By John Sundara
It’s become commonplace to talk about vocation. In many ordination processes, the discerner is expected to articulate their vocation to the priesthood. Many college ministries help graduating students discern their vocation. Churches have discipleship retreats, young professional groups, Bible studies, faith and work initiatives, etc., offering resources to contemplate vocation in a more Christian way.
These are good. But it should be noted that many of these contemporary reflections revolve around a constellation of visions. One such vision is Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper’s concept of work, faith, and redeeming culture. Another vision involves pressing personal desires through the Venn diagram described by Christian writer Frederick Buechner: vocation is “where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” This, coupled with the oft-quoted verse from Jeremiah, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7), envisions vocation as an exilic endeavor building the new Jerusalem here in the various Babylons on earth. Another related vision is that we are created to be image-bearers of God, a notion expressed in Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image, a commentary on Genesis 1. In it, he describes the garden as a kind of temple where Adam and Eve were placed to exercise dominion over all creatures and bring about worship to God. Vocation is to redeem and make culture. If you follow these visions — or stars — in any of the constellations described above, they will point you to your vocation’s North Star.
There is nothing to criticize here. But it’s also worth noting that for much of history a cobbler or a farmer or an ironsmith never had to wrench their hearts and minds figuring out if they were somehow going to miss out on God’s best vocation for them because they sewed shoes instead of baking bread. Yet did they lead unfulfilled lives? What if our contemporary understandings of vocation revolve around a too-narrow constellation of church, faith, image-bearing, passion, need, and life? What if we need a thicker constellation of vocation?
Hebrews 1-2 and Genesis 1-2
The letter to the Hebrews is probably not an obvious place to begin such a reflection. However, what is interesting is the way the author uses the Messianic psalms and recasts the Law and the Prophets in Christological light, especially Genesis 1-2. Hebrews 1-2 is part of the epistle’s longer system of thought that explains the myriad ways the Son is greater than any number of created rulers: prophets and priests like Moses and Melchizedek, fathers of righteousness like Abraham, and, ultimately, spirits like angels. Thus, when Hebrews cites the Song of Moses, or Psalms 8, 45 and 102, the author builds the case for the Son’s rule over the angels and false gods (Heb. 1:5-13, 2:9; c.f.: Deut. 32:43, Ps. 8:4-6, 45:6-7, 102:25-27). Thus, Hebrews 2:14-15, recasting Psalm 8, concludes that the Son of Man was made a little lower than the angels, and in this humiliation for the sake of man, he would destroy the Devil who has the power of death over man.
But Hebrews’ use of Psalm 8 also recasts how one understands Genesis 1:26-28. While the referent in Psalm 8 in Hebrews is Jesus, the psalm doesn’t rule out Adam. “What is man” — that is, Adam — “that you are mindful of him?” Adam is made a little lower than the angels, yet crowned with glory and honor and given dominion over all creatures.
But aren’t angels creatures? Yes. And so, one concludes that Adam’s dominion in Genesis 1-2 extends over angels as well. And not just Michael and Gabriel — the cherubim and seraphim and all the angels and archangels. But also over that great fallen angel, Lucifer the Devil. Consider this: what if Adam and Eve’s dominion was not merely towards tilling the earth and taming beasts — to create culture — but rather to also exercise dominion over the serpent and the Devil? To defeat their wiles and charms?
After all, we traditionally read Christ’s defeat of Satan in the wilderness as an undoing of the serpent’s defeat of Adam and Eve in Eden. But this implies that Adam, Eve, and their offspring were to exercise dominion over the serpent and the Devil in Eden — but failed. You could even say that this is part and parcel of all of humanity’s God-given vocation both in the Garden and outside it — not merely to create or redeem cities and culture, but to reign over the beasts of evil within and without.
In fact, many ancient commentators of Genesis assumed exactly this. They believed that Adam and Eve were placed in Paradise with the injunction “don’t eat” as a means to cultivate virtue and receive the prize of eternal life, and to master the enemies of this goal (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, II.30, John of Damascus); that they (and we) were to rule over the savage beasts within (On the Origin of Man, Gregory of Nyssa); that the serpent symbolized the pleasures of the belly, and that Adam and Eve were deceived by him, but that Christ overcame him in the desert (Letters to Bishops 63, Ambrose); and that the Devil was placed in Paradise so that in overcoming him we would attain a fruitful salvation (On Paradise, Ambrose). Notice the words cultivate, beasts within, belly, fruitful, all linked with virtue and salvation. In other words, vocation was linked not merely to redeeming culture or building new cities, but to becoming new persons. Or to put it differently, it matters less what we do; it matters more who we become. And what we do must become a subservient means towards who we become.
A New Shift
This shift in focus frees contemporary conversations and reflections on vocation from the spirit of the times. Anecdotally speaking, many contemporary vocational discernment processes are inaccessible to the majority of Christians around the world, let alone Christians throughout the ages. The Enneagram, personality tests, gift assessments, faith and work initiatives, and the like, are tools accessible primarily to Western, college-educated, middle-income and higher cohorts with the luxury of leisurely contemplation. And while it dismisses money as an arbiter of vocation, it only has the freedom to do so because it has an impoverished understanding of the financial insecurity that billions of people live in. It privileges white-collar professions. It has little to say to single mothers working long hours at multiple “dead-end” jobs, so-called blue-collar workers and migrant workers, rural economies and farmers, refugees and immigrants who had to give up white-collar professions in their homelands, and those who have lost their jobs to recessions and pandemics, industrialization and mechanization, and production moving overseas. It has even less to say to those who are disabled, in hospice care, sick or dying, or whose so-called “glory” days are behind them. It grossly over-prizes the young, the strong, the free.
Obviously, this is unideal.
But if it matters less what we do, and more who we become; if virtue is the vocation of the Christian through overcoming the Devil, the flesh, and the world — as our baptismal covenant asserts — then vocation is actually (re)placed in its proper context in the life of the Church. In fact, one could call baptismal and confirmation liturgies as initiation rites for vocations of virtue. Vocation becomes all the things that we all do and don’t do to become like Christ; not just the exciting things that exceptional people do. This is because all things by the grace of God’s Spirit become means to become like or unlike God.
Thus, vocation rejoices in the plain and ordinary: abstain from unchastity, love one another, aspire to live quietly, mind our own affairs, work with our hands (1 Thess. 4:1-12). This is mundane stuff. Yet, as vocation becomes mundane, we become virtuous. For Christians are content to live into the mundane because Christ was content to enter into the mundane with us. And in these mundane vocations, the Church, as Jerusalem, rises up from the dust and ashes of the Babylons of our mortal lives to reach up into the starry skies of heaven and grasp the Morning Star of Christ. And this is exceptional enough.
The Rev. John D. Sundara is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He is also the chaplain for the Uptown Fellows, a faith and work initiative.