SERMON: The Great Humility Of Saint John The Baptist by Francis de Sales
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 1620, concerning pride and ambition as the most powerful temptations, the excellent humility of Saint John the Baptist in renouncing the most dangerous and subtle temptation to pride and ambition, his immediate and succinct denial that he was the messiah, the desire of angels and of all men (even pagans) for the Incarnation, our foolish and untruthful acceptance of honors, Saint John’s humility in skillfully denying even the honored status that rightly belonged to him — without, however, being untruthful; how we should not excuse ourselves of the very faults we accuse ourselves of but confess them straightforwardly, humility’s excellence, affinity with charity, and necessity in order to escape the devil’s snares, Saint John’s lowly description of himself and our Lord’s praise of him, God’s perennial humbling of the proud and favoring of the humble, and how all should imitate Saint John the Baptist.
Who are you? And he confessed, and did not deny: and he confessed: I am not the Christ. (John 1:19-20)
If we are to judge by every art, business, and profession, we will have to confess that the principal and most powerful temptations are those to ambition, pride, and arrogance. Lucifer used them to tempt our first parents. It is said that ambition is the worst of them all since it caused him to stumble from Heaven into hell. Knowing from his own experience what powerful allurements pride and ambition are, he used them to tempt our first parents by offering them the forbidden fruit with such arrogance that they were sure that by eating it they would be like God. (Genesis 3:5) He did not tell them that they would be God’s equal, for “Who is like God?” (Psalm 34:10, 112:5; Isaiah 40:18) It is impossible to be God’s equal; and if the miserable wretch had tempted Adam and Eve in that way, they would easily have recognized his deception, for being still in original justice, they were greatly gifted with perception and knowledge. This is why he said to them: “You will be like God.” And how would they be like God? In eating this fruit they would, like God, know good and evil. Now this ambition so puffed up their pride that they actually presumed to share in divine wisdom and knowledge and allowed themselves to be seduced by the tempter. In this way they forfeited original justice.
Reflecting on the cause of the fall of Lucifer and the other angels, some theologians say it was due to a certain spiritual self-complacency which, through an awareness of their angelic nature’s grandeur and excellence, caused such self-pride that they desired with insupportable arrogance to be like God and to place their thrones on an equality with his. (Isaiah 14:13-14) Others maintain that envy was the cause of their fall. They knew that the Lord would create human beings, that He willed to enrich human nature, and that, further, He would actually communicate himself to this nature, incarnating and uniting himself to it in hypostatic union in such manner that these two natures would form only one person. Knowing this, they were moved with envy. They were upset that the creator planned to elevate human nature above theirs and said among themselves: “If God desires to go out of himself so as to communicate himself to another, why does he not choose an angelic and seraphic nature for this communication? Is it not far nobler and more excellent than the other?” From that moment on they were filled with jealousy, ambition, and pride, and finally stumbled miserably.
But to what purpose do I say all this except to contrast it with and exalt the humility of Saint John the Baptist, who is one of the persons who took part in the mystery of the visitation and whose humility, it seems to me, is the most excellent and the most perfect that has ever been, after that of our Lord and the most sacred virgin? There was presented to him the strongest and most violent temptation imaginable to pride and ambition. But notice, I beg you, that it was not presented to him in person by the enemy and that it did not come from him directly. When an enemy is discovered or we see that a temptation comes from an adversary, we immediately become suspicious of whatever he says or whatever he urges us to do. Why? Because it is suggested to us by our enemy and therefore is not to be trusted.
It is most certain that if Adam and Eve had recognized their tempter, they would not have allowed themselves to be seduced. But this wicked spirit always uses trickery, knowing that if he does not disguise himself and assume some mask or the form of a friend when he makes an attack, he will never succeed. He seduces many by his wiles and cunning. When he presented himself to Eve, it was in the form of a serpent. (Genesis 3:1) But at that time, serpents were not serpents as we now know them. They did not bite and had no venom. Consequently, Eve had no more fear of him than a small child would have of a young eagle. The enemy spoke to her in the form of a serpent and kindled in her the ambition and eager desire to be like God. For this reason she ate the forbidden fruit.
