But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let
him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your
servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister,
and to give his life a ransom for many.
(St. Matthew 20. 26,27)
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. James the Apostle. Tradition has it that St. James is the kinsmen or relative of our Lord Jesus Christ, often called St. James the Great or St. James the Just. St. James was the brother of St. John, a son of Zebedee, who was a fisherman and one of the first followers of Jesus. With his brother John, he was called a Son of thunder. He, his brother, and Peter were the only Apostles to be taken up Mount Tabor to witness the Transfiguration of Our Lord. He with them alone witnessed the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that Herod Agrippa, Vassal of Rome, ended his life by the sword –a curious method of execution since Jews or non-Romans were normally killed by crucifixion. Perhaps the explanation is that he was a Hellenized Jew, and thus as a citizen of the Roman Empire. It is said that his remains rest in the Church of Santiago de Compestella, in Galicia, Spain, where in 2015 some 262, 460 pilgrims travelled to thank God for his life. Finally, what remains to us from his own experience is his Epistle, which we find towards the end of our New Testament, and scholars remind us that it is written in some of the most beautiful Greek ever penned.
From the Epistle of St. James we derive a singularly beautiful and simple exhortation to the Christian life. His Epistle is not long, is bereft of high theology, but provides, perhaps, one of the most straightforward entreaties to participation in the life of the Blessed Trinity. For St. James, the ascended Jesus Christ who is seated at the right hand of the Father intends that His Incarnation should continue in the hearts of His friends to ensure their salvation. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the door through which fallen man can enter once again into communion with God who is the Father of all. For St. James, God the Father’s Word was made flesh and dwelt among us in the historical life of Jesus so that He might re-consecrate human nature to God by sharing His obedience to the Father by imparting Holy Spirit.
We might say that St. James provides us with the way of life that alone can ensure our redemption and our salvation. You will remember that he says that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (St. James 1.17) For St. James the way to unbreakable union with God the Father is found in the gift of Christ’s ever-condescending presence. Christ descends to us first historically and then spiritually. Both movements comprise the one movement of the Father’s intention to save us. Of his own will begat he us with the Word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. As the eternally-begotten Son of God came to live and die for us, so we should evidence and manifest His victory over sin and death by participating in His Resurrection and becoming the first fruits in the new harvest of His spiritual creation. The same Word of God, begotten of the Father, should, in other words, be begotten or generated in us, that we too might be called the sons of God, or even with James and John the sons of thunder. For St. James new life means the of Jesus Christ that alone saves.
No doubt it is difficult for us to imagine the overwhelming heaviness and weight of Glory that St. James finds in the condescending Word of God. We live in an age of compartmentalization. We work to make money and support families, and we rest to enjoy the surplus of the one once we met the needs of the other. What we do depends wholly on what we have materially. We wake and sleep, we work and play, we shop and garden, and so on. And while none of these things is necessarily antithetical to faith in God and fulfilment of His will, St. James insists that all of this must be measured by and adjusted to the gift of God’s Grace and the thoughts of His heart. St. James reminds us that our lives come from God and that if we would live them well, we had better be obedient to His will.
Living the good life for a Christian means doing God’s will through the generation of moral goodness. Moral goodness is man’s response to the gift of God’s Grace. God’s Grace has a claim on our lives. The emotional appreciation of His gift without willful submission results in our spiritual ruination and demise. Of course, moral goodness is God’s nature and thus will always be greater and nobler than what we can imagine or obtain. Yet it is precisely in this way that faith continues to seek after it as what can only stand to always make us better. Moral goodness is moral perfection, and Christ Jesus came to the earth to impart that reality to us. It is nothing less than God’s glory. Religions other than Christianity don’t have much to do with it. If they do, because they find that it is God’s uniquely, they find little reason to believe that it can be man’s practically.
Jesus Christ reveals to us the moral perfection of God that belongs to our true lives. (Canon Stone) Christ Jesus is not only the eternally-begotten Word and Wisdom of God, but he is the Perfect Man. But He is not only this. For even great men fail, teachers can be wrong, and philosophers can miss the mark easily. Christ Jesus invites us to participate in His Manhood through His Godhead. Christ Jesus manifests and reveals, through his Manhood, the Goodness of God, and that His Manhood is nothing without it. He offers to us the life of God through the Humanity, which He has redeemed and reconciled to God.
