One of the legacies of the “me” generation to its children – apart from rampant sexual diseases, drug abuse, government debt, broken families, trash entertainments, and the general breakdown of both culture and society – is the mantra of “Love yourself.” The multiple variations of this charge have spawned countless forms of self-indulgence, and we are all aware of the price we have paid, in following such counsel. If you do not believe me, take public transportation or go to the supermarket any day of the week, and observe things as if you were a visitor from another century or another planet.
Human beings are, as a result of our fallen nature, inherently selfish creatures. We steal from each other to feed our own needs at the drop of a hat, whether we are doing so materially, or by taking advantage of another’s time, emotions, and so on. In the past, this selfishness was compensated for by promoting the love of neighbor, love of country, and love of God, because it was recognized that in practicing these virtues, by doing one’s duty toward others first and putting the self last, one would develop a healthy estimation of the self, rather than descend into the practices of paganism. Contemporary society has reversed the Judeo-Christian order of things – espousing the notion that you cannot help others unless and until you yourself are happy and content.
This weekend at mass, as is always the case on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, the scripture readings focused on the role of St. John the Baptist in God’s plan of salvation. In his homily, Monsignor Langsfeld reminded the congregation that John could have declared himself to be the Messiah. Indeed, many of The Baptist’s listeners wondered whether he was, in fact, the one predicted to come and save the Jewish people from their sins, as “all of Jerusalem” and the surrounding countryside was coming out to hear him preach.
St. John the Baptist was hardly someone the world would consider to be happy and content, and full of self-love. Among other off-putting features he wore smelly, itchy clothes, ate bugs, and publicly shamed people who were living in sin. Yet like his cousin Jesus, he knew who and what he was, and more importantly what he had to do: he had to point others to the Messiah, and preach about repentance, even though his activities would ultimately cause him to be imprisoned and beheaded.
It is interesting to reflect on the fact that both the beginning and the end of Jesus’ earthly life, for those 33 years He agreed to enter into our linear physical timeline, are similar in one important respect: they were both acts of profound humility, which no one would willingly choose for himself if he had the opportunity to elect how he was to be born and how he was to die. At Christmas, which we are about to celebrate in a couple of weeks, God comes into the world in a crowded stable, full of the stinking, defecating animals of the Jews crowded into Bethlehem for the Roman census. God is placed in a feed trough, because there is nowhere else to put Him, just as if you had placed your own, newborn baby in the dog food dish. Then on Good Friday of course, God leaves the world by being gruesomely tortured to death in public, mocked and spit upon by those watching it take place. If the entrance was not so great, in the world’s estimation, then the exit was even worse.
No wonder the pagans thought that the new religion of Christianity was completely ridiculous, and wrote as much to each other in a number of documents that have come down to us. Even St. Paul noted that Jesus was a problem for many, because of who He was and what happened to Him. How was the pagan culture of the day, focused as it was on the pleasures of the flesh, the treating of other people like commodities to be bought and sold, and the idea that pleasing yourself was the most important thing in life, to adopt a religion centered around a lowly human being of no great merit, who seemed to be neither an all-powerful god nor any sort of conquering hero?
There is a famous bit of Roman graffiti dated variously to the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd century A.D., that gives us some indication of the contemporary attitude toward Jesus and His followers, found in the remains of the school for page boys to the imperial court in Rome. It depicts an ass-headed figure nailed to a cross, being worshiped by an onlooker; the accompanying inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.” Most scholars believe that this was done to make fun of one of the boys at the school who happened to be a Christian. Interestingly enough, in the next room is a different bit of graffiti, which scholars believe to have been written in answer to the one mocking both Jesus and this young Christian; it reads, “Alexamenos is faithful.” When I reflect on this little bit of history, I always hope for his sake that Alexamenos did remain faithful, whatever it may have cost him.
While perhaps the counsel to love oneself was intended to aid those who felt out of place in the world, or put-upon by it in some fashion, the full extent of this notion is so blatantly pagan in its implication, that it must be rejected as it is presently understood. If you find the world to be a greedy, mean-spirited place, where people insult you for the slightest perceived fault, exactly what was it that you were you expecting, given the broad sweep of human history? Greater men have found this world a selfish, horrible place at times, and yet still managed to build up a culture focused on the love of God and neighbor. For true love of self, as it happens, is best manifested not in a worship of the self, or a perennial pity party, or the promotion of vices dressed as virtues, but rather conversely in a denial of the self that results in acts of sacrifice on behalf of others.
If we are to begin again, and reject the notion that “Love yourself,” at least as modern society tells us to practice it, is the best way to order our lives, then we need some better examples of how we ought to live. St. John the Baptist, despite being the great orator, charismatic leader, and fearless castigator of tyrants that he was, referred to himself, in comparison to Jesus, as being someone “unworthy to stoop and loosen His sandal strap.” If someone who was that outstanding a figure in the history of mankind, the herald of Christianity and all that the Church has subsequently accomplished, took such a very low opinion of himself, then perhaps we ought to be a little more realistic in our own self-assessment, as well.