Recently, we have been hearing about discoveries of planets thought to be able to sustain life—even human life. These planets are thought to be located within the so-called “Goldilocks Zone” supporting an environment that is neither too warm nor too cold. Authentic Christian and monastic life also requires a “Goldilocks Zone”—one, however, that is not about physical cold or heat, but that blessed spiritual midpoint between arrogant pride on the one hand and dispirited feelings of total worthlessness, on the other. This midpoint is, of course, the spiritually life-giving and life-sustaining zone of true humility.
The regions below this ideal midpoint are often associated with that pseudo-humility burdened with the oppressive weight of self-denigration and self-rejection. Symbolically, the poor and unsophisticated shepherds with their gaze bound to the earth, intent upon the safety of their sheep, can be said to represent these lower regions. They stand in sharp contrast to the Magi from the East whose upward gaze at the stars may be said to symbolize pride bound up with their conviction that they were able to predict the future by reading the stars. As such they occupy those upper regions that render them also bereft of true humility.
Accordingly, the host of angels suddenly filling and lighting up the night sky bids the shepherds raise their earthbound gaze upwards to the heavens—thereby fulfilling Mary’s words according to which God raises the lowly. In contrast, the Magi’s symbolically prideful upward gaze is drawn down from the heights to the humble earth in order to be able to gaze upon the newborn Infant-King of the Jews, thereby grounding them in all that is truly wise, noble, and great.
Each one of us enters upon our spiritual journey, either with upward gaze and a tendency towards pride and vainglory, or with a downward gaze unable to perceive our still obscured dignity as beloved children of God. Sadly, both arrogant pride and abject humiliation are based either on lies and delusions, or on superficial and often transitory criteria. As a corrective to both spiritual aberrations, Saint James advises the brother in lowly circumstances [to] take pride in his high standing, (based on who we are in Christ) and the rich one in his lowliness, for he will pass away “like the flower of the field.”
In this we learn that true humility, as that midpoint between arrogant pride and cowering humiliation is not simply a leveling out of these two extremes so as to establish a nondescript average state between the two. Instead, humility is more of a portal into that true glory—once lost, but now restored in the One who lowered himself from the heights of heaven to pass through that same portal of humility en route to glory. Having been graced by their mystical (but real) encounter with the Christ-Child, both Shepherds and Magi, follow their newborn king through that portal and emerge invested with true dignity, nobility, and inestimable worth as God’s beloved children and glorious coheirs with Christ.
However, during this earthly sojourn, this portal (whose name is humility) does not slam shut upon our stepping through it. Instead, God, in honoring our freedom, leaves the door ajar enabling us, if we so foolishly choose, to retrace our steps. If we do, then, passing back through the door, we either step up into illusory pride or plunge into the depths of self-humiliation and misery.
Therefore, despite this joyous Christmas night and this special Season of Grace, we need to remain vigilant so as to avoid this dangerous regression. And if we succumb to the temptation to do so, let us hastily reenter through this sacred portal and reclaim, through humility, our God-given dignity and glory. To this end, we would do well to heed that Hasidic saying according to which a person should have two slips of paper which he carries with him at all times, one in each pocket. On one should be written “The whole world has been created for my sake.” On the other should be written. “I am but dust and ashes.”