As for Lucifer and his angels, they had no other tempter than themselves, for as yet there was no devil. They were tempted by themselves. Because of pride they, who were once angels, became demons. For this reason we can rightly say that ambition, pride and arrogance came down from Heaven to the earthly paradise and from this paradise spread into the whole world, rendering it thereby an earthly hell. Thus the angel became a devil; he who had been beautiful and God’s friend declared himself God’s enemy and became ugly and horrible. Man, by pride and arrogance, lost the original justice in which he was created and made this Earth a hell. For the evils that human vice draws in its wake are a veritable hell which lead from temporal to eternal punishment.
Notice how one of the strongest, most subtle and most dangerous temptations possible is being addressed to Saint John, not by his enemies, as I have said before, nor by men assuming the mask of hypocrisy, but by his friends, sent to him from Jerusalem by the princes and doctors of the law. Jerusalem was the royal city where the holy senate and judges resided. Scribes were the doctors of the law, and Pharisees were like our priests and religious. The princes among the priests and the doctors governed the whole republic by the Law of Moses. These, then, sent people to Saint John. But whom did they send? Perhaps some of their sons’ valets or some other such men of low rank? Certainly not! They sent doctors and religious men as their ambassadors and those of the republic. And why? Simply to find out if John was actually the Christ, the son of God, the messiah whom they were awaiting, so as to pay him due honor.
Notice, I pray you, the caprice of the human spirit. They were awaiting the messiah and they saw that all the prophecies had been fulfilled, for they had the sacred scripture at their fingertips. The savior came, and went among them teaching his doctrine, performing miracles and confirming by deed all that he said. Nevertheless, instead of acknowledging him, they go in search of another!
They address themselves to the glorious Saint John, asking him: Who are you? He told them and did not deny it: I am not the Christ. Are you Elias? No. Are you the prophet? No. He confessed and did not deny it. These are the words of the Evangelist (John 1:19-21), brief and to the point as they are in everything they relate. Our ancient fathers correctly remark that when these envoys asked: “Who are you?” they did not want to know simply who he was, but whether he was the expected messiah. Otherwise would Saint John have replied that he was not the Christ, if he had not believed that they were sent precisely in order to confess him as such? It is true that he was not, “and he confessed and did not deny it.”
But reflect a little upon the truly perfect humility of this glorious saint. He rejected not only the honors, the preeminence and titles which did not apply to him but, what is more amazing, even those that he could have accepted. He, being like the rest of us, was certainly capable of committing venial sins. And yet he had attained such a degree of humility that he triumphed beautifully over every pride and ambition, spurning and refusing to accept all the dignities and honors offered to him.
While in Heaven, the angels never sought to be gods. Lucifer was too good a philosopher ever to believe that that was possible. He understood completely that he could never be such, that it was simply impossible. No, his ambition never went that far. He knew that God would always be the first and would always be above him. In short, he was God, and Lucifer did not presume to be his equal. Nevertheless his pride led him so far as to want to be like God (Isaiah 14:14). Through such arrogance the miserable wretch, instead of becoming what he rashly presumed to be, fell from what he was and was driven out, banished forever from Heaven. He became a devil. In him devils began to be; before his fall there were none.
Being in original justice, our first parents in paradise never sinned, neither mortally like the fallen angels (for the first sin that they committed was mortal and consequently deserved eternal death), nor venially. Nevertheless, they listened to the ancient serpent (Revelation 12:9) when he said that if they ate of the forbidden fruit they would be like God. This sole promise made by Satan so touched their hearts that they forgot the Lord’s command and prohibition. Oh! what strong and dangerous attractions are both pride and ambition, capable of seducing the human heart to transgress God’s law! As the great Saint Ambrose says, truly one must be clothed and armed on all sides with humility if one wishes to enter into the combat and war against vice.
Our glorious Saint John was indeed armed with this virtue. O God, how wonderfully present it was in this great saint! For he was neither in Heaven, nor in the earthly paradise, but on fallen Earth; he was not an angel, but only a man; he was not in original justice and could have sinned venially. And they did not propose to him simply to be like God, they came to make him confess that he was the Christ, and they were prepared to acknowledge him as such! But he refused emphatically such acknowledgment. “He confessed and he did not deny,” says the Evangelist, that he was not the Christ.
How great were both this temptation and the humility with which he repulsed it. But please take note how the messengers from the princely priests speak to him: “We are here, sent in the name of the scribes and Pharisees and the whole republic, to say to you that the prophecies are fulfilled and that the time has arrived for the messiah’s coming. It is true that we see among us many persons who live well and are very virtuous, but we must confess that we have not beheld anyone like you or anyone whose works so delight our hearts. In short, we believe that you are the promised messiah. If you are, he, we beg you neither to deny nor to hide it any longer, for we have come to pay you the honor that you deserve.” See, they place the agreement in his hands. If he had wished to accept it, they would have acknowledged him as the Christ. But surely this glorious saint was too great a lover of truth to allow himself to be carried away by such an ambition. If he had said he was the messiah, he would have been a great liar, disloyal and unfaithful, for he would be accepting an honor that was not due him.
These scribes and Pharisees declared that they were awaiting the promised messiah, the desired of the nations and him whom Jacob called, “the desire of the eternal hills.” (Genesis 49:26) Some ancient fathers explain these words by saying that they describe the desire of the angels for the incarnation; others hold that we should understand by them the desire that God had from all eternity to unite our human nature with the divine, a desire that He communicated to both angels and men, though in different ways. Some, such as the patriarchs and prophets, longed ardently for him, and by those longings raised to Heaven they petitioned for the incarnation of the son of God. Solomon in the Canticle of Canticles (Canticles 1:1) expresses this longing in the words of the spouse: “Let him kiss me with a kiss of his mouth.” What does this kiss signify but the hypostatic union of the human nature with the divine? Others desire it, too, but almost imperceptibly. For from time immemorial we find people seeking the divinity. Not being able to make an incarnate God, because that belongs to God alone, they sought ways to fabricate deities. For this purpose they erected images and idols which they adorned and regarded as gods among them. Certainly I know that these were illusions. But yet we see in them the desire that God had implanted in all hearts for the incarnation of his son, the desire for the union of the divine nature with the human nature. These priests and Levites, then, had reason for saying that all prophesies had been fulfilled and that the time had come when they should see him who was the desired of the nations.
Now they ask Saint John: “Who are you? Are you not the Christ whom we await?” And he confessed and did not deny that he was not. Oh, how far was Saint John’s spirit from that of our times! He did not discourse beautifully in replying to these messengers; he contented himself by simply answering that he was not the Christ. Surely, if they had wanted to know simply what his profession was, without doubt they would have been informed of the truth, and with more words. But since they took him for what he was not, he succinctly stated that he was not the one whom they thought him to be.
We, on the other hand, are extremely receptive to the honors that are extended us! Our human nature is anxious to attract whatever is to its advantage, and we are greatly taken with every dignity and preeminence! To those who flatter us we say: “Oh, it is true that I have been gifted with that grace. Yes, I have it. But it is God’s gift. It is a result of his mercy,” and other such words. An unimportant gentleman will imagine himself to be from a great family, a cavalier; when someone asks him, “Who are you?” he will answer what he imagines to be the case: “I am a gallant lord, a valiant cavalier, from a great house and family.” Ordinarily these men are nobodies. But the less they are, the greater they desire to appear! Folly and nonsense! Who is he? Indeed, who is he? To hear him, he is a Saint Peter! He probably lived four hundred years before this apostle, and other such nonsense. In short, our self-love is such that it not only draws to itself all the glory that in any way belongs to it but also that which in no way belongs to it. In this we act quite differently from the glorious Saint John, who is not content simply to reject what does not belong to him; he even refuses what he could justly have accepted.
