Among the many icons of our Lord, there is one of Him depicted vested fully as a bishop, the Patriarch of all patriarchs, the greatest hierarch of the Church. Indeed, we often see our Lord enthroned as the King and Ruler of all creation and we know that He is indeed the Head of the Church, however, this particular icon shows us how it is that His divinity is transmitted to us all. St Dionysius the Aeropagite in his work “On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy” says, “…this hierarchy (that is the hierarchy which emanates from our Lord, the Chief Hierarch of the Church)… has one and the same power throughout all of its hierarchical endeavor, namely the hierarch Himself, and how this being and proportion and order are in Him divinely perfected and deified, and are then imparted to those below him according to their merit, whereas the sacred deification occurs in Him directly from God. Subordinates, in turn, are to pursue their superiors and they also promote the advance of those below them, which these too, as they go forward are led by others. And so it happens that because of this inspired, hierarchical harmony each one is able to have as great as possible a share in Him Who is truly beautiful, wise and good.” This explains the purpose of the hierarchical nature of the Church, for it is through the hierarchy that the divinity of Christ flows down to us all. The hierarch is one who is raised up by God and found to be worthy of this exalted place. In his consecration as bishop he is joined to this great structure which is designed to share with the whole Church, with all of us, the holiness, the deification which flows from our Lord Jesus Christ. What the bishop receives from God, he in turn gives to those in his archpastoral care that we might in turn be raised up to share in what he himself has received. The remainder of the clergy, the priests and deacons, receiving this great gift also in turn participate in showering it upon those in our pastoral care – that is with all of you. Each of you in turn, must also participate in this giving, sharing that which God has given you with those around you so that always those who are above are lifting those below and we are all rising together into the Kingdom of God. The hierarchy of the Church – the bishops, priests and deacons – is not about some rising up over others, but rather about those who have been raised up, turning and reaching out to those who have not yet been raised up so that all together we might become like Christ.
Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, a well-known spiritual guide and instructor in spiritual matters in our modern times writes: “the degrees of the priesthood (deacon, priest, bishop) are closely connected with the three basic degrees of the spiritual life. This means that as a man progressed in (the healing of the soul) (that is purification, illumination and deification) he ascended the spiritual ladder of priestly grace and blessing. At least this is the teaching of the Fathers.” Metropolitan Hierotheos develops this connection demonstrating this connection identifying the diaconate with those who have been purified, the priesthood with those who have been illumined and the episcopacy with those who have been deified. Certainly this identification is an ideal for which we strive and which is not always born out in practice in the Church (as my own life will amply demonstrate – although a priest I am hardly illumined and in fact have not fully reached any level that could be called “pure”). However this ideal demonstrates again for us the function of “reaching down to pull up” those below of the hierarchy of the Church. The bishop, having reached the highest stage of spiritual development reaches down to lift us all up. He is joined, from a lesser height, by the priest who lifts with the bishop. Again, the deacon, from his place joins the reach of the bishop and priest to lift all those around us. But this “reaching down to lift up” does not end with the hierarchy – it is the task of all of us; clergy or laity, monastic or married, adult or child, man or woman, whatever our place in the Church; to reach out to those around us and by sharing what God has given to us, we are raised together into the life of the Kingdom of God.
In addition to the witness of these two great spiritual fathers, we have before us the same lesson in the ritual of our Divine Liturgy. The priest enters into the altar – which represents for us heaven – and receives gifts from God. These great gifts – first the Gospel, the Word of God, and later the Holy Mysteries, the very Body and Blood of our Lord Himself – are given to the priest for his salvation and he in turn does not keep them to himself, but brings them out to offer them to everyone present so that we all together might be filled with the transforming grace of God and be changed into His likeness.
The parable that we heard today in the Gospel also exhibits this necessity to share what we have given with those around us. A king – that is our Lord Jesus Christ – hears the cry of one of His subjects for mercy. He grants not only a single mercy, that of freedom from punishment for the inability to pay his debt, but a double mercy in granting forgiveness of the debt itself. Having received this great gift, this forgiven debtor then returns to his life. Encountering one who is still in debt to him, he does not share the mercy he received with his neighbor. His lack of mercy for his neighbor gets back to the king who then remands the unforgiving servant to fulfill his original punishment. God bestows upon us all His great gifts and He gives us these things not for us to keep for ourselves, but rather that we might share the love, mercy, compassion and blessings of God with those around us.
In what we have just talked about, it is clear that we receive many spiritual gifts from God and that as much as possible we should share those spiritual gifts with others. Thus, as Christians, it is incumbent upon us to love as we have been loved, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to bless as we have been blessed, to have compassion on others as God has had compassion upon us, and so on. But God’s provision for us is not only spiritual, rather it is physical as well. God has given to us food, raiment and shelter – prompting us in turn to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and provide for the homeless. He has given us family and friends, health and joys; and so we also are called to care for the widow and orphan, to reach out to those who are lonely and alone, to comfort those who are sick and in sorrow.
Our Lord has Himself reached down from greatest heights of heaven to lift of those who are in the lowest parts of the world to Himself. Along the way He reaches out to us and invites us to join Him in His work to reach out and lift up those around us that we all might be joined together in a great net of love and compassion. In this great net, we are united to one another and to Christ and He lifts us all up and brings us into His Kingdom, along the way transforming us by His grace and filling us with His love that we might become like Him, shining with the light of His presence in us and reflecting the glory of His divinity which surrounds us.