The testimony of John the Baptist allows us to consider the virtue of humility. Jesus identifies John as the greatest man born of women. But his greatness, ironically, is his humility. He is not the Christ; he is not Elijah, nor the Prophet. He is: “…the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’” For “…he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (Jn. 1:27). John is humble.
Humility is a virtue that recognizes reality and our relationship to reality.
A military funeral ritual of Arlington National Cemetery is an impressive spectacle of grandeur. The demeanor of the honor guards, the noble horses, and the somber caisson-bearing casket also deliver apt lessons in humility.
Among the rituals is the honor guards’ solemn folding of the flag for presentation to the bereaved. According to military tradition, the thirteen folds call to mind the nation’s original thirteen colonies. Military chaplains have endowed additional meanings to the ritual, including one fold each expressing: our belief in eternal life; our remembrance of the fallen soldier; our trust in God; our devotion to the country; our veneration of mothers and women who help mold character; our tribute to fathers who give life; and, our honor of the Blessed Trinity.
There are no smiles or jokes, no horsing around, and no disrespect. There is solemnity, honor, and reverence. Everything about the honor guard ceremony points to a reality beyond the individual. The honor guards fold the flag with humble obedience, rightly proud of the humility they display. They know the ceremony is not about them. They are the nation’s messenger.
Another familiar ritual is the national anthem. Why do Americans stand in unison for the U.S. flag and the national anthem?
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress declared “that the flag of the (thirteen) United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” In 1814, three weeks after the sacking of Washington in the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key, a Maryland attorney, witnessed the battle for Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. The U.S. flag flying victoriously at the end of the fight so moved him that he wrote lyrics for The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem.
Patriotism is a Christian virtue, and we stand together as Americans. We stand for the flag in honor of our country and those who have fallen in battle. We stand for the flag as an expression of unity. During his farewell address in 1796, George Washington declared: “The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles.”
In 1792, Congress identified the meaning of the three colors of the American flag: “White signifies purity and innocence. Red [signifies] hardiness and valor and blue . . . signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.” We stand for the flag to pledge allegiance to our homeland and country, not to our rulers.
We stand in prayer for justice for all.
Authentic patriotism is not sinful pride. Patriotism is akin to humility, the virtue that helps us understand our relationship to our communities and nation.
When we stand for the flag, there should be no smiles, no horsing around, and no disrespect. Our demeanor should express solemnity, honor, and reverence. Standing for the national anthem reverencing the flag points to a reality beyond self-interest and extends to the common good. We reverence the flag with humble obedience, and we should be proud of the humility we display.
When we stand for the flag, it is not about us. It is about the nation and love for country. (So when performers hijack the anthem for purposes of innovative musical self-expression, the narcissism undermines solemnity, inviting a slothful spirit of entertainment and distracting from generous patriotic fervor.)
Rituals are sacred, customary ways of celebrating faith or culture. The ceremonies worthy of celebration must have roots in true religion, taking care that patriotic observances do not replace our worship of God. Patriotic rituals must be humble in themselves, always pointing to their source: God and our worship of Him.
Indeed, the Mass is the source and summit of all authentic rituals. At Mass, we worship the one God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We render unto God that which is His due, and we are ennobled by the graces He showers upon us at Mass. So the rituals of the Mass call forth our humble obedience.
During the solemn rituals of the Mass, there should be no smiles, no horsing around, and no disrespect. Our demeanor should express solemnity, honor, and reverence – perhaps enhanced by the gurgles of babies. Our celebration of the Mass points to a reality beyond us. We offer Mass with humble obedience, and we should be proud of the humility we display.
When we offer Mass, it’s not about us. It’s about Him, what He has done for us, and our response of love and gratitude. (So when priests and musicians hijack the ritual of the Mass for purposes of innovative self-expression, the narcissism undermines solemnity by inviting a slothful spirit of self-centered entertainment and distracting us from sacrificial worship.)
It may seem arrogant to acknowledge our humility. But when an honor guard reverently folds the flag, when we stand for the national anthem, and when we offer Mass with the externals of devotion and respect, we can honestly say of our obedience: “It is humble.”
Our obedience to the ritual of Mass humbly recognizes Reality and our relationship to Reality. But the externals of humility are just the beginning. God, through the Church, sends us forth from the Mass, challenging us to expand and live the humility we proudly manifest in our worship.
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