There are times when the pairings of the readings for any given Sunday seem peculiar and a reasonable person looking at them from the outside may wonder “Why are this Epistle and Gospel together?” “What’s the point?” And those questions themselves speak to something important about our Orthodox Faith. In Orthodox Christianity questions are not a sign of a lack of faith but rather an invitation to look deeper, into ourselves, our world, and that which we believe.
Our Faith has existed for over 2000 years and during that time its been scrutinized, analyzed, probed, challenged, and examined by its adherents and opponents, the curious and controversialists. We’ve done okay. We’re still here. And in all that time its probable the questions you may be struggling with have already been addressed.
Its important to know, as well, that the existence of questions shows you’re engaged with your Faith, that what you believe is valuable enough to you to ponder. Questions indicate a lively faith. You should be reading the texts, learning about your religion, examining the evidence, and seeking to work through questions to new insights. Every Orthodox should have a healthy curiosity about their Faith, their Church, and how what they believe impacts their lives. Someone once said “If you don’t ask you’ll never know” and this is especially true when it comes to your Faith.
Even the hard questions, those birthed within us in a time of tragedy and suffering, demonstrate faith. If one reads the stories of the Saints we see people who are often engaged in profound struggle with themselves, with God, and the world around them. In fact these struggles were often the arena where their holiness was formed, the precursor to the glory they experienced. Questions are part of theosis.
In that light what do these texts have in common? What theme may unite them and why did the Church link these over the centuries?
If you notice you’ll see a theme of exile in both. St. Paul receives the revelation of God and then finds himself in exile in Arabia safely awaiting the moment when the main act of his ministry is to begin. In the Gospel St. Joseph receives a call from God to take the child Jesus to exile in Egypt, a time of waiting and safety in anticipation of what this child would bring in the future.
This is a common theme of the Scriptures, the idea that before we engage in the work we are called to do God takes us to a place of exile, rest, and safety where we can learn, grow, and prepare. Moses, before he stood in the presence of Pharaoh, had his time in the wilderness as a shepherd. Elizabeth waited in years of barrenness before the birth of her son, John the Forerunner. The disciples of Christ walked with Him for three years before they were released to the world.
God has a call on each of our lives, a call on our church, things we must do, a purpose to fulfill. But often before the full flowering of that time there is a time of exile, a time when the purpose becomes clear, vision becomes focused, and everything extraneous is sloughed away. The time of exile, far from being a time of passivity and weakness, is actually a time when God is transforming us in preparation for what will be.
Now ponder this in the context of your own life and the life of this parish and you’ll begin to understand.