If you know anything about me or have followed my journey of faith and walk with Jesus, you will know some of the story of me coming to faith in Jesus, going to seminary, being a Protestant pastor and eventually converting to the Catholic Church.
One of the first things I did on this journey, in a desire to understand what the early Christians thought about Jesus and how they interpreted Holy Scripture and lived out the faith, was to read the earliest Christian sources, other than the Bible, I could find. Those were the extant writings of the men we call the Church Fathers.
There are different eras and groups of the Fathers and I don’t want to get too much into that. But two of the earliest Fathers I spent time with were St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom, along with some random writings of some of the Desert Fathers. St. Athanasius was one of the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Eastern Church. He was Egyptian, born in Alexandria. His work, On the Incarnation, was my introduction to the Fathers and just completely blew my mind. He is one of my heroes of the faith. He stood for the faith at a time when most of the bishops of the Church had strayed into heresy. St. Athanasius stood firm on the deposit of the faith and on who Christ was. He is, in fact, my confirmation saint.
St. John Chrysostom was another one of the early Fathers I was introduced to; again, one of the Eastern Fathers and perhaps the greatest preacher that has ever lived. He was born in Antioch, Syria and was eventually named as the Archbishop of Constantinople. His preaching was heavily influential in my life and journey into the Catholic Church.
What’s the point, you may ask?
My introduction to Catholicism began in the East. Most of the Fathers I read and studied were Eastern. By the East, I mean primarily the Greek, Antiochan, Alexandrian and Syrian Fathers; St. Irenaeus, St. Polycarp, Origen, St. Basil, St. Hippolytus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Melito and others were among my earliest exposures to the Fathers. I have always had a love for the Eastern Fathers. Early on, I considered the Orthodox Church. Frankly, I ended up not joining them because of their separation from Rome. I wanted to be in communion with the Roman Church.
So, I “swam the Tiber” and joined the Latin Rite Western Church. Early on, I knew that I wanted to be part of the oldest practice of the faith I could find. The Novus Ordo, in my mind, has significant problems and I wanted no part of that. So, I gravitated toward the Latin Mass. It is, after all, THE traditional worship and liturgy of the Western Church. I have written about my experience in the Latin Mass and so won’t belabor the point here. I have fully immersed myself in the Latin Rite, learning Latin and teaching myself to pray in Latin. The experience of stepping into the deep stream of the historic worship of the Latin Church has been very rewarding and deeply humbling.
And yet, I have always been attracted to the East. I lean toward them theologically as well. While I love the deep, contemplative rigor of the Latin Rite, it has always felt…what’s the word…sterile. By that I mean it is very organized and structured and rigid. I’m not saying that is wrong. I love the rigidity of it, actually. By nature and practice I tend to be very disciplined and rigid in my own life so the unchanging nature of the Latin Mass is appealing to me.
I say all of this because I experienced something yesterday that I want to talk a bit about. I was finally able, at the invitation of a dear friend, to attend a Byzantine Catholic Church. For the record, I didn’t know until fairly recently that such a thing existed. I assumed that all the churches in the East were either Orthodox or Roman Catholic. What do they say about assuming….?
Anyways, my buddy and I attended St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy yesterday. How ironic, that the church is named after my confirmation saint…We walked into the church and I knew instantly that this would be unlike anything I had ever experienced. The priest and cantor were praying Matins. Well, I say praying. They were chanting the prayers.
The whole setting literally felt like I had just stepped out of our world and into another realm, another time and place (think about the wardrobe in Narnia). There were dozens upon dozens of beautiful and serene icons all over the church. At the “front” was an iconostasis, a wall with three gates. It was bedecked with icons. The center gate was golden and flowery, with a red curtain drawn behind it. I could hear someone (the priest) behind the wall chanting and singing and I heard bells constantly ringing. Not loud and clanging, but tingling bells almost like sleigh bells constantly ringing. I wondered what was making that noise and didn’t have long to guess. The priest came out from the left side gate and was swinging a censer that was billowing incense. The bells were attached to the censer. It was a melodious and intriguing sound.
A deacon, noticing that we looked a little lost, came over and introduced himself to us. He was most kind and engaging and helpful in explaining some things. He informed us also on the symbolism of all that we were seeing. The icons were representative of the saints and great cloud of witnesses. The iconostasis and the sanctuary behind it symbolically represented heaven and the nave represented earth. Other than that, he said, “I wouldn’t necessarily try to keep up. Just observe. You are all free to receive the Eucharist so long as you are in good standing with the Church, as we are in communion with Rome.”
As the Divine Liturgy began, it was a sensory overload. The icons, the incense, the processions, the chanting and singing back and forth between priest, deacon, cantor and congregation, the bowing, the gates of the sanctuary being opened and closed; it was an entirely immersive experience. It was truly wonderful to be there. It felt exactly as I would imagine it would feel to be immersed in the worship scene around the throne of God in St. John’s Apocalypse. We stood almost the entire liturgy. The priest’s homily was powerful and timely.
