Homily: It’s About Our Vocation

March 25 (O.S., March 12), 2018: Fifth Sunday of the Great Lent; Venerable Mary of Egypt.
St. Theophanes the Confessor of Sigriane (818). Righteous Phineas, grandson of Aaron (1500 B.C.). St. Gregory the Dialogist, pope of Rome (604). St. Symeon the New Theologian (1021).

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-14
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today the Church commemorates our mother among the saints, Mary of Egypt.

Thinking this week about St Mary’s life, I found myself wondering what I would have said to her if after her baptism she came to me asking for advice. What, I wondered, would I say to a newly illumined Christian who said to me that as penance for her sins, she was going and to live by herself in the desert for the next 50 years or so?

To be honest, I would in likelihood have discouraged Mary. I would have told her that in baptism her sins had been forgiven and there was no need for her to do penance.

If she persisted, I might have suggested she involve herself in the parish for a few years to become settled in the faith. I might say that if in a few years she still wants to leave the world, she should consider entering a monastery.

And hopefully, after giving me a respectful hearing, Mary would dismiss everything I said and walk right out into the desert. Yes, the right thing for the newly illumined Mary to do would be to ignore me.

She should ignore me not because what I told her was wrong theologically but because my advice was imprudent. Prudence is a virtue we often ignore because we mistakenly identify it with caution or timidity.

Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth!

Prudence is another word of “wisdom” or “discernment.” It is the virtue that looks at all the options in front of me and helps me discern what God is asking of me. Then, having determined my destination, prudence is the virtue that helps me discern the steps along the way to fulfilling God will for my life.

My advice to the newly illumine Mary of Egypt would be wrong because it wasn’t discerning. I didn’t ask the most important question: What is God calling to this woman to do? What is her vocation?

Instead, my words reflect what is an all too often occurrence in parishes. We don’t ask the vocational question–what is God calling this person to do. Instead, we ask the very narrow administrative question: How does this person fit into my plans for the parish?

This isn’t to denigrate administration which St Paul lists among the various gifts God gives us for building up the Church (see, 1 Corinthians 12:28). But the first question we must ask is what does God want from us, personally? What, in other words, is our personal and unique vocation?

Many Orthodox Christians reject the idea that we have personal vocations as “Protestant.” And yet, our Lord is clear: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you” (John 15:16, NKJV).

Many people are spiritually adrift because they have no sense of their vocation, of what it is God has chosen and appointed them to do in this life. So without a sense of their own calling, the life of the Church becomes a series of distractions.

They might become focused on attending services, evangelizing, or debating the fine points of theology. Or, just as likely, they might be swept away by fundraising, ecclesiastical gossip, or the moral failings of others.

Without a sense of my own vocation, of what God has called me to do, the richness of Holy Tradition overwhelms me even as the behavior of others becomes for me a constant source of distraction.

What I don’t have is what we see in the life of St Mary of Egypt: Peace.

Read Mary’s vita and it becomes clear that for all the deprivations and hardships she suffers in the desert, she is at peace. Think, for example, of the lion that anoints the saint’s feet after her death.

At peace with God, Mary is at peace with the creation. Not only that she is a source of peace for others. The lion who guards her body doesn’t attack Abba Zosimas but helps him dig the saint’s grave. And when they are done? “Then each went his own way. The lion went into the desert, and Abba Zosimas returned to the monastery, blessing and praising Christ our God.”

St Mary is at peace with God, at peace with creation, at peace with others and, by the end of her life, at peace with herself.

God in numerous ways had guarded my sinful soul and my humble body. When I only reflect on the evils from which Our Lord has delivered me I have imperishable food for hope of salvation. I am fed and clothed by the all-powerful Word of God, the Lord of all. For it is not by bread alone that man lives. And those who have stripped off the rags of sin have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rocks.

So what does this mean for us?

Simply this, the first task of the spiritual life is to discern God’s will for us. What, in a concrete sense, has God called me to do? What life has He called me to live?

Holy Tradition–the Scriptures, the fathers, the teachings and services of the Church, the life of personal prayer–all of this helps guide us as we discern our vocation.

Here I think it is worth saying a brief word about the place of the parish priest. Basically, what’s my job?

The priest isn’t called to tell us what God wants from us but to help us discern for ourselves our vocation. In my own experience as a priest, this has largely turned out to be a “negative” task. What I mean by this, is that it usually means reminding people of the limits of the Christian life.

As a practical matter, this means telling people what we can’t do if we wish to be faithful to Christ and the Gospel. As for what they should, I’ve found it best to remain silent.

