The Way Up Is Down
Fr. Josiah Trenham · April 24, 2013
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
I greet you, brothers and sisters, on this fifth Sunday of the Great Fast, the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt. We have one more week of Lent, and then, having done with ourselves, we enter into the sublime Holy Week and hope to greet our Lord’s Passion and to be accounted worthy of partaking in the Resurrection.
This morning I want to speak with you about the Gospel text, and especially to start by asking you if you have all availed yourselves of this nice, new application for your phones and for your computers and tablets or whatever you use, from Ancient Faith Radio. I hope so. If you haven’t, you need to get this free app, which connects you immediately to Ancient Faith Radio on your smart phones or whatever, and you can there hear all manner of edifying homilies.
I especially want to recommend to you two. One is called A Word from the Holy Fathers, and it’s a weekly podcast that is done by Fr. Irenei Steenberg, whom you all met some months ago, where he reads a portion of some writing, some profound writing from the holy Fathers, and comments on it. It’s usually about ten to twelve minutes long, full of life-encouraging material.
The second is a podcast of the sermons of one of our priests, one of our senior priests, Fr. Patrick Reardon. He’s the priest of All Saints Church in Chicago. He’s a Scripture scholar who taught in Rome for many years, and he’s in his 70s, and he’s giving that congregation really what no congregation deserves. He’s giving them the fruit, the distilled, precious fruit of a life of having studied the Scripture. I’m recommending them to you, especially because I want you to be encouraged, especially when you’re on the freeway.
So many of you sin nonstop, driving. Sin, sin, sin, sin, sin! 91, 215, 60. We get in our cars, and we’re so tempted. We can’t endure the traffic. We can’t endure the injustices of the road or the insensitivity of other drivers, and we end up, before we know it, all knotted up. One of the great ways to beat that down is to use your prayer rope. You go driving with the Lord, and then traffic jams are okay. Or put on Ancient Faith Radio. Listen to some of these edifying counsels. Do it when you’re exercising. Then you don’t have you listen to your heartbeat or your huffing and puffing. Makes it a lot easier.
I was doing just that this week, listening to a magnificent commentary by Fr. Patrick, and he made a profound affirmation about our culture. He said that, as he understands it, our culture is acting very much like ancient Egypt did at the time of Moses when the ninth plague was visited upon them. You all remember the ten plagues? I won’t test you… at this moment, but you should remember the ninth plague, just before the Angel of Death came and the firstborn were all killed in Egypt. The ninth plague was a visitation of exceedingly deep darkness that was on the land for three days. All of the lights went out: the sun, the moon, the stars. You couldn’t even see, holding a candle. The light would just be snuffed out. It was an expression of hell on the earth, utter darkness, extinguishing every light for three days. It says, even there in the text, that for those three days they could not recognize each other.
Fr. Patrick was commenting upon the fact that that level of darkness is what is permeating our own culture, which is why we can’t recognize each other. Men can’t recognize women, and women can’t recognize men, and some who are men can’t even recognize that they themselves are men, and some who are women can’t even recognize that they themselves are women. It’s that thick. It also says in that text that while this great darkness was upon the land, all the sons of Israel had light in their dwellings.
Here you see on the earth for three days in ancient Egypt, just before the Lord God by his servant Moses delivered them from the slavery and bondage to Pharaoh, you see manifest a picture of the world and the Church. Light and darkness. I concur with Fr. Patrick’s judgment. This is also my experience as a pastor in our current milieu. We are facing things that, in previous ages, not as experienced or as deeply sunk into the darkness that afflicts us now, were not raised.
I’ve been dealing with a very difficult pastoral situation. I was approached and asked for a blessing—if it was blessed—for the adoption of embryos. I’ve been a priest 20 years; I have never been asked for a blessing for someone to adopt embryos. Of course, none of my brothers in the priesthood have ever been asked this in previous generations. It would have been a completely nonsensical question. Adopting embryos? We adopt children. We know what orphans are. The Church takes care of them especially. We encourage adoption, but what now about this unfortunate spill-over of the immoral abrase of in vitro fertilization?
Modern man, who wants what he wants when he wants it, who doesn’t know that just because you can do something in science doesn’t mean you should do something. So people today who can’t have children go to the doctor. He makes a baby through science in a dish, and then, just in case the first don’t take, he keeps a whole collection of them, keeps them nice and frozen at the reproductive center, and then, if the first takes and if that’s all that the couple want—that’s assuming it’s a couple; we can’t even assume that—then he keeps them for some time. What does he do with them? We’ve moved so quickly into an area we have no business in that we don’t even have ethical standards for what we do with these embryos, these small children.
Do we destroy them? Do we keep them for ten years in the freezer? Do we keep them for twenty years? Christians have always run to the neglected. Christians have always run to those who are despised and outcast. We picked up the children who were exposed to infanticide during the Roman Empire, the pagan empire. We’ve always done this. St. John of San Francisco brought 5,000 orphans with him to this nation. He went and lobbied our own president. We have pictures of him sitting in the White House to secure permission to bring his orphans to America. Of course, this is us, but do we apply this to embryos? What could I tell her?
You know what I told her? “I have absolutely no idea. I will get back to you.” I called my spiritual father. I spoke with him for one hour. He said to me, “I have absolutely no idea. We have to think through this.” We made a list of three bioethicists who are very accomplished to consult, and I had to get back to the person and say, “I need probably three or four weeks.” Three or four weeks to even give [her] some semblance of a commentary, some sort of pastoral guidance.
Think of all the questions that are involved in this. Would there be money involved? Lord, have mercy. If there’s money involved, all sorts of people are going to be having in vitro fertilization, just to sell the embryos. What’s the legal status of the children? What’s involved legally? How long will the children be reserved? Should there be any rights for those who donated the eggs or the sperm?
Brothers and sisters, we are descending so quickly into the darkness, literally. We’re having a hard time keeping up and being able to form, to apply the mind of Christ to our current situation so that our people can walk through this life safely and wisely. What darkness we find ourselves in, and we are called to be the light of the world, to light up the darkness, and we can’t light it up if we embrace it.
The very center of our Christian life is to shine. Christ who is the light of the world is in us. He illumines all, and we can’t serve [as] the light of the world in a falling world unless we’re faithful to the mind of the Church. We can’t ape the degraded, sad circumstances around us and think that we’re going to be able to serve Christ.
I have one more from this week. I’m not telling you this so that you pity me. It’s as much your problem as it is mine. Pity ourselves. I received an email from a parishioner who had just read an article that was posted on The Huffington Post. Woe to the person who reads that disgusting, fake news agency stuff. The Huffington Post posted this article, and this is the title of the article: “Civil Unions by Another Name: An Eastern Orthodox Defense of Gay Marriage.”
This came, and one of our college students asked me, “Father”—and our college students are being hit on the head all day long, every day, in university. They’re being called bullies; they’re being called racists; they’re being called prejudiced bigots. This is what they’re being called! Just for thinking that marriage is between a man and a woman. That’s it. Ask some of them when they come home from school how they’re faring. So you can imagine how upset this college student was, sending this to me.
It was published by a man who styles himself an “independent theologian.” He actually wrote that in his bio: “I am an independent theologian of the Orthodox Church.” Huh? Kyrie, eleison. This is how far we’ve come. Unenlightened academics who evidently have some connection to the Orthodox faith think that they can speak. They forget St. James who said, “Let not many become teachers, lest they incur a stricter judgment.” What a horrible concept of theology. There is no such thing as independent theology. Theology only takes place if the Church says it’s taking place. Theology is the articulation of the mind of the Lord that’s in the Church. If you don’t have the mind of the Church, you may think yourself a theologian because you have a degree from some university, but you have fallen into a non-Orthodox concept of theology.
This whole idea that someone could be a theologian because they went to school came about in the Middle Ages. This is twelfth and thirteenth century West. After the formation of the universities—in Cologne, in Paris, in Oxford—they started departments of theology, something no Orthodox ever knew about. St. Photius, St. John Chrysostom, they never went to any departments of theology. You’re sitting in the department of theology right now! The churches and the monasteries are the departments of theology in the world. You don’t become a theologian by going to a school and having some other theologians, academics, and give you a piece of paper that says, here, you’ve studied enough for me; you’re a theologian.
You know who the greatest theologian in the West was, after the schism in the twelfth century? His name was Abelard. Abelard! Great philosopher. He had so many students coming from all over Europe. He was wealthy. So many were paying him just to study at his feet. If he spoke, that was it in the West. Today we don’t read his theology. His theology is irrelevant today. The only thing we read about Abelard are his immoral love letters to the nun he was fornicating with, Héloïse. Ever heard of the letters between Abelard and Héloïse? They’re Penguin Classics, folks. That is the forerunner of this type of theology: head-knowledge with no actual translation into the vision of God, which is what we think a theologian is. A theologian, the Fathers say, is someone who prays, and someone who prays is a theologian. Those that we call theologians are those who actually can tell us about God because they see him. They know him, from their lives.
Poor man. This is our world. This is our world and what we’re facing. Brothers and sisters, my encouragement to you—and this comes from the Gospel lesson—is not to do things the way the Gentiles do them. Don’t follow the way of the world. We’re crucified to the world. We’re done with it. We don’t think the way it thinks. We don’t seek what it seeks. You heard that in the Gospel lesson. It opens with our Savior promising his crucifixion, telling the disciples that he’s soon to be betrayed into the hands of men, scourged, spit upon, crucified, and on the third day he’ll rise again. The disciples evidently weren’t listening, because after he told them that, the disciples manifested a conflict among themselves. They were fighting.
They were arguing, and Salome, the mother of James and John, comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, I have a request,” and he says, “What is it?” She goes, “Grant that in [your] kingdom, my two sons can sit, one on your right and one on your left.” Can you imagine what must have been coursing through our Savior’s heart when he heard that? Here he is, preparing his disciples to get ready for his crucifixion, to bring them into the mind of humility and the death that he’s about the make. All they can think about is prestige, rule, authority, and their own honor, so much so that they go and they get their mom to help.
When the ten heard this—they actually heard this—it says in the Gospel text, they were indignant. “Why you and not me?” The Lord must have been terribly saddened, terribly grieved that not only were they not listening to his own heart and what he was about to do for them, trying to become faithful imitators of his crucified way of life, they were thinking only about their own prestige. This is the world’s way. Our Lord said to them:
The Gentiles seek authority and try to rule over others, but it is not so with you. Whoever wants to be first, let him be last. Whoever wants to be great, let him be the servant of all, for I did not come amongst you to be served but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.
Could there be a clearer dichotomy between the ways of the world and the ways of Christ and the Church? The world says, “Seek to be first.” Jesus says, “Seek to be last.” The world says, “The way to be great is to step on people.” Jesus says, “The way to be great is to serve people.” The world says, “Love power.” Jesus says, “Love service.” The world says, “Think about yourself. Advance your career.” The Church says, “Think about other people.”
This is the Christian life: If you want to go up, you have to go down. If you want to be first, you have to be last. St. John Chrysostom says the number one reason for heresies and schisms in the Church—the number one—[is] the love of rule. And he’s not just talking, though he is primarily talking about bishops and priests, that the biggest problems of the Church come because we forget whom we’re serving; we make it a matter of “Kiss the hand, kiss the hand. Do what I say; don’t you know who’s in charge?”—Satan. All Satan.
The love of rule brings division to the Church, but it’s not just the bishops and the priests, brothers and sisters, it’s us. The number one reason for conflicts in the parish—at any parish—is the love of rule, it’s that we don’t have in those times a heart of service, a servant mentality where we consider it our joy to esteem other people’s needs greater than our own, where we don’t try to become last and push everyone else above us. That is the way to greatness.
You remember when the disciples were at that mystical table? They were filthy. They were all sitting around the table, and their feet were all caked with dirt, but no one would do anything. They were all sitting there. They were looking around at each other: who’s going to do it? They all knew that they needed to wash the feet. They all knew that they had dirt all over the place, that they weren’t prepared to have this meal, but no one was taking any action, because they were all wondering, “That’s the position of the slave. Who’s going to do it?” Can you imagine how they felt when the Master got up, laid aside his garments, and took a towel and a water basin and knelt down to wash their own feet?
Wow, what a mixture of emotions they must have had in their hearts right then: shame, guilt. “Lord, don’t do that.” And Jesus insisted, and he said, “If your Lord and Master has washed your feet, how much more ought you to wash the feet of others?” Brothers and sisters, forget the scepter; take the towel. Amen.