It was at once ethereal yet earthly, transcendent yet palpable, symbolically rich yet easily accessible. It really was precisely the opposite experience of a Roman Mass and a remarkable experience of joining with the saints in glory in worship. Where the Roman Mass feels austere and severe (I don’t say that to be critical), the Byzantine Liturgy was rich and stunningly sensory. I found myself, after receiving the Eucharist, to be very emotional.
After the Liturgy, we were invited by the small congregation to have lunch with them. The people were so warm and friendly and welcoming. We will definitely return to that parish soon. I learned something yesterday.
The Church needs the East. She needs the East for the rich diversity and splendor of her Liturgy. She needs the West for the structure and discipline that so characterizes it. The Church, the Body of Christ, needs to breathe with both lungs, East and West.
Let us embrace one another and not be afraid of our differences. They make the Body of Christ rich and deep! Thanks be to God for His grace to us in our diversity!
Our world is consumed with pride.
So are we, if we’re honest. Or maybe it’s just me.
We see this pride in everything. The media proudly struts about, pounding their nonsense into the brains of those foolish enough to listen to them, lecturing us about how we should be living a more woke life. The education system proudly flaunts the fact that they have largely abandoned traditional teaching methods and classic education and, rather than teaching our children how to think and read and interact with their fellow humans, they clamor about how modern their methods are, while teachers unions whine about doing their job because they might get sick. The government so proudly lectures us, in the persons of the radical left, about how we are all racists and sexual bigots because we (Catholics) cling to the Faith. Our own Church hierarchy, in their arrogance, feel that they can adjust the Tradition of the Church to fit into their liberal ideology and expect the faithful to just go along with the nonsense.
It’s everywhere and consumes all in its path.
This was, perhaps, the great sin of Lucifer. In his pride, he wanted to be the star of the show, not some lowly virgin who would give miraculous birth and certainly not to God the Son who would dare to lower Himself to become human. How dare God not recognize the beauty and knowledge and wonder of him, Lucifer thought! He was and is consumed by pride.
But our readings today point us in a very different direction. Our Epistle is St. Paul’s famous text on humility: Philippians 2:5-11. Our gospel reading is St. Matthew’s narrative of the Passion of our Lord Jesus: Matthew 26:36-75, 27:1-60.
Let us consider together the humility of our Lord Jesus. St. Paul reminds us that we are to have the mind of Christ. And, in our text today, what is the mind of Christ?
He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. God the Son, who has existed for all eternity, through Whom the world was made, for Whom the world was made, took upon Himself human flesh. He took on all our weakness and frailty. Imagine, brothers and sisters. God has become human. He emptied Himself of the glory in which He lived and the constant praise of the angelic hosts to hear the hateful words of sinful man who spat on Him and mocked Him. We could spend the rest of our lives meditating on this fact and not exhaust its depths:
He emptied Himself.
He humbled Himself, being obedient to death, even to death on a cross. Fathom, if you can, the humility of the God-man, God the Son, who was and is and is to come. He obeyed the will of the Father, knowing it would cost Him agony that we cannot possibly comprehend and suffering a death that was excruciating beyond what we can imagine. Look at our gospel reading and see His agony. He was beaten, spat upon, stripped naked, nailed to a cross. Behold His suffering and fall on your knees, brothers and sisters.
And we, brothers and sisters, we not only observe but are invited to participate in His very Passion. What grace He has given us, that we should be joined to His suffering and death by faith! We cannot, we must not turn away from our own suffering for, in it, we embrace the suffering of our Messiah.
Embrace the humility of our Lord Jesus in your own life. In the garden, He said, “My soul is sorrowful even unto death: stay you here, and watch with me.”
What an invitation He has given us! We are invited to stay with Him and watch with Him in prayer!
Do our souls sorrow for our sins?
Do we watch with Christ in prayer?
Our Lord said to the Father, “Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
Are we willing to submit to the will of the Father, no matter the cost? Are we willing to submit our own will? Do we submit to His Church, and thus to Him, or do we demand our own way? Let us take to heart the words of our Savior, even in His suffering and Passion,
“Watch ye, and pray that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh weak.”
Let us embrace what our Lord has gone before us to show. Let us take to heart His words and amend our lives, rend our hearts and submit. Let us watch and pray that we may not enter into temptation. Our flesh is indeed weak and selfish and prideful. Pray, brothers and sisters, that your spirit would be made willing. Fast, pray, embrace the life our Lord has called us to, a life of submission to the will of the Father and service to our Lord Jesus.
And what shall come of us after we have submitted, after we have fasted and prayed, after we have submitted to the will of the Father?
Like the veil of the temple, our hearts will be torn in two. Not in pain but in freedom. For the veil of our flesh and sin that has separated us from God our Father will have been torn finally in two. Our hearts of stone will become hearts of true flesh. We shall have then the mind of Christ. And we shall see our Lord face to face, as He is.
Oh, this is the end, dear brothers and sisters, of embracing the Passion of our Lord. We shall be made in His image and we shall see Him face to face! Watch ye, therefore, and pray!