In ancient times, Hebrews put dust or dirt on their heads to express distress, grief, sorrow, regret, or penance, most likely in homage to Genesis 3:19, "For dust you are, And to dust you shall return." Is there a scripture more humbling, in the most literal sense of the word? The word humble, along with the words humility and humiliation, comes from the root word humus which in Latin means “earth, ground, or soil.” (Yes, I'm a total word nerd and incidentally an expression and story nerd, but please bear with me - I'm going somewhere with this.)
It's interesting to note the polarity between the words humble and humility and their opposite concept pride. We often describe humble people as being "down to earth." In contrast, we refer to prideful people as having "noses up in the air" or having a "high opinion of oneself" or having big, inflated heads or "stuck up." And of course, humiliation - the thing we probably most dread - is simply defined as "to lower the pride of." Pride has the sense of inflation and elevation, and implies an inevitable deflation and vertical drop to the ground: "Pride cometh before a fall"; "By pride the angels fell"; and of course, the most famous angel of all who fell - the prideful Satan.
Isn't the essence of spirituality really humility? "For dust you are, And to dust you shall return." (What are we without God?) But we so often think of spirituality as a rising or seeking upward. We love turning spirituality into yet another exercise in achievement - achieving "higher states" of being or awareness, or doing "more good" and becoming "better", all of which has a sense of an upward climb and a consequent caste system and hierarchy (and pride loves hierarchy, class systems, and the concept of winners and losers.) We bring our worldliness and pride into our spirituality and it becomes mind-numbing, snobbish, legalistic religion or an esoteric, elitist club. All the more to feel superior to the "spiritual have-nots", the "less spiritual", the "less enlightened", or the "less moral" like belonging to a special country club. Is it any wonder that Martin Luther accused the pope of being the Antichrist "and that his throne is that of Satan himself."
The concept of humility is no better exemplified than in the story of Christ: born in the humblest of circumstances (a stable, which houses filthy farm animals), Christ was homeless, dirt poor, hung out with the low-lifes, losers, and rejects of society (his disciples were grungy laborers and misfits themselves), sentenced to execution on a cross, and died a humiliating death between two common criminals. And yet his brief three year ministry would shake the whole world at its foundations and change the course of history.
The essence of the Christ story is total humility. God wrapped himself in humanity (of the humblest kind) and came to serve, not to lord over. It was in Christ's servitude and humility that worldly power - the biggest destroyer of love - was brought to its knees (Rome, the largest, wealthiest, most aggressive world power in Christ's time, is now a crumbling collection of ruins), which is a model for how real change occurs. Total reversal of the world's system doesn't involve revolution or uprising (which, in the end, never works because the new system inevitably becomes yet another variation of the old.) We think it is so much about a movement upward, but it is actually a movement downward. It is only in total humility that real change and transformation occurs.
(We love to split the secular from the spiritual, but in reality no such division exists, except in our minds. Humility and pride have far reaching practical implications in contemporary culture such as the business world. Business consultant Julian Moody and I explore this in one aspect in the topic "Managers Not Grounded in Reality" in our project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things.)