Moral goodness is the life of Jesus Christ. It shines out of His heart and longs to leap and dance within the hearts of His friends and followers, like the blessed St. James. Yet it must not find any resting place there. Because it is true life, its intention is to emanate and flow not only into but out of the deepest core of man’s being. It is imparted so that it might take root, grow up, flower, and fruit into the life of a disciple and friend of the Master. The true disciple, like St. James the Apostle, is one into whom Jesus Christ imparts his life. Jesus Christ longs to take the disposition which He receives always as Gift from the Father of lights and to infuse it into the hearts of those who are His friends. Jesus knows that if we treat him as Teacher and Ethicist only, we shall come to despair. The natural man cannot generate any lasting goodness naturally. As long as we are moved by the self-conceited and self-righteous notion that we can follow Him and can perfect His teaching, we forget what manner of men that we are…and are like the waves of the sea driven and tempest tossed by the desperate flailing of our own unruly and undisciplined wills. But when we come to know and experience the true limitations of our fallen natures, when we know that the good that we would do, we do not, and the evil that we would not do, we do, and do and do (Rom. vii. 19), we then become poor men and paupers, who know that every good gift and every gift cometh from above, from the Father of Lights. (Idem) We then say, I cannot do any good thing, and Jesus says, Blessed are you. Now you stand on the moral frontier that leads into the kingdom of God. Now you are ready to receive the Grace that the Father has given to me and is destined for you. Now I will fill you with His Goodness. Now you shall receive my Father’s loving power, and being moved and defined by it, you will express and manifest it in those thoughts, words, and deeds that will call others, because I am in you and you are in me, and because we both are in our Heavenly Father. (Summary: July 21, My Utmost…Chambers)
Our sanctification is our growth in the goodness of God. Our progress is the extent to which Christ lives in us. He offers to us the same faith, holiness, patience, love, purity, and godliness that He offered to St. James and the Apostolic Band. He offers to us the same power through which He is intent upon continuing the work that began in His earthly Incarnation and is to continue in us. Will we endeavor to receive the fullness of His life? Will we dwell in Him, and He is us, so that we might reach the kingdom prepared for us? Will we, as servants and ministers, serve up the Gifts of His presence to all whom we encounter, counting it nothing less than blessing to minister and serve up His wisdom, power, and love to all others? Christ intends to consume us with the fire of His obedient love to the Father. Christ intends that with St. James His redemption in our lives should become the measure and meaning of our relations with our neighbors. It will not do to hoard our salvation confidence and spiritual progress. At any rate, such would not be Christian progress at all. We are called to share and impart with our fellow men what Christ is bringing alive in us! To that point, let us close with Duke Vicentio’s exhortation to Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:
Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
As if we had them not.
(Measure for Measure, Act I, Scene I)
But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the
lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh,
he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then
shalt thou have worship in the presence of them
that sit at meat with thee.
(St. Luke xiv 10)
Today we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Bonaventure. He was born as Giovanni di Fidanza in Bagnoregio in 1217. He was the Seventh Minister General of the Orders of Friars Minor or the Franciscans. Later he was made Cardinal Bishop of St. Albano. In 1482 Pope Sixtus IV canonized him and in 1588 Pope Sixtus V declared him to be a Doctor of the Church. He is known as the Seraphic Doctor or Doctor Seraphicus. He died on July 15, 1274, 742 years ago today, following the Council of Lyons, where he had contributed substantially in an effort to reunite the Eastern and Western Churches. His death was mysterious. Some Catholic thinkers maintain that he was poisoned. What is interesting is that he died only a short time after Thomas Aquinas. Thomas died en route to the Council and Bonaventure died just after its conclusion. Both men were viewed with great suspicion and fear by the conservative Latin churchmen of their day. Their error? Both Bonaventure the Franciscan and Thomas the Dominican dared to discover in what way and to what extent Aristotle might be used in the service of the Christian religion.
Of course this problem of reconciling Aristotle to the Sacred Doctrine of the Christian religion might seem odd to us in 2016. Aristotle is probably more feared today than he was in the Middle Ages. He does, after all, demand that we use our minds in the service of the quest for rational understanding. He even insists upon the fact that the object that is waiting to be discovered by reason is already there, existing only because it is already being thought by God! So while some conservative Medieval churchmen thought that Aristotle’s reason might imperil the need for faith in what reason could not prove, the postmodern is terror-stricken by what reason can prove! For Bonaventure and his Franciscans, along with Thomas and his Dominicans, Aristotle does prove that God necessarily exists and that everything else hinges upon His being and His thinking. Because Aristotle has drunk deeply from his Master Plato’s well, he demonstrates that God is more real than anything else. And for this reason, Aristotle’s Medieval interpreters are keen to appropriate what his reason discovers about man, nature, and God in its ongoing quest for knowledge and happiness.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our problem in this Year of our Lord 2016 was: What do I do with Aristotle? It is hard to imagine, but for Medieval Latin thinkers the problem with Aristotle boils down to the problem of the relationship between faith and reason. Bonaventure concludes that reason must be purified by faith in order to be recommissioned into the service of the pilgrim journey to Heaven. He knows that Aristotle’s reason is created by God and that along with the rest of man it is made to take up its role in the economy of salvation. For Bonaventure, if reason is imaged in Aristotle then faith is illustrated in St. Francis, the founding father of the Order of Friars Minor. In fact, it is the faith of St. Francis that proves most useful for Bonaventure in the recovery of reason’s integrity. In St. Francis, reason illuminates the pilgrim soul to its own fallen ignorance. In St. Francis, faith begins to welcome the undeserved and unmerited approach of Divine Love in the suffering Crucified One. Reason reveals a love to Francis that he has never imagined and finds hard to imitate. Faith believes that the love of God is alive in the suffering heart of Jesus. Reason concludes that this union of the Father and Son through the Holy Spirit becomes a spiritual medium of the death and life that leads to salvation. St. Francis takes Aristotle and baptizes him into the service of the Church.
