us.
Doug McManaman is a deacon and a religion and philosophy teacher at Fr. Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2013|
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