Descent is Ascent
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 8, 2019 at St. Mary Orthodox Church
There are a number of characteristics that mark Christian spirituality. One of them is this: the Christian path is a first a way of descent. Most other spiritual traditions are about making an ascent. To be sure, St. Paul writes about ascending “from glory to glory.” But first there must be a descent, for example, from the mind to the heart (in classical Orthodox terms). There are other descents as well. A descent from pride to humility and from power to service are two others. Why a descent? Because we believe in the Incarnation. Christ’s example is a model for us of what the Christian life entails. The Son of God descended. We must also descend.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his Only Son…” is about the descent of Christ into human flesh and into this material world.
And Paul tells us what this means for us in the second chapter of Philippians. “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God as something to cling to, rather he made himself nothing by taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
We will get to the “have this mind in you” part later, but first allow me to quote Cynthia Bourgeault from her wonderful book WISDOM JESUS where she writes about this same passage from Philippians.
“In this beautiful hymn, Paul recognizes that Jesus had only one ‘operational mode.’ Everything he did, he did by self -emptying. He emptied himself and descended into human form. And he emptied himself still further (‘even unto death on the cross’) and fell through the bottom to return to the realms of dominion and glory.”
Jesus always sought the lower place, not the higher. For us who seek to follow him it must be the same. The way to God, then, is down not up. We too must empty ourselves of ourselves and humble ourselves to bend lower and take the last place just as our Lord did. To put on his mind means to begin to think like he thought and to see as he saw. Our common vocation is to descend as he did, become empty and die to ourselves.
Secondly, the Incarnation reveals the unity of all things. We speak in our hymns of Christ uniting in himself God and humanity, spirit and matter, and heaven and earth which is to say all things. For Christ the interconnection of all things is reality. That we do not see it or experience it consciously means that we have not yet put on his mind.
For those who see as he saw all things are filled with God. All creation is saturated with the Holy Spirit. Creation is like a sponge that lives in the water and is also infused with it. We are like that. Sponges. Only we don’t know it because our minds are constantly creating separate categories for everything. Good and bad, this and that, mine not yours, us verses them. That is the dualistic mind and not the mind of Christ.
It is often said that Eastern Orthodoxy is mystical. And it is. The two preeminent tenants of the mystical path are these: one, God is not separate from us nor we from him and two, each human being is connected inextricably with all other human beings. This is the mind of Christ.
The dualistic mind says we are separate from God, Christ says we are not. The dualistic mind says heaven is far away, Jesus says it is right here. The dualistic mind says that differences between people divide and separate, Jesus overturned the social norms that divided people due to race, religion, gender, and everything else. That is also our job in this time of extreme polarization.
It is most evident to me that the mind of Jesus is nondual. He treated everyone he met equally: women and men, Jews and Gentiles, poor and rich. Separation is an illusion and lived out in life is a sin. Paul encapsulates the Lord’s nondualist mind in his famous words, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.”
To adopt the same mind as Christ is in Paul's words “putting on the mind of Christ.” This demands a true change of mind from our old dualistic way of thinking (Paul calls this “the old man”) to something radically different. To become single-minded is to awaken in the kingdom. St. James writes in his epistle that the “double-minded man” cannot please God.
It is clearly a matter of how we see rather than what we see. Do we see as Christ sees: the presence of God everywhere and always, in everything and everyone, and the kingdom of heaven within? To put on this mind is to let go of any thought, idea, opinion, ideology, or theology, and practice that is insufficient to such a high calling, to this level of consciousness which alone is adequate to the kingdom of heaven.
We must descend from the mind as our Lord descended and when we do we will discover that descending and ascending are actually one and the same.