The envoys demand of him: “Since you are not the Christ, are you Elias?” And he declares: “No, I am not.” Surely he could have answered that he was; for although he was not Elias in person, he did come, nevertheless, in the spirit of Elias (Luke 1:17); so that he could have said of himself as we say today: “He has the spirit of such a one,” or, “He does such a thing, impelled by such a spirit.”
How, then, if Saint John came in the spirit of Elias, can he say in truth that he is not? And he does not lie any more than if he had said that he was Elias. He knew that it was written that before the day of the Lord a great prophet, an excellent man named Elias, would rise up among the people, that he would come to teach them and dispose them for the coming of the sovereign judge. He knew, then, that if he said he was Elias, they would likely take him also for the promised messiah. This is why he denied and said: “I am not.” Admirable humility! He rejects not only what does not belong to him (it is the first degree of humility not to wish to admit nor seek to be held or esteemed for what we are not), but he goes much further and finds a manner of speaking by which he can even reject the honor that belongs to him without being untruthful. He does this promptly, without disputing or using many words. Frankly and freely he says: “No, I am not.” But I must end this part, for time is passing.
Hearing this second denial, they then asked him a third question: “If you are neither the Christ nor Elias, at least you are some great prophet. You cannot deny this truth, for your words are proof of it and give ample evidence and testimony.” Nevertheless, this glorious saint remains firm in his humility and replies: “I am not.” But how can Saint John in truth make this third denial, he who was not only a prophet but more than a prophet? Our Lord himself, with his own mouth, declared this aloud to the Jewish people. (Matthew 11:9; Luke 1:76, 7:26, 28) How then, dare he affirm: “I am not.” All the ancient fathers greatly admire these three denials of this glorious saint and are astonished at them. They say that in them Saint John went to the furthest extreme, and that if he had gone just a little further, he would have lied. Yet, of course, he did not lie.
But how could he assert that he was not a prophet, knowing indeed that he was and that God himself had declared it? Note that it was further promised in the Jewish Law (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18) that a great prophet would be sent to them. I know there are different opinions as to who this great prophet would be, but the most common is that it would be none other than the son of God. Saint John knew that they were not simply asking him if he were just another prophet, that if he answered affirmatively they would certainly conclude that he was that great promised prophet and acknowledge him as such. So he simply denied it, seeing that without lying he could still answer that he was not. It is as if he said: “If you were only asking me who I am, I would answer you quite simply. If you wanted to know, for instance, if I am merely a prophet, I would frankly admit that I am and even that I was sent to prepare the way for the messiah. (Luke 1:76) But because all your demands seem to have but the one end, to identify me with the promised messiah, I answer that I am neither the Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet.” And in this he did not lie.
Notice, then, how Saint John eschewed the temptation to pride and ambition and how humility suggested to him skillful ways of not having to admit or accept the honor they wished to render him, cleverly concealing who he really was. He had no doubt that in a figurative sense he was indeed Elias and the prophet; God himself had even declared him to be more than a prophet. Nevertheless, seeing that he could truly affirm that he was not as they thought and could thereby avoid the honor they wished to render him — an honor that should be referred to God alone — he answered: “I am not.” Without doubt, theologians assure us, we too can speak with a similar skill and prudent cleverness when such is warranted by the circumstances, and this without fear of lying?
But many have interpreted this permission incorrectly and have actually said things far from true without thinking they were lying! Some have even gone so far as to believe that they can utter falsehoods where there is a question of God’s glory! If we reprove them for it, saying: “But in such an act or manner of speaking you are untruthful,” they will answer, “Oh, that is true, but it is for God’s honor that I lied.” What utter folly! You are making fun of people by speaking in that way, as if God could actually be honored by a sin! That can never be. We must never lie to honor God. Such is an insult and a great mistake. Saint John does not act in that way at all, for he could truthfully answer as he did, as I have just pointed out to you.
Astonished by Saint John’s denials, these ambassadors retorted: “Why do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet?” (John 1:25) “Why do you have disciples and perform such wonderful deeds? In what spirit do you do these things? Surely, you are trying in vain to hide and conceal. Your works prove to us that you are someone very great indeed. We ask you this so that we may know how to reply to those who sent us.” See, they almost lost patience over Saint John’s humility. (Truly, the ambassadors needed the great virtue of patience. It is very necessary not only for ambassadors, but for all Christians. That is why I always say that patience is the true virtue of Christians.)
“He confessed and did not deny” that he was not the Christ nor Elias nor the prophet. These words are better explained in Hebrew. (The Hebrew language is a marvel, altogether divine. It is the language our Lord spoke when he was in this world, and according to some doctors’ interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:8, it is that which the blessed speak in Heaven above. Hebrew words always have a remarkable grace in all they express.) “He confessed and did not deny.” These words are almost identical, because to confess one’s fault is not to deny it; and not to deny it is to confess it. Nevertheless, there is a slight difference between the two.
On this subject I will say a few words about confession, although I have touched upon it at other times and in other churches. But perhaps those who heard me then are not present, and others, I know, have since died.
Many confess and deny at the same time. By this I mean that many confess their faults, but in such a way that at the same time that they accuse themselves they excuse themselves. They admit that if indeed they committed the fault which they now acknowledge, they certainly had reason for doing so. Not only do they excuse themselves while accusing themselves, but they accuse others as well. “I became angry and consequently committed such a failing, but I had good reason for it; they made me do or say such a thing; it was for such a reason.” Is it not clear that in confessing in this way one is denying it at the same time? Say simply: “It was through my malice, my impatience, and ill nature, or the result of my passions and unmoritifed inclinations that I committed such and such a fault.” Do not say: “I have spoken ill of others, but it was on matters so obvious that I am not the only one who said or saw it.” By this kind of talk we deny being guilty of the fault of which we accuse ourselves!
We must not do that. Rather, we must confess clearly and plainly, owning the fault and holding ourselves truly guilty, without being anxious about what others may say or think about us. “This is what I am,” we ought to say. This is how the glorious Saint John acted: “He confessed and did not deny.” Without worrying about what others would say or think of him, he walked with determination before God, not like those who go and do not go. We say to some: “You must do this, you must go there.” But before doing it or going to the designated place, they make a thousand reflections and hesitations. They are like those servants who, when sent on some errand, do go where they are sent, but they amuse themselves en route at each shop they pass, talking now to this one and now to that one. The least little thing they see stops them. Such people go, while in a sense they are not going.
These ambassadors, then, want to know who Saint John is in order to report to those who sent them. But he says nothing to them except: “I am the voice of him who cries out in the desert: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’” (John 1:22-2; Isaiah 40:3) Please note this glorious saint’s perfect humility. The more they pursue him, the more he withdraws and lowers himself in his nothingness, always rising thereby to a higher degree of humility. O noble virtue of humility! How necessary it is to us on this wicked Earth! Not without reason is it called the foundation of all virtues. Without it, there is none. It may not be the preeminent virtue — charity or love of God surpasses it in dignity and excellence — yet these two virtues have such mutual affinity that one is never found without the other.