The reason for my silence is straightforward. In any given situations, there are myriad good things a person can do. While we have very clear guidance about what we shouldn’t do, we have great liberty in deciding which of the many good possible deeds we will do.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has given each of us a great freedom to create from our lives something beautiful for Him! What this will look like is different for each person. Indeed, it will look different for each person as he or she moves through life.

But as long as we remain faithful to Christ and the Gospel, we can be certain that God will reveal Himself to us and the life to which He has called us.

May God through the prayers of St Mary of Egypt reveal our vocations to each of us and grant us the grace to be, like our holy mather, faithful to the work He gives each of us to do!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Forgetful Human Heart

Friday, March 23 (O.S., March 10), 2018: Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent; Martyr Quadratus and those with him at Corinth († 250-258): Cyprian, Dionysius, Anectus, Paul, Criscentus, another Dionysius, Victorinus, Victor, Niciphorus, Claudius, Diodorus, Serapion, Papius, Leonidus, and the holy women Chariessa, Nunechia, Basilissa, Nica, Calisa, Gala, Galina, Theodora, and many others; New Hieromartyr Priest Demetrius († 1938); Holy Martyrs Quadratus of Nicomedia, Satorinus, Rufinus and others (3rd C); Venerable Anastasia the Patrician, of Alexandria († 567-568); Venerable George Arselaitus, Brother of Venerable John Climacus; New Martyr Michael of Thessalonica.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 45:11-17
Vespers: Genesis 22:1-18
Vespers: Proverbs 17:17-18:5

To say, as we did yesterday, that God is holy is to affirm that relative to His creation God is wholly and absolutely free.

In Isaiah God asks “Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?” He immediately answers His Own question by pointing out that as the Creator He can do as He sees fit.

When like Israel is Isaiah, I am the immediate beneficiary of God’s will, I’m happy. It’s hard not to rejoice when (seemingly at least) God punishes my enemies the way He punishes “Egypt … Ethiopia and the Sabeans.”

If I’m not careful, I can easily get lost in a self-satisfied revery in which I imagine that I’m different from those who annoy or harm me. I can easily lose sight of the fact that I too am a creature and so subject to God’s will. It is a false comfort to think that God reserves His harder and harsher decisions for other people, that I’m exempt from being asked to do painful things.

Did Abraham think as I often do, that God punishes his enemies but would never ask anything hard of him? If he did, the events in today’s reading bring this line of thought to an abrupt and painful end.

God gives Abraham in his old age a son, Isaac. He sees in this child the fulfillment of God’s promise to make him a mighty nation. Imagine then the conflict–to saying nothing of the horror–when God tells him “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

Today, and not unreasonably, someone planning to sacrifice a child to God would be arrested and likely medicated. Child sacrifice is as much an abomination to us as it was to Abraham. And yet, this is what God asks from the Patriarch.

So in obedience Abraham sets out to sacrifice Isaac. The fathers of the Church see in these events–and especially in Isaac carrying “the wood of the burnt offering”–a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

Unlike us, Abraham hadn’t received the grace to understand God’s request as a prophecy of the “good things to come” (see Colossians 2:17, Hebrews 9:11, 10:1). Nor did he have any way of knowing that at the last moment “the angel of the Lord” would call to him from heaven and tell him to not kill his son.

All Abraham knew was that God has asked him to do the unimaginable. To kill his son and to offer his child as a “whole burnt offering” (see Leviticus 1-17).

Truth be told, I find passages like today’s reading from Genesis troubling.

I much prefer the gentle, prudential wisdom of Solomon in Proverbs to the unbending demands of God’s holiness. How much easier it is for me to hear “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” than it is to think that God demands of me all that I love.

Important as human freedom is, and we shouldn’t deny or minimize freedom’s importance, we only exercise our freedom in response to God. Always and everywhere, God has both the first and the last word. In between these words, we exercise our freedom though even here we do so because we are sustained by His Word. It is, after all, God Who by His grace and in His great love that upholds “all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3, NKJV).

The folly of this world, and of my heart, is the ease with which God’s holiness is forgotten. True wisdom doesn’t forget the heart’s tendency to this forgetfulness.

How easy it is for me to turn even the things of God into occasions of forgetfulness of His holiness and sovereignty. Like Solomon says “He who is estranged seeks pretexts to break out against all sound judgment. A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Holiness is the Goal

Thursday, March 22 (O.S., March 9), 2018: Thursday of the Great Canon of St Andrew; New Hieromartyrs Priests Michael, Alexis, Demetrius, Sergius, Sergius and Deacon Nicholas, Venerable Martyrs Ioasaph, Natalia and Alexandra († 1938); Martyr Urpasianus of Nicomedia († c.295); Venerable Cæsarius, brother of St Gregory the Theologian († c. 369); Martyr Philoromus; Righteous Tarasius of Liconium; Martyr Philoromus; Albazinian Icon of the Mother of God called “The Word Was Made Flesh” (1666).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 42:5-16
Vespers: Genesis 18:20-33
Vespers: Proverbs 16:17-17:17

Once again Isaiah reminds me that God isn’t “good” in the way I typically think of goodness.

