Peter Anthony explains why one must be mad to seek ordination
How mad do you have to be to want to be ordained? It’s a serious question. Just how out of your mind have you got to appear if you want to become a priest? I know sometimes, when one looks at the antics of the House of Bishops of the Church of England, it does indeed feel like the insane have taken over the asylum. But I mean something a bit different. To give up a well-paid job in the secular world or the prospect of having one, and to offer yourself for a vocation in which you are called to spread the gospel of a theoretical being who might not even exist, must look to the outside world like madness. But don’t imagine there’s anything new in that. For it is an idea we find both in the scriptures and in the Fathers, and which I’ll come back to in a moment.
I’m so happy to be preaching on this day—the Saturday of the first week in Lent. The reason is this: in the old rite, this was the only day in the year, apart from the feast day itself, when the gospel of the Transfiguration was read. When the new calendars and lectionaries of the twentieth century were constructed, it’s the main reason a Transfiguration gospel was moved to tomorrow morning, the second Sunday of Lent. Nobody really knows why this gospel reading got attached to this obscure Saturday, but it might have something to do with it being an ember day in Rome: on this day, ordinations frequently took place there. Indeed we have a Transfiguration homily preached by Leo the Great almost certainly on this day at an ordination in the mid-fifth century. In that homily, Leo comes back to an idea that recurs in patristic commentary on the Transfiguration. The idea is this: for the disciples to experience that great vision, they had to be slightly out of their minds.
Leo says, ‘Peter the apostle was so inspired by these divine revelations of mysteries that he wished to spurn and despise worldly things and his mind was taken with a kind of elated distraction for eternal things.’ There’s a hint here that in his ‘elated distraction’ Peter is kind of out of his mind. So wonderful is the vision before him that Matthew, today’s gospel writer, describes it in terms of Peter not knowing what to say. The important point Leo makes is this: to love Jesus you’ve got to be sort of crackers—you need to be madly in love. And if you want to serve him as a priest you’ve definitely got to be crackers and head over heels in love with the one you feel called to serve.
The mountain-top vision stands as an image for what a priestly vocation is like. However you felt God’s prompting—be it a dramatic moment or a still small voice—somewhere, somehow, an encounter with the living God has so overwhelmed you, so changed you, so humbled you, that you simply want to be with him. You want nothing more than to luxuriate in his presence, and throw everything else to the wind. Just like a teenager in love for the first time, we are gripped by a kind of love madness—our priorities are suddenly transformed. We no longer value what the world values. We simply want to be with the beloved.
But Jesus calls you to take something of that encounter and go down the mountain and return to the world with that experience in your heart. For it will be the energy, the power, the inspiration behind all you do, as God pours his spirit into you and calls you to serve him as priests and deacons.
As you pursue the sense of vocation God has put into your heart, don’t worry if at times you feel odd or strange, or mad or demented—or indeed surrounded by others who definitely are. It’s supposed to be like that, and you are living out a deeply scriptural and patristic idea. For as Paul teaches us, ‘…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
The Revd Dr Peter Anthony, Vice-Chairman of the Cleaver
Ordination Candidates Fund, preached this homily at Mass on the fund’s annual study for ordinands, held at Pusey House on Saturday 24 February.