Since it is to the point, I will relate to you a beautiful sketch on this subject which I read with pleasure in the recently published Lives of the Fathers. The author has gathered these lives diligently and carefully. He relates that many of these good religious had at one point assembled and were talking together familiarly in a spiritual conference. One of them was highly praising obedience; another, charity; a third, patience. Hearing what all his brothers said about these virtues, one of them added: “As for myself, it seems that humility is the first and most necessary of all.” He made the following comparison which is my sermon here: “Humility and charity are united like John the Baptist and our Lord. Humility is the forerunner and the precursor of charity, as Saint John the Baptist was of the savior. It prepares the way; it is the voice crying out: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ And just as John the Baptist went before the messiah, so also must humility come in order to empty hearts that they might then receive charity, for that can never dwell in a soul in which humility has not first prepared the lodging for it.”
One day Saint Anthony was rapt in ecstasy. When he returned to himself, his good confreres asked him what he had seen. He said to them: “I saw the world filled with snares calculated not only to make us stumble, but also to cause us to fall headlong over deep precipices.” They replied: “And if it is filled with snares, who then can escape?” He answered them: “Only those who are humble.” We see here just how necessary humility is to resist temptations and escape the devil’s snares.
Saint John had it to a very high degree of perfection. “You ask me why I baptize,” he says (Matthew 3:11; John 1:26). “I baptize you with water unto penitence; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, who by baptizing remits sins. You want to know who I am. I tell you that I am nothing but a voice.” It is as if he meant to say: “O poor men, how greatly are you deceived in me! You think I am the messiah because I am not dressed like other men, my garment being made of camel’s hair. I do not eat bread or meat, and I sustain myself on only locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4) that the little bees bring me. I drink no wine. (Luke 1:15) I have no house, but live in the desert with dumb animals. I am on the River Jordan baptizing with water and preaching penitence. (Luke 3:3) Because of this you believe that I am the messiah. Now I tell you I am not he, but only the voice of him who cries in the desert.” We will continue this next Sunday. We are overtime now.
In declaring that he was only a voice, how could Saint John humble himself more? For the voice is only a breath, an exhalation into the air which produces some little sound and then disappears entirely. “You believe that I am the messiah, and I insist that I am not even a man, but only a simple voice. If you go into this desert, you will hear echoes among these rocks; and if you speak, they will answer in an utterance similar to your own. Now who among you will confuse the echo with the person? No one. Well, this is what I am and nothing more.” In this way the glorious Saint John humbled himself to the very depths of his nothingness. To the same degree that he lowers himself, God exalts him and cries aloud that he is a prophet and more than a prophet. (Matthew 11:9; Luke 1:76, 7:26, 28) Furthermore, he calls him an angel, saying: “Lo, I send my angel to prepare your way before you. (Matthew 11:10)
Surely from time immemorial divine wisdom has looked favorably upon the humble. (Psalm 112:7, 137:6) He has humbled those who exalted themselves and raised up those who humbled who humbled themselves. Our lady and mother, your glorious mistress, has sung of this in her divine canticle: He has put down the might from their thrones and exalted the humble. (Luke 1:52) Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled. Those who wish to place their throne upon the clouds will be brought down, and the poor who lower and humble themselves shall be exalted. (1 Kings 2:3-8; Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11, 18:14)
There are some people so full of pride that they cannot subject themselves to anyone or suffer anyone to say what they really are. They want to be preferred to everyone, and they esteem themselves more learned and erudite than any other, and it seems to them they never need a teacher. Actually, such people are usually extremely ignorant, but no one dares to tell them that, for they suppose themselves to be veritable marvels. Oh, God humbles such as these. He leaves them and looks upon the poor and humble souls who are prostrate and have no throne but their littleness. (Psalm 112:6-7; Luke 1:48, 52) These are not offended when we tell them that they are imprudent and have no sense or judgment. They humble themselves, and God exalts and raises them up, giving them his Spirit by which they perform great things.
In short, our Lord offers Saint John to all kinds of people for their imitation. He should be the model not only of prelates and preachers, but also of religious men and women. They should consider his humility and mortification so that, in following his example, they also may be voices crying out that we should prepare the way and make straight the path of the Lord so that, receiving him in this life, we may enjoy him in the next, to which may the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit lead us all.
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