When I entered a diocesan seminary some years ago, one of the first things you got was a poster. The poster has pictures of the seminarians, plus the bishop and vocation directors. These posters are given out to parishes and pastors put them up in parishes for everyone to see. Immediately, then, you become a church rock star. People applaud you everywhere you go in the church, even though they have no idea who you really are.
You definitely feel that you’re on your way up in the church.
On the poster, the newest seminarians are at the bottom, and the pictures are arranged to show that you progress upward as you move through formation. It is clear that you’re on your way up in the church.
The more senior seminarians got the most attention and they got the perks. They got the best and biggest rooms in the house, and when we traveled to Washington, DC, they got the expensive double occupancy hotel rooms while the first and second year guys got to scramble for floor space in a local seminary.
The message was clear: in formation for the priesthood, you’re on your way up in the church.
At one point in his mission, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain, and that’s where the Transfiguration occurs. Right afterwards, he starts to talk about going to Jerusalem to die. The path he takes to Jerusalem is to follow the Jordan River.
The Jordan River is the steepest river in the world. It starts near the Sea of Galilee and ends at what we now call the Dead Sea. Because we lose meaning when we translate words into English, what we don’t know is what Jordan means to the locals at the time, and what it would mean to hearers of the Gospel in those early days. The word Jordan in Hebrew means, The Descender. That is path that Jesus follows.
And that was Jesus’ formation program for his bishops and priests and disciples.
You’re not on your way up.
You’re on your way down.
When the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land, they had to cross over … drum roll … the Jordan River. God said, you have to cross over the tumultuous, dangerous Jordan River that flows really fast as the steepest river in the world, and the way you’re going to do it is this: the priests will lead the way and step down into the river, and I will then, and only after they take that step, stop the river from flowing.
And they did it. The priests stepped down into the river carrying the Ark of God, and the river stopped. And they stood there at the bottom of the river bed until every single Israelite had passed over to the Promised Land.
Now, here is the question: how did they have that faith? How did they have that confidence that following God is all about going down and not going up?
I’ll tell you: 40 years in the desert.
Forty years it took for the Israelites to learn how to depend on God, forty years with nothing and no home it took to learn to let go of trying to move upwards and losing God, and instead moving downwards and being with God. By the time they reached the Jordan, they were ready.
That is God’s formation program for His people.
Paul talks about two spirits in his letters: the spirit of the world and the Spirit of Christ. The spirit of the world is all about moving yourself up. It means that the senior people get the higher places and the perks, and the newbies start at the bottom. But the Spirit of Christ turns everything upside down. It is going to lead you downward. It makes no sense to conventional wisdom when you look at how society and world works and is structured. The disciples couldn’t process it. That’s why it took the death and resurrection and then the sending of the Spirit for them to accept it. We need His Spirit, His presence within us, to accept that “moving down” part.
One last example. In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus is completing his mission, he is walking along all alone, with Simon carrying his cross behind him. Behind him were also a whole ton of people, including the crying women. Now the crying women weren’t just compassionate women. That was actually a ministry at the time for people who had no one to cry for them. It was for people who were facing death and were absolutely alone. The women would be sent out to cry for them so that they wouldn’t be alone. But Jesus says, don’t cry for me – rather, cry for yourselves. He is saying, I’m not alone. You are the ones who are alone. I am with God. But you guys?
Whether you’re in the workplace or school, in the church, or anywhere else, being formed to live life in some way, remember that if you want to be in God’s formation program you will not be moving up. It is not like what you see on the posters or the brochures or the websites.
But don’t be afraid. Because you will have a companion so intimate to you who can stop powerful rivers, heal sicknesses, rain food out of nowhere, fight battles. Raise from the dead. And who has a place for you in His house that will last forever.
Don’t worry about moving up in life.
Be a Descender.
And you’ll be with God.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18:1-4)