Mass Text - Latin
Mass Text - English
Blessing of the Advent Wreath
Everyone has head of the three theological virtues—Faith, Hope, and Charity—virtues absolutely necessary for the Christian, for they are the means by which we relate to God, cooperate with His graces, and earn our eternal salvation. By Faith we believe what God has revealed that He wants us to know about Himself. By Charity we love God, and we love our neighbor for the love of God. By Hope we trust that God will provide the graces necessary for us to achieve eternal salvation if we but cooperate with Him.
We also speak of three evangelical counsels—Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. These are recommendations of our Lord for those who seek perfection, either inside or out of a religious community. They are “recommendations,” but in some sense everyone is compelled to observe them to some degree. All must observe Chastity according to their state in life. Poverty may not be obligatory for everyone, but all must restrain their pursuit and use of material goods, so as not to be distracted from the pursuit of the spiritual life. And Obedience is incumbent on everyone in one or more of their relationships—as members of a family, of the Church, and of civil society.
But today, the scripture readings of this Mass prompt the mention of two or three more virtues, that are just about inseparable from being a good Christian—virtues which regulate our day to day conduct with the people around us. No less an authority than Pope Gregory the Great interprets today’s Gospel as a demonstration of the Humility of Saint John the Baptist:
This “speaking truthfully” is the essence of all humility. One of the great Trappist preachers of the twentieth century, Abbot Dom Eugene Boylen, used to say quite emphatically (with his marvelous Irish brogue) that “You don’t make a man humble by humiliatin’ him.” A man becomes humble when he knows both his abilities and his limitations, and knows that doesn’t have to prove either his strengths or his weaknesses to those around him. The humble person is the one who does what God has endowed him to do; not boasting about greatness which is not really his; nor proudly complaining about the talents with which God has left him short.
Pope Gregory went on to say that “when [John] took pains humbly to acknowledge his own lowliness, he really earned a share in the exaltation of Christ.” Let us remember that John’s lowliness was exalted by our Lord in asking Baptism of him; rather than the other way around—and that John, in no way, gave up his humility in denouncing the adultery of King Herod; he did what he was supposed to do, what he had been given by God to do; for which he received the palm of martyrdom, rather than the appreciation of those around him.
The other virtue mentioned in today’s readings is Modesty or Moderation (depending upon the translator of the text you read). The word in the Latin missal is “modéstia,” which may be translated either way, and encompasses both words as we use them in English. In many ways, this “modéstia” is very similar to the humility of which we just spoke. The moderate person knows his needs, neither underestimating or overestimating them. He doesn’t eat and drink to excess, nor does he ignore the need for adequate nutrition. He is not “all work” or “all play” or even “all pray,” but recognizes that his time must be apportioned according to right reason. There is “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance.” And, of course a time to pray. The moderate person understands all of this and acts accordingly.
As we use the word in English, the modest person is probably even closer to the humble person than the moderate. Modesty is, first of all, not calling unnecessary attention to one’s self. We expect the hunter to wear red, and the crossing guard to wear a reflective vest, for making sure that other people see them is an essential part of what they are doing. We expect people to dress a bit better than normal when they come to church, or participate in some important family or civic affair, for the way we dress is an essential part of the way we show respect for God and for one another. We expect the priest to make himself heard, as likewise the fathers of families, the foremen in industry, and the leaders of nations, for their communications are essential to what they do. But the modest person does none of these things just to call attention to himself. And, certainly, the modest person never tries to excite the lust or the passions of other people to draw attention to himself—not by dress, not by speech, not by action, or by any other way—for that could be seriously sinful for everyone involved.
The modest person, like the humble person, is honest about himself, not purposefully trying to make himself stand out from everyone else, nor refusing to play his legitimate and necessary part in society by hiding away.
We are what we are, as God created us. Humility, Moderation, and Modesty require us to know what we are; to make use of the gifts God has given to us without boasting; to recognize our limitations without lamenting them. It is the same, whether we are called upon to be public figures like John the Baptist, or are called upon to live in obscurity. In every case we are called to Humility, Moderation, and Modesty.
“Have no anxiety ... but let your petitions be made known to God. Rejoice in the Lord and let your moderation [your humility, and your modesty] be known to all men.”