I came down from heaven (VII:6)

Jan. 31 May. 30 Sept.
The second degree of humility is, that a man love not his own will, nor delight in fulfilling his own desires; but carry out in his deeds that saying of the Lord: “I came not to do mine own will, but the will of Him Who sent me” (John 6:38). And again Scripture saith: “Self-will hath punishment, but necessity wins the crown.”

The second degree of humility enshrines an utterance of Lord from the 6th chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, the discourse on the Bread of Life: “I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38). This imparts to the second degree of humility a Eucharistic imprint that, in effect, illumines all of Chapter VII. Few Benedictines, in the course of history, have understood the second degree of humility as profoundly as did Mother Mectilde.

John 6:38 is at the heart of the Discourse on the Bread of Life. Our Lord says, “I came down”, descendi. One seems to hear in this word the fulfilment of that other divine utterance addressed to Moses on Horeb, the mountain of God:

And the Lord said to him: I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of the rigour of them that are over the works: And knowing their sorrow, I am come down (descendi) to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land into a good and spacious land, into a land that floweth with milk and honey. (Exodus 3:7–8)

Is this not what we confess in the Credo of the Mass when we sing, Qui propter nos hómines et propter nostram salútem descéndit de coelis, “Who, for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven”? This “coming down” of the Word left the Angels in astonishment, even as the glorious Ascension of the Lord in “the substance of frail human nature which He had taken to Himself” (Communicantes of the Ascension) astonished the angels, causing them to cry out:

Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, O eternal gates: and the King of Glory shall enter in. Who is this King of Glory? the Lord who is strong and mighty: the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, O eternal gates: and the King of Glory shall enter in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of Glory. (Psalm 23:7–10)

At the end of every Holy Mass in the reading of the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel, we genuflect in adoration of the “coming down” of the Word:

Et Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis: et vidimus gloriam ejus, gloriam quasi unigeniti a Patre plenum gratiæ et veritatis.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Saint Paul sings of the same mystery: the coming down of God, the self–emptying of God, the ennothingment of God. And the Apostle completes this by his confession of the glorious Ascension of the Lord. I give you Monsignor Knox’s translation of the text; he has a way of “Englishing” the thought of the Apostle in a most compelling way:

His nature is, from the first, divine, and yet he did not see, in the rank of Godhead, a prize to be coveted; he dispossessed himself, and took the nature of a slave, fashioned in the likeness of men, and presenting himself to us in human form; and then he lowered his own dignity, accepted an obedience which brought him to death, death on a cross. That is why God has raised him to such a height, given him that name which is greater than any other name; so that everything in heaven and on earth and under the earth must bend the knee before the name of Jesus, and every tongue must confess Jesus Christ as the Lord, dwelling in the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6–11).

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the mystics of the Church shaped by Sacred Scripture and by the liturgy, either exhaust the potentialities of human language, or yield to the poetic instinct, or fall silent in adoration before the mystery of God who comes down, who descends so very low, and makes Himself so very little. First there is the descent from the bosom of the Father into the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Saint Thomas Aquinas sings of it in his hymn for Lauds of the feast of Corpus Christi:

Verbum supernum prodiens,
nec Patris linquens dexteram,
ad opus suum exiens,
venit ad vitae vesperam.

The heavenly Word proceeding forth,
yet not leaving the Father’s side,
went forth upon His work on earth
and reached at length life’s eventide.

The descent of the Word did not, however stop at the Incarnation; the Word made flesh accepted an obedience which brought him to death, death on a cross. Here is the descent into death, the descent into the tomb, the descent into hell. Before the Cross, however, and before the descent into hell, there was another descent: the descent into a morsel of bread and into a chalice of wine mixed with water that took place in the Cenacle on the night before He suffered. This is the descent concerning which Our Lord said, “Do this for a commemoration of me” (Luke 22:19). So complete is this descent, that the substance of the bread and wine gives place to the substance of the Body and of the Blood of God. Here, God hides himself beneath the accidents of a little bread and a little wine. Although this descent of the Word follows in time the descent into the Virgin Mother’s womb, and precedes in time the descent into death, and into the tomb, and into hell, it subsumes these other descents into itself. And the Eucharistic descent of transubstantiation is ordered to yet another descent: the descent into the souls and bodies of those who eat the Flesh of Jesus and drink His Blood. In this way, the Most Holy Eucharist becomes the descent to which all the other descents of the Word are ordered. And why does the Son of God descend, descend, and descend so low? In order to unite us to his blessed Passion, His saving death and burial, His glorious resurrection and Ascension.

The second degree of humility tell us this: that the Most Holy Eucharist is the food of the humble. By this I do not mean that a man already humble partakes of it; I mean, rather, that the man who partakes of the Most Holy Eucharist will become humble, for one cannot eat and drink the adorable Body and precious Blood of Our Lord without participating thereby in the mystery of His dispossession, His self–emptying, the unfathomable spiral of His descents. This is what Mother Mectilde calls our participation in the anéantissement, the ennothingment of the Host.