October 13, 2019
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 asking a guest to go up higher or to sit closer to those who have honored him with their gracious invitation. Initially, the guest had taken a low seat or a place in the back of the banquet hall. The host, however, thinks that the guest ought to sit up higher and closer to himself. The host has been pleasantly surprised and maybe even startled at his guest’s humility and expression of meekness. Jesus uses the parable to exhort his listeners to the virtue of humility before God. Today we are called to study humility so that we might one day be asked to go up higher and take a high seat in the presence of God the Holy Trinity at the Heavenly Banquet Feast.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that humility is a virtue which tempers and restrains the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately…and second to strengthen the mind against despair, and urge it on to the pursuit of great things according to right reason; and this is magnanimity. (S.T. II, ii, 161, i.) So, Saint Thomas tells us that humility must inspire and compel the soul to seek God’s high things, but only with such caution and self-restraint as are consistent with man’s created nature. If a man strives excessively or immoderately after high things in ways beyond his capacity and ability, he will fall flat on his face. Remember the story of the ancient Greek Daedalus, who constructed the Labyrinth so that King Minos of Crete could imprison the Minotaur? Daedalus was a clever master craftsman. He ended up getting himself into trouble when he gave a ball of string to Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, so that she could help her lover Theseus, her father’s enemy, escape the Labyrinth. The King found out and imprisoned Daedalus in the Labyrinth. Daedalus finally escaped and devised wings for himself and his son Icarus so that they could escape from Crete. Daedalus, no doubt cautious about the imperfect nature of technology and of man’s use of it, warned his son to fly in a middle space between the sea and the sky. His thinking was that if he flew too low and close to the water, the sea waves might splash and sink him. If he flew too close to the sun, his wings would melt. In the end Icarus became enamored with the beauty of the sun, forgot himself, and ignored his father’s cautious reason. His wings melted and he fell into the depths of the sea. Man is made to acknowledge that heights and depths are given to him so that he might find a humble mean between the two. If a 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 alone reveals true self-knowledge. Self-knowledge then leads a man to desire and procure the gifts of God.
Of course, the opposite of humility is selfish pride. There is a sense in which Icarus was full of rash and daring arrogance or pride. Pride is hubris and is found in the man who claims a power that is not his own. The proud man is determined to exceed the limitations of his nature. Since his ego is paramount, he loses all consciousness of his needful dependence upon other people, laws, and God. What he fears most is the loss of himself. Thus, he becomes a god to himself and a lord over others.
St. Anthony Abbott, the Founder of Monasticism, has 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) Pride is an intellectual vice that finds its origin in Lucifer’s first rebellion against God. Imagine it. Prior to God’s creation of any other thing, angels were made to exist alongside God. In the beginning God made angels. They were made to experience His glory by gratefully receiving His Grace alone. There was nothing to disturb or distract them! They had God and themselves. They were made to reflect and exchange God’s goodness. Then, suddenly, one of them and a few of his friends wanted more. They were no longer content to receive the gift and share it with one another. Rather, they wanted to be God. So, daring to try to use God’s power to overcome Him, they fell into the distant alienation and exile in Hell. Looking to themselves and not to the Giver and His Gifts, their pride stirred them to take God’s power and to think that they could fly too close to God and not be burned.
At first, Pride is deceived and then deceives itself. The proud man is deceived into thinking that he is the source of his own being and maker of his own meaning. The proud takes a gift and hoards it to pursue his own will to power. The proud man exceeds his limitations and treats himself like a god. He even thinks that he can lord it over others. Always, he refuses to subject his decision making to God’s rule and governance. But as St. Anthony says, 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 crown. (Ps. vii. 17; Idem)The proud man is left quite alone with his own lies about himself in relation to God.
This brings us to God’s response to man’s proud and deceitful misuse of himself and the world around him. The bad angels are destined to live forever in the depths of Hell. Man sins later, is given a second chance, and can find reconciliation with God only through the method and mediation of Jesus Christ. Man must be humbled before the high and mighty Crucified Son of God before he can find salvation. Christ insists that if we would become His friends [who] might come up higher, (St. Luke xiv. 10) we must take our place in the lowest seat. But what is this lowest seat? Is it not the spiritual disposition that humbles him under the mighty hand of God (1 Peter v. 6)?
We must take time today to pray for humility. There doesn’t seem to be much of it evident in our contemporary world. G.K. Chesterton tells us that the problem with modern 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. (Orthodoxy) Contemporary man denies absolute truth. He claims this because he speaks from false pride or intellectual laziness. Were he to be humble about himself, he might become courageous enough to seek out the truth that enables him to understand his predicament to begin with! He would be moved by temperance. Temperance moderates the overzealous passion and unstable confidence that asserts that there is no God. In restraining the impetuosity of soul, humility enables a man to find God and to serve Him with all meekness. It also prepares a man for the surprises that accompany God’s gracious invitation to come up higher.
Taking the lowest seat is essential for all of us if we hope to find God and the salvation he brings. St. Paul, in this morning’s Epistle, provides us with a picture of what it looks like to take the lowest seat.This means that we, like him, must become prisoners of the Lord…with all lowliness, meekness, with long suffering….(Eph. iv. 1) Being a prisoner of the Lord means that we know ourselves and our limitations. It means that God’s rule and governance alone can save us. It means that we can discover this power in the liberating death and resurrection of His own Son, Jesus Christ. 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 humbling of Himself in Jesus Christ will strengthen our minds against despair, and urge us on to the pursuit of great things…. (St. Thomas, Idem)
The vision of God’s humility in His Son will overwhelm us. Therefore is my spirit vexed within me, and my heart within me is desolate.(Ps. cxliii. 4). Christ’s weakness, suffering, and death 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. (Ibid, 5) God’s work is the humility of Jesus Christ who stretches out His hands on the Cross to lift us out of our own spiritual deaths into the life of His Resurrection. The strength of God is found in the weakness of His Son. His Son becomes weak so that we might be made 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) We throw stones up at God’s Son…who has come down. Because Jesus makes the lowest seat of the Cross the first place of ascent back to God, man can become His friend and asked [to] come up higher. (Idem)
Dear friends, let us enter into Christ’s humility today. Let us confess our true nature and true need. Through it, we can accept God’s mercy with deep gratitude. In and through it, we leave the futility of the exaggerated ego and its soaring pride and 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 nought 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