Delightful Unworthiness
2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle B

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the strap of his sandals.

Recently, after reading over the gospel for this Second Sunday of Advent, I asked a friend of mine if he’d ever been around anyone who had made him feel unworthy. I didn’t mean “guilty” or “ashamed”, but “unworthy”. He said he hadn’t. And as I reflect upon the many people I’ve met in my life, I too have never met anyone who made me feel unworthy. Now, after reading certain authors, I have certainly felt their exceeding brilliance and that next to them I know practically nothing at all. And after reading from the lives of some great saints, or from their writings, I’ve felt something of their greatness and my own littleness, that they are a great deal stronger than I, much more charitable and wiser than I. And I have at times stood before masterpieces of art and have felt like a complete amateur. But I’ve never been in the presence of anyone who has made me feel “unworthy”.

What would it mean for John the Baptist to have experienced his “unworthiness” while in the presence of Christ? He would have known Jesus as a young man—for Elizabeth and Mary were cousins. There was something about being in the presence of Christ that made him aware of his own “unworthiness”. It’s difficult to know what that could mean because I’ve never had that experience; indeed, I’ve had the experience of enjoying something that I don’t deserve, and I’ve had the experience of feeling guilty or ashamed, but that’s not quite the same as the experience of being unworthy.

The word is derived from “worth”, which means “value”. To be unworthy is to be lacking in a certain value; to feel unworthy is to feel one’s lack of sufficient value. But that sounds like a very negative experience. How can being in the presence of Christ turn out to be a negative experience?

When I am around a great person, a very charitable and holy person, I experience myself as having great value, because holy people pay attention to you as if they see in you a value that you are unaware of. You go away from these people feeling better about yourself, more valuable and more loved. In other words, you see a goodness within yourself that you did not previously know, because the truly great and holy will mirror that goodness to you.

Unholy people, on the contrary, that is, people who have an inordinate sense of their own importance, make you feel “less”, or “worth-less”, because they pay no attention to you. You simply don’t matter in their eyes. They don’t ask about you because they really don’t care, and if you follow their conversation, you’ll notice they very subtly re-direct the conversation around themselves.

But Christ would never make us feel worthless, and John the Baptist did not say he feels worthless, but unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. He felt not that bitter sense of “worthlessness”, which leaves us empty and insecure about our own interior worth, but a joyful unworthiness. He was in the presence of a greatness unlike anything that any of us could possibly experience in another human being.

Peter was so astonished at the miracle Christ worked when he instructed him to lower his nets for a catch that he fell at the knees of Jesus and said: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. And when Jesus told the Roman centurion that he would come and cure his servant, the centurion replied: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.”

Peter, the Roman centurion, and John the Baptist experienced an extraordinary and other-worldly goodness in the Person of Jesus that gave them not merely a profound sense of their “lesser” value. To say to Jesus: “Depart from me, for I am a sinner” and “I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof” reveals such a profound sense of the extraordinary and exceeding goodness (holiness) they beheld in Christ that they actually felt that they would somehow tarnish its purity if Jesus were to enter under his roof or if Jesus were to spend more time in the presence of Peter. They loved that extraordinary and totally other goodness so much that they wanted to preserve it from the slightest stain, and they saw themselves as tarnished, stained, unworthy to be in the presence of such extraordinary goodness. That is why John the Baptist could say: “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

The experience John had of his own unworthiness was a thoroughly delightful experience; it is a heavenly experience, not the hellish experience of being in the presence of the arrogant and self-important, who are not extraordinarily good, but who desire to be regarded as such, which is why they will employ very subtle tactics to make the other feel of less worth than they.

C. S. Lewis, a protestant Christian apologist, believed in the doctrine of purgatory. He argued that the soul will demand purgatory. We will want it for ourselves. The awareness of God’s absolute innocence and boundless love for us will, if it does not revolt us, cause us to insist on our own self-purification. We will love that divine goodness more than we love ourselves, and so we will demand to be purified and purged in the state of purgatory.

Advent is a season of preparation. The first mission was a mission of repentance, and it was John the Baptist who was called to give this first mission. He offers a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, to prepare for the one who will come after him, one more powerful and so extraordinarily good that our own unworthiness will be keenly felt in his presence. Only those with a perverted love of themselves will reject that experience and try to eliminate the source of it, namely Christ himself.

God has taken the initiative; He revealed Himself to Abraham and made a covenant with him. He joined a human nature to establish the new and everlasting covenant, sealed in his own blood. He awaits our response, and if we don’t reply, our lives will go no further. But if we reply, if we inch forward, then God takes an even bigger step towards us.

I believe it is about inching forward and upward. “Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart, who desires not worthless things, who has not sworn so as to deceive his neighbor. He shall receive blessings from the Lord and reward from the God who saves him. Such are the men who seek him, seek the face of the God of Jacob” (Ps 24).

We take the first steps by an act of repentance. To do so, we have to become aware of what we know already of the Lord’s goodness and our own unworthiness. If we repent of the sinfulness we behold in ourselves, we actually take a step forward and upward. But as I said, God will take a giant step towards you, and then you will acquire a deeper experience of the Lord’s goodness towards you, and that in turn will bring you to a deeper sense of your own unworthiness. With that keener vision of our own sinfulness, we are ready to take a further step forward and upward. We are ready to repent of the new sins that have come into focus. The saints have a much greater sense of their own sinfulness than those who are not saints. They knew the Lord’s love for them, but they also knew that this love was gratuitous, not something they earned or that was owed to them.

We must not be afraid of growing in the knowledge and awareness of our own sinfulness. It’s really the reverse side and counterpart of growing in the knowledge of God’s totally other goodness that is revealed in the Person of Christ. The more we know the Lord, the more we’ll see ourselves from his point of view, with his eyes. That means we will see our sinfulness, our unworthiness, but we’ll also see that we are the object of His infinite love. With that, we will begin to love ourselves with a proper love, one that is rooted not so much in a false sense of our own greatness, a delusion of grandeur, but one rooted in God, in the sheer gratuity of His love for us.