St. Catherine of Siena once described a conversation she had with the Lord in prayer, where Jesus spoke the following words to her:
“I am He who is, and you are she who is not.”
Now when we hear these words today, we might be tempted to think:
Wow, Jesus — That sounds a bit harsh! Don’t you care about my self-esteem, Lord? What do you mean by “I am “not?” That I’m not holy enough? Not successful enough? Not productive enough? Not what enough, Lord? What am I “not” enough? What do you mean by “I am not.”
But that’s not what Jesus meant. And we know that because when St. Catherine first heard these words — “I am He who is, and you are she who is not” — she did not feel the least bit offended, disappointed, or belittled. No — quite the opposite!
She found joy and freedom in those words:
She could say from the bottom of her heart: “Yes God, You are He who is — and I am she who is not.”
So on this Gaudete Sunday, when the Church encourages us all to “REJOICE!” — I think we can and should REJOICE in that wonderful and seemingly paradoxical truth: That we are small, and yet so important. That we are very nearly nothing, and yet God sent a Savior for us. That our life is not about us. That we are in fact… not. We depend utterly on God, and our identity is based completely in Him.
St. John the Baptist is a fantastic role model for this humble “I am not” mentality. In today’s gospel passage, the priests and the Levites come to the Baptist in order to ask him a bunch of questions. They ask him first: “Are you the Christ?”
His response is blunt and impossible to misinterpret: “I am not the Christ.”
So they shoot back another question: “So then…are you Elijah?”
John again replies: “I am not.”
They ask once again: “Are you, then, the prophet?”
John says once more: “Nope. I am not…”
You can almost catch in John’s blunt and forceful replies a deep joy that he is none of these things. There’s no shred of regret — no hint that he would prefer to be the Christ himself. He’s content to be who he is. He’s happy to be very nearly nothing… to be only the lowly little precursor to Jesus, only the bridegroom’s friend, only the one who points the way — the one who testifies to the light! He joyfully proclaims: “I am not the light that you are looking for.”
This is what I love about St. John the Baptist: He doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what he actually is. He does not exaggerate or stretch the truth. Over and over again, John the Baptist finds the strength and the freedom to declare openly: “I am not.”
There’s so much pressure out there today to be “more” than what we really are? There are so many opportunities for us to puff up our pride.
We gotta pad the resumé.
We gotta beef up our credentials.
We gotta prove that we’re worth having as a friend, or as a coworker, or as a significant other.
We gotta earn our own way, beat out that competition, establish ourselves.
In a word, we feel pressure to keep saying over and over and over again: “I am, I am, I am. I am this. I am that — We define ourselves by what we say that we are.”
This self-assertion is the essence of pride — the first sin. It’s the cause of Lucifer’s downfall.
For all eternity, Satan whimpers and wails in proud defiance of God: “I am! I am! I am!” But nobody even bothers to listen to him, because he’s surrounded by other self-absorbed demons and human souls who echo the same horrible mantra: “I am.”
This is why we need to beg for the virtue of humility.
Humility is a vert misunderstood virtue today, unfortunately. When we think about being “humble” we usually assume that involves putting ourselves down, or thinking that we’re miserable, terrible people with absolutely nothing to offer anyone — that God is mad at us for some reason, and that we should feel bad about who we are. CS Lewis masterfully flips that lie from the Devil on its head when he says: “Humility is not about thinking less of ourselves, but thinking about ourselves less!”
One of my favorite books, “Divine Intimacy,” (It’s a daily devotional for through the whole liturgical year) describes humility in this way:
“Christian humility does not lower — it elevates. It does not cast down, but gives courage, for the more it reveals to the soul its nothingness…(it’s not-ness) the more it moves [the soul] toward God with confidence and with abandonment.”
That I think is the kind of humility we find, yes in John the Baptist, but even moreso in the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our psalm today wasn’t actually a psalm. They were words from the Gospel of Luke — The Song of Mary, her Magnificat. That’s the song that she sang after visiting her cousin Elizabeth, who as we know was pregnant at the time with John the Baptist. After John leaps in his mother’s womb, as if to say for the first time: “I am not, but HE IS — and He’s right there in Mary’s womb. I’m gonna jump for joy to show you the way. Don’t look at me! Look over there! — That’s when Mary bursts into her song. Into her rejoicing in the Lord. She says:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked with favor upon his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.”
That is really important. Mary is able to say on the one hand that she is truly God’s lowly servant — She is the handmaid of the Lord. She is able to say in all humility, “I am not!” while simultaneously saying: “From this day, all generations will call me blessed.” That’s humility, too, because it’s true. She really will be called “blessed” for all eternity. She’s the queen of all the angels and saints.
She’s able to say things like that — She’s able to appear at Lourdes, France and tell little Bernadette “I am the Immaculate Conception” — because all of Mary’s good comes from God. And she knows it. She knows who she is. And she gives credit where credit is due. She doesn’t put herself down — she doesn’t waste time tearing herself down! — No, she spends all her effort lifting God up. Pointing to Him!
So in the end, Mary’s song communicates the same exact message St. Catherine received in her contemplative prayer: “God is He who is — I am she who is not.”
But our Blessed Mother — just like Catherine — rejoices in that fact! Rejoices in God!
And I think that’s the secret to Christian joy. It’s not a fake, smiley, everything’s-fine kind of joy — It’s rather the joy that is convinced that the heavy burden is off our backs: That we don’t have to be in control. That we don’t have to have all the answers. That we don’t have to know everything. That we don’t have to be the total satisfaction of our spouse. That we don’t have to be the savior of our family. We can joyfully be “nothing” because God is our everything, and He will help us to walk in trust.
So we look to Mary and John the Baptist, and we allow them to point the way — Allow John the Baptist to direct your attention over and over: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! I’m not the Lamb of God — He is. Stop looking at me! Look over there. Follow Him.”
It’s precisely this phrase “I am not,” that is constantly falling from the Baptist’s lips, that actually paves the way for the great I AM of Jesus. “There is one among you whom you do not recognize,” John says, “one coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” One who will say in all humility and truth:
“I am the Good Shepherd.”
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
“I am the Bread of Life.”
“I am the Resurrection.”
“Before Abraham was — I am.”
This Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God — the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob — the same God who spoke to Moses from the heart of that crazy Burning Bush, saying those crazy words that echo down through the centuries: “I AM WHO I AM.”
God is… and we are not. But if we are in Him, we can live. We can have joy in our hearts. We can actually say “Gaudete” and actually mean something. So as we come before this God of the I AM — how can we not fall down on our knees in reverent humility and reply with joy deep in our souls:
“I am NOT.”