Isaiah begins by telling us about God redeeming His people. In words that Jesus will quote at the beginning of His ministry (Luke 4:18), we are told that God has made the Jewish people “a light to the nations.” Through them, He will “open the eyes that are blind,” He will “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,” and liberate “those who sit in [the] darkness” of sin.

In response, creation and the whole man-made world join in sing “to the LORD a new song.” The sea roars together with “all that fills it,” roars in praise of God. Then “the coastlands and their inhabitants” join in the song together with “the desert” and the “cities.” All “lift up their voice,” all “sing for joy,” and “shout from the top of the mountains” their gratitude to God.

At this point, things quickly take what might seem to us to be a dark turn.

“For a long time,” God says, “I have held my peace.” God has “kept still and restrained” Himself in the face of human sinfulness and disobedience. Now though, God cries out “like a woman in travail.” God gasps and pants as He makes ready to destroy.

I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools. And I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them.

We see something like this in God’s response to Sodom and Gomorrah.

God is intent on destroying these cities because their sin is “great and … very grave.” Abraham negotiates with God to spare the cities for the sake of ten righteous individuals. But as we discover a bit later (Genesis 19:12-29), the cities don’t have even ten good people between them and so they are destroyed.

God’s isn’t good the way I understand goodness.

God isn’t the aggregate of moral goodness. Rather, God is holy–He is sovereign and as Lord of All is over all that is. As the Creator of the universe, He is the source of moral goodness but moral goodness itself is only a shadow, a veiled revelation of God (see Hebrews 10:1, Colossians 2:17).

And so we come again to the importance of Wisdom.

Wisdom not just as practical and moral guidance–though it includes both. As we hear today, Wisdom is the “fountain of life.”

Wisdom fosters in us “a lowly spirit” (humility) and willingness to “heed” God (obedience). The wise heart is discerning and speaks in a way that is both “pleasant” and persuasive. Like Jesus, the wise speak and teach with an authority that comes not simply from moral goodness but the disinterested freedom of holiness (Matthew 7:9, Mark 1:22 and Luke 4:32).

And wisdom levels, or better transcends the often arbitrary distinctions with which we divide ourselves off one from the other as we jockey for power and control. “A slave who deals wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully, and will share the inheritance as one of the brothers.”

Christians are called not simply to be morally good but holy. We are called to share (as we can never tire of repeating) in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). In fact, everything we do as Christians has only one goal: to become like God, not just good but holy.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Invited to Believe

Wednesday, March 21 (O.S., March 8), 2018: Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent; St. Theophylactus the Bishop of Nicomedia († 842-845); New Hieromartyr Priest John († 1923); New Martyr Vladimir (1942); Venerable Dometius († 363); Hieromartyr Priest Theodoritus of Antioch (4th C); Apostle Hermas of the Seventy (1st C); Venerable Lazarus († 1391) and Athanasius (14th C) of Murom; St. Felix of Burgundy, Bishop of Dunwich and Enlightener of East Anglia.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 41:4-14
Vespers: Genesis 17:1-9
Vespers: Proverbs 15:20-16:9

Creation testifies to the goodness of God, His mercy and fidelity.This is why idolatry, economic sins and sexual immorality are so roundly condemned by the prophets. These obscure and even undermine the testimony of God’s holiness of God and concern for His people.

The stability of creation, the ability of human beings to create wealth and engage in trade and the fidelity of husband and wife, all join together to affirm what God says to Israel

“You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

While they are all of different moral weight, floods, earthquakes, double-dealing in the marketplace, fornication, and adultery, all shake our confidence in God’s offer of friendship. They do this by violating our sense of trustworthiness of creation, of each other and, ultimately, of God Himself.

Our trust in God is important because God Himself is the guarantor of the covenant with Israel and the promise of salvation in Christ. “I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I will help you.’”

Abraham (as he’s now known), is the exemplar of this trust in God. At “ninety-nine years old” he is still waiting for the son through whom God will make of him a great nation and give him “all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.” This doesn’t mean he doesn’t struggle to be faithful. Rather it means he is never overwhelmed by his doubts.

The majesty and stability of creation, economic fair dealing, and chastity all testify to God’s faithfulness. Not only that. They also serve to foster a similar fidelity in us.

Without this fidelity to God, as Solomon makes clear, my life falls apart.

The LORD tears down the house of the proud, but maintains the widow’s boundaries. The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the LORD, the words of the pure are pleasing to him. He who is greedy for unjust gain makes trouble for his household, but he who hates bribes will live.

As Abraham’s example makes clear, in a fallen world, trust in the promises of God will always be a struggle. There is no shortage of occasions to doubt God. Creation is marred by pollution. Greed afflicts our economic relationships. Marriages fail. To those who look, there is ample evidence to justify mistrust in God.

Solomon is aware of this. His counsel in response is not to close our eyes and pretend that the world isn’t fallen. Instead, he counsels intellectual humility. He reminds us that “The plans of the mind belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.”

Hearing that answer requires that, like Abram, I quiet myself. Good though they may be, to hear God I have to lay aside my plans and projects and instead “commit” or more likely, re-commit my “work to the Lord.”

The evidence of God’s fidelity is there to be seen. As Solomon reminds us the “LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” Understanding how “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28), however, requires effort on my part. God doesn’t impose faith on me. Rather, He invites me to believe.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Wise Are Like God

Tuesday, March 20 (O.S., March 7), 2018: Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent; the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste († c.320): Cyrion, Candidus, Domnus, Hesychius, Iraclius, Smaragdus, Eunoicus, Valentus, Vivian, Claudius, Priskus, Theodulus, Eutichius, John, Xanthus, Ilian, Sisinius, Angius, Aetius, Flavius, Dometian, Gaius, Leontius, Athanasius, Cyrill, Sakerdonus, Nicholas, Valerius, Philoctimon, Seberian, Chudionus, Aglaius, and Meliton; Hieromartyrs Basil, Ephraim, Eugene, Elpidius, Agathodorus, Aetherius, and Kapiton of Cherson (4th C); New Hieromartyr Priest Nicholas († 1930); New Venerable Martyrs Nilus, Matrona, Mary, Eudocia, Catherine, Antonina, Nadezhda, Xenia and Anna († 1938); Venerable Paul the Simple (4th C); Holy Hierarchs Nestor and Arcadius, Bishops of Tremethus in Cyprus; Venerable Emilian, in the world Victorinus, of Italy; St. Paul the Confessor the Bishop of Plusias (9th C).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 40:18-31
Vespers: Genesis 15:1-15
Vespers: Proverbs 15:7-19

The reading from Isaiah begins with a challenge. God asks humanity “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with Him?” God answers His own question by calling humanity to account for our idolatry: “The idol! a workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains.”

God quickly points out the inherent weakness of the idol. Some are covered with gold and held in place with “silver chains.” Others are made of “wood that will not rot” by skilled craftsman who carefully places the idol in its niche so that it “will not move.”

The irony here is clear. It is human ingenuity and skill that protects from damage and rot the idol crafted to protect the worshipper.

Unlike the idol, “the work of human hands” (see Psalm 115:4 and 135:15), the Lord doesn’t need my protect. God creates the earth and rules over it as its absolute Lord.

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nought, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

God has no equal and His will “is unsearchable.” While even the young grow “faint and … weary” God is mighty and “strong in power.” What strength we have, we have as God’s gift.

It is this God Who makes a covenant with Abram, promising that he will be a great nation.

In the ancient near east, when a covenant was made, both parties would walk between the split animals calling on themselves a curse if they failed to live up to their side of the bargain. When the covenant is made between only God and Abram, only passes between the animals (Genesis 15:7). God takes on Himself the whole penalty for any violation of His agreement with Abram.

The Creator of Heaven and Earth doesn’t just make a covenant with us. In Jesus Christ, He willingly bears the cost of our violation of the agreement.

God’s willingness to suffer a curse that I bring on myself by my own folly and sin is central to the Gospel. Understanding this helps us see a depth of meaning in Solomon’s extended praise of wisdom in Proverbs.

The wisdom of the wise isn’t passive but dynamic. God the Creator of the “all things visible and invisible” (Creed) takes on Himself the sins of the world and so brings about reconciliation. In imitation of God, the wise man by his wisdom brings peace not only to himself but to others.

Beginning with himself, the wise man reconciles humanity to God. This is why the wise man “pursues righteousness” and, unlike the fool, loves reproof. In stark contrast to both God and the wise man, the fool is “hot-tempered” and “stirs up strife.”

As we’ve seen throughout our reflections of Proverbs, wisdom doesn’t just bring peace; it also brings prosperity. In part, as we read today, this happens because the wise man is content with however much or little he has. “Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it.”

For Solomon, however, detachment from wealth and power is very different from rejecting or disparaging wealth and power. Wisdom is found, as the reading from Isaiah suggests, in understand what wealth and power can and can’t do.

The paradox is this: I become like God the more I realize I am not like Him.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory