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.
(St. Luke xiv. 11)
We open our sermon today with the host at a dinner party guiding his guest to go up higher, to sit at high table, and to be more honored. An invited guest always defers to the host for guidance as to where and with whom he should sit. Guidance is our theme for this 17th Sunday after Trinity. For Christians, guidance is sought out through the virtues of meekness and humility. Guidance then leads Meekness and humility to wisdom and justice. Wisdom and Justice are perfected only with gratitude for God’s Grace.
Of course, guidance is not much talked about these days. Our society thrives on self-will run riot. The situation is so bad that prerational children’s appetites are deemed more valid than parental supervision. But, as the author of the Christian Year in the Times writes, self-will run riot is inimical to that self-respect that is perfected when the true self acts with all its powers responsive to the will in the service of righteousness. (Christian Year, p. 187) Self-respect demands that meekness and humility search out guidance rationally to find the road that leads to Truth. Homer, the greatest of the Greek epic poets, called upon the heavenly muses for guidance. Virgil did the same. The Jewish prophets appealed for guidance from Yahweh Himself. Dante secured guidance from Virgil. Bunyan’s Good Will provided guidance to his Pilgrim. For Ancient and Medieval Man, the journey into Truth could never be found without humility and meekness’ surrender to rational guidance.
St. Thomas Aquinas writes that humility is a virtue that tempers and restrains the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately…and strengthens the mind against despair [to] urge it on to the pursuit of great things according to right reason. (S.T. II, ii, 161, i.) For Saint Thomas, meekness mitigates the passions of anger and envy. Meekness combined with humility temper a man to pursue what he can as he can through reason and free will. The two virtues inspire the soul to seek God’s Goodness with due measure and in proportion to human life. If a man strives excessively and immoderately after high things in ways beyond his capacity and ability, he will fall flat on his face. Beware of the ancient Greek Daedalus, who constructed the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete to imprison the Minotaur. Daedalus’ clever craftsmanship got the better of him when he used it to help Theseus, the King’s enemy, escape the Labyrinth. The King imprisoned Daedalus in the Labyrinth. Pasiphae, the Queen, released Daedalus who then made wings for himself and his son Icarus so that they could fly from Crete. Daedalus, with newfound humility and meekness, warned his son to fly midway between the sea and the sky. Should he fly too close to the water, the sea would engulf him. Should he fly too close to the sun, his wings would melt. In the end, Icarus became so enamored of the sun’s beauty that he forgot himself, ignoring his father’s guidance. He was doubly damned. His wings melted and he fell into the depths of the sea. Man is made to acknowledge that heights and depths are revealed to human nature to find the humble and meek mean between two extremes. If man pursues things beyond his nature, he will fall into the depths of misery and death. Humility is…a disposition to man’s untrammeled access to spiritual and divine goods. (Idem) Humility yields meekness. Meekness submits to God’s goodness as guidance.
Icarus was overcome by his own pride and daring. Pride attempts to exceed the limitations of human nature ignoring the wisdom of guidance. Pride defies the guidance of teachers, laws, and God. Pride ignores history. Pride flees justice and reaps the reward of self-destruction.
St. Anthony Abbott, the Founder of Monasticism, whose guidance helped to form the soul of the early Church, had his own version of Icarus’ fate. He writes that because of
pride of heart, the heavens were bowed down, the foundations of the earth were shaken…angels were cast down from glory and became demons because of their pride of heart…Because of this, the Almighty was angered, and caused fire to come forth from the abyss…made Hell, and its torments…. (On Humility and Deceit, Anthony Abbott)
In Scripture’s account, pride is an intellectual vice that finds its origin in Lucifer’s first rebellion against God. Prior to God’s creation of any other thing, angels were made to exist alongside God and to bask in the glory of His guidance. There was nothing to tempt or distract them away from God! They had God’s guidance. Of course, God’s guidance is His Power, Wisdom, and Love. Angels were made to submit thankfully to God’s guidance. The proud angels envied God’s nature and were angrythat He alone had it. Thus, they rejected God’s Grace-filled guidance that ensures everlasting felicity. So, they fell.
The humble man knows that he is not the creator of his own being and meaning. The humble and meek knows that he is lost in the dark wood of this life. Without help or guidance, he is lost. With St. Anthony, he knows that the deceitful man deceives only his own soul; for [as the Psalmist says]: His sorrow shall be turned on his own head: and his iniquity shall come down upon his own pate. (Ps. vii. 17; Idem) The humble and meek reject self-deception and self-will run riot knowing that these vices lead only to Hell.
The humble and meek seek guidance. They feel within themselves no small sense of powerlessness, futility, and failure in the face of sin. They are like the man with the dropsy in this morning’s Gospel reading. Dropsy is edema, a swelling caused by fluid in the body’s tissues. It renders a man incapable of movement. The humble and meek man identifies with the dropsical man and translate his fleshly powerlessness into the spiritual inability to move out of sin and into righteousness. He needs merciful guidance every day. The humble and meek finds little solace in the Pharisees’ stricture that Jesus shouldn’t be guiding men out of sickness and into health on the Sabbath. If they saved their own asses and oxen on the Sabbath Day, why shouldn’t Jesus stoop down to heal the dropsical sufferer? The humble and meek have taken the lowest seat. Jesus alone is the guide that invites us to come up higher, (St. Luke xiv. 10) The humble and meek humbles himself under the mighty hand of God. (1 Peter v. 6)
Today we pray for humility. G.K. Chesterton tells us that the problem with contemporary man is that he has become humble about truth and not humble about himself. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason [or Wisdom]. (Orthodoxy) Full of false pride, envy, anger, and sloth contemporary man desires no guidance. He is full of himself and nothing more. The humble and meek is like St. Paul in this morning’s Epistle, a prisoner of the Lord embracing alllowliness and meekness, with long suffering, forbearing one another in love endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. iv. 1) His humility and meekness situate his soul to receive the wisdom and justice of God found on Christ’s Cross. Restraining impetuosity, humility and meekness go down to the Cross to submit to the guidance of Christ’s Sacrificial love, which alone can conquer sin and death. He is prepared to accept God’s gracious invitation to come up higher.
Taking the lowest seat is essential for those who hope to find God in Jesus Christ and the salvation He brings. We must identify with all lowly sinners who wait to be asked to come up higher onto the Cross of Jesus into His liberating death.
For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.(2 Cor. v. 14, 15) God’s humility and meekness in Jesus Christ will strengthen our minds against despair, and urge us on to the pursuit of great things…. (St. Thomas, Idem)
God’s humility and meekness in His Son Jesus Christ should overwhelm us. Therefore, is my spirit vexed within me, and my heart within me is desolate. (Ps. cxliii. 4). That Christ took the lowest seat of unjust suffering and shame should destroy our pride.…I remember the time past; I muse upon all thy works; yea, I exercise myself in the works of thy hands. (Psalm cxliii, 5) God’s work is the humility and meekness of Jesus Christ who stretches out His arms on the Cross to invites us to come up higher. God’s omnipotent power found in the weakness of His Son’s death will make us strong. St. Augustine asks, He who throws a stone at heaven, does it fall on heaven or on himself? (Meditation on the Humility of Christ) The proud throw stones up at God’s Son, hanging on the Tree, though in humility and meekness He comes down from Heaven to save us. The stones fall back upon us! Because Jesus guides us to the lowest seat of the Cross, the first step of ascent to God, we can become His friends and be asked [to] come up higher. (Idem)
Let us follow the guidance of Christ’s humility and meekness today as we confess our true nature and need. In patience, let us possess our souls. (Luke xxi. 19) Through it, we can accept God’s wisdom and justice with deepest gratitude. God’s wisdom is His justice – that one man should die for the people. (John xi. 50) Through it, we leave behind the exaggerated ego’s soaring pride to embrace what we need most. With the poet, we can be touched by Grace. Then,
That fair lamp, which useth to inflame
The hearts of men with self-consuming fire
Thenceforth seems foul, and full of sinful blame;
And all that pomp to which proud minds aspire
By name of honour, and so much desire,
Seems to them baseness, and all riches dross,
And all mirth sadness, and all lucre loss.
So full their eyes are of that glorious sight,
And senses fraught with such satiety,
That in naught else on earth they can delight,
But in th' aspect of that felicity,
Which they have written in their inward eye;
On which they feed, and in their fastened mind
All happy joy and full contentment find.
(Hymn to Heavenly Beauty, E. Spenser)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: