Vicar’s Blog July 2021: A High Calling

Vicar's Blog ~ July 2021: A High Calling

I suspect that you may never have heard of the battle of Samara. It was fought in AD 363 beside the river Tigris between the Persians and an invading Roman army of 65000 men. But it was a decisive battle for the Church as well as the Persians because at that battle one of her own most dangerous enemies was killed by the Persians – the Roman emperor Julian. If the Romans had won the battle of Samara perhaps you wouldn’t be reading this now because perhaps Christendom would never have happened.

The Christians called their enemy Julian the Apostate. He was the last pagan emperor. Although he was the nephew of the first Christian emperor Constantine, and although he had been baptised he became a pagan. He aimed to restore the worship of the gods – and had he lived he might have succeeded. Julian was educated and articulate and he had absolute power. He was a Platonist philosopher king. And like the pagan emperors before him he also believed that he was a god.

The Christians mocked him for that - when he was safely dead, after only three years in power.

It was claimed that his dying words were Vicisti Galilaee which inspired the decadent nineteenth century poet Swinburne’s lines:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; 
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death. 

The Christians portrayed Julian as histrio – a bad actor. They claimed that as he lay dying he commanded that is body be flung into the river Tigris when he was dead, so that his body would disappear and people would think that he had been assumed into heaven and assimilated to the divine. His instructions for his simulated deification, his apotheosis, were given away by a disgruntled eunuch.

Julian was dangerous because he sought what the Christians also sought. Had he lived he could have developed his alternative. As a philosopher king he sought to develop a universal pagan way of salvation that was accessible to all and not just those of higher purity, so that as emperor he could lead all in his care to the divine, to theosis, to becoming divine.

It was in the context of a polemic against Julian that St Gregory of Nazianzus presents some of the first Christian thinking about priesthood.

As the new Area Director of Ordinands I have been reminded of his thinking by the idealism of some of those in the discernment process. The writings of the Fathers of the Church have been called “the Church’s intimate, youthful diary”. I find the same idealism about how much ordained ministry can mean in St Gregory’s thinking about priesthood. His thinking seems to me to be a shining light before the shadows fall of later clericalism, division and scandal.

St Gregory argued that to find and present a universal way of salvation was the role, not of a pagan philosopher king, but of the priesthood of Christ. Their task is affiliate men and women with God, with the divine. The priest for Gregory is a diviniser.

 In his Second Oration he writes of the priesthood:

“The scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and, in short to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host.” (Oration 2.2)

And he wrote this about the on-going formation of priests:

“A person must themselves be cleansed, before cleansing others: themselves become wise, that they may make others wise; become light, and then give light: draw near to God, and so bring others near; be hallowed, then hallow them; be possessed of hands to lead others by the hand, of wisdom to give advice.” (Oration 2.71)

This is the task and high calling of all those called to ordained ministry. This is my task and my calling with you and for you.

I ask for your prayers, for myself and for all who are called to this art. Please be assured of my prayers for you.

We love you in Christ and we pray for you.

In the words of a prayer of St Gregory of Nazianzus:
May Jesus give strength and power unto his people and Himself present to Himself His flock resplendent and spotless and worthy of the fold on high, in the habitation of them that rejoice in the splendour of the saints, so that in His temple everyone, both flock and shepherds together may say, Glory, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be all glory for ever and ever.

Amen

The Rev'd Dr James Lawson July 2021