Bonaventure follows Francis and befriends Aristotle. In Francis, Bonaventure’s faith comes into communion with Christ’s death. But through earnest exploration faith comes to understand this death as the all-sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Faith must never cease to search out and explore the possibilities of coming to know and love God through crucifixion. As this morning’s New Testament lesson teaches us, God’s Sabbath is all about bringing new life out of man’s ongoing death. Francis must bring Aristotle to the lowest place in God’s Sabbath School, the lowest room where man humbly claims and confesses his spiritual sickness and reason’s fallen condition. When thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room. (St. Luke xiv. 10) Yet on the other side, Aristotle must be resurrected. That when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.(Ibid, 10, 11) For reason to have a place in God’s economy of salvation, it must be invited to go up higher by Christ who alone can make it well.
Yet it turns out that Francis and Aristotle need more help. Bonaventure turns to St. Anselm. Bonaventure, ever the faithful student of the Abbot of Bec and Archbishop of Canterbury, insists that for faith to seek understanding man must be conformed to the Christ who recapitulates human life into conformity with the Father’s desire. With Anselm, matter must be converted into form, potency into act, sensation into intelligence, faith into reason, and vision into love. Anselm insists that God through His Word and by His Spirit intends to elicit from our hearts and soul’s ongoing conversions that reveal our progressive participation in Divine Life. Faith is in an ongoing state of finding truth and falling short of it. The soul is enriched with illumination and then realizes its own poverty. Faith is informed by reason because reason discovers some truth about God. Then reason realizes what it does not know and so returns to faith that seeks God once more through desire. Bonaventure’s Francis and Aristotle are called to participate in Anselm’s Christ. Anselm prays:
Lord my God, you who have formed and reformed me, tell my desiring soul what you are besides what it has seen so that it may see clearly that which it desires. It strives so that it may see more . . . . In truth it is both darkened in itself and dazzled by you. It is indeed both darkened by its own littleness and overwhelmed by your immensity . . . restricted by its own limitedness and overcome by your fullness . . . . Truly this is more than can be understood by any creature. (Proslogium xiv)
Aristotle in Francis and Francis in Anselm mold and form Bonvaventure the pious pilgrim whose reason, faith, and love earnestly quest after God the Father, through God the Word, and by God the Spirit. Father Zachary Hayes tells us this about St. Bonaventure’s method:
The deepest truth about the created world is that it has within itself the potential to become, through God’s grace, something of what has already come to be in the mystery of Christ. What happened between God and the world in Jesus Christ points to the future of the cosmos. It is a future that involves the radical transformation of created reality through the unitive power of God’s creative love. (Z. Hayes, “Christ, Word of God and Exemplar of Humanity)
Bonaventure betrays the profound Medeival intellectualism that would come to know and love the restoration of the entire created order to God the Father through Christ the Word and by the Holy Ghost. Bonaventure’s method of return to God through the Word and by the Spirit involves faith’s purification of reason. Faith believes in Christ the Reconciler of Man to God. In Christ the Word man can come to know and understand how to appropriate nature into the service of salvation. Reason or Aristotle unrelated to Revelation and Christ is desperately incomplete and doomed. For Bonaventure creation is known in and through God’s Word alone. It is to be used but not enjoyed in and through Christ’s intention for man’s use of it. God’s necessary existence as Trinity, His revelation of this reality to us through the Word made flesh, and His ongoing rule and governance of the universe through the Holy Spirit are more real than all other things. For Bonaventure, man must prove or give evidence of his own dependent nature. Bonaventure is an able student of Aristotle, Anselm, and Francis; God’s thinking and being are what constitute the foundation of all reality. Man is called to discover that his existence is complete only by participating in the life of God the Holy Trinity. Man can prove and manifest his derivative nature only by entering Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. This participation alone leads to faithful mind’s journey into God.
Jesus tells us today that whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Ibid, 11) For St. Bonaventure, to be abased and humbled is takes one’s stand on the first rung of a ladder that leads back to God. Aristotle is invited to come up higher by St. Francis, and Francis is lifted up by St. Anselm. But Francis is the real mediator. In Francis, Bonaventure finds the beautiful tension of faith and reason, religion and science, and of revelation and nature. In Francis, Bonaventure finds the confluence of suffering death and joyful resurrection in the pilgrim who is converted by the beauty of God’s Grace. Bonaventure writes:
In beautiful things St. Francis saw Beauty itself, and through His vestiges imprinted on creation he followed his Beloved Christ everywhere, making from all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace Him who is utterly desirable. (Cant. V)
My friends, today as we commemorate the life and witness of blessed St. Bonaventure, may our faith in God’s Grace inspire us to seek understanding. Let us pray that our faith may find the beauty of God in His Crucified Wounded Son. Let us pray that the curative suffering love of Jesus the Crucified will lift us up into His Resurrection, the Resurrection that leads to Ascension. And may the ensuing Glory so fill our hearts with such wonder that we shall never cease to pursue Him with a desire that believes in order to know, and knows in order to believe. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons