Escaping the Slavery of Vanity
Christ is risen!
T.S. Eliot, one of the 20th century’s major poets, said: “And they write innumerable books; being too vain and distracted for silence: seeking everyone after his own elevation, and dodging his emptiness.”
It strikes me as significant that an author would write something like that. And, in my heart of hearts, it strikes me as painfully accurate, especially during this time of societal chaos and deepening social divide. But our hearts are deluded if we allow moments of vanity to steal our hope! And that is exactly what it is: Vanity. We foolishly assume our moment in the universe is the pivotal moment of all humanity. We act as if we, and we alone, are truly righteous and truly wise so that we, and we alone, are able to address and fix the problems of society. We create totalitarian systems to shame each other into “proper” behavior. We create “social credit systems” to identify the “good” from the “bad” and we arrogantly assume we are always in the right. From eternity’s perspective, we really are slaves to vanity. Silence would be the wise path, but our vain egos insist we speak out!
Look at our lesson today in Acts 4:23-31:
IN THOSE DAYS, when the apostles were released they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, didst say by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth set themselves in array, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’- for truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to thy servants to speak thy word with all boldness, while thou stretchest out thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of thy holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.
Look at how the Lord’s followers react to the circumstances of their persecution and their release from the hands of the religious authorities of their day. They rehearse God’s foundational Creation; the futility and foolishness of whole peoples making wrong choices based on their vanity; and the centrality of the Living Jesus in their midst through the Presence of the Holy Spirit that empowers them to see past the vanity of their present situation to the faithful fulfillment of the Mission given them by Christ. In other words, they refuse to fall into the delusion of “vain things.”
The word “vain” has the dual meaning of an overinflated view of one’s self or abilities or accomplishments AND actions producing no results and being useless. Of course, one delusion creates the reality of the other. If we fail to embrace humility and a sober assessment of both our strengths and weaknesses without falling into the “vain” trap of being either too hard on ourselves or too easy on ourselves, we will have actions and plans, and efforts that produce no results and are useless. I can’t help thinking about the artificial social engineering by our elites to get us to the fantasy places of “Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity.” Just reading the shallow moralism of these vain efforts is enough to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that humanity’s ego allows for no humility in the face of actually dealing with problems in society.
But, notice, when the disciples exchange their focus from themselves to the Lord and His calling on their lives, the “place in which they were gathered was shaken” and the disciples were empowered and energized to go and do as they had been commanded! They asked not for relief from the persecution, but for boldness to continue the ministry of Jesus in their lives as well. They didn’t expect the world around them to stop treating them badly or unfairly; they only desired to escape the vanity of a life lived only for itself and keep their focus on their mission. Because they knew that forgetting their mission was the fastest way to succumb to the vanity of their age!
We remember St. Symeon, the Holy Martyr today. He was a first cousin to the Lord through St. Joseph the Betrothed. And he was the second bishop of Jerusalem, succeeding St. James after his martyrdom. St. Symeon was, himself, martyred for the Faith by beheading during the reign of Emperor Trajan in 107 AD. St. Symeon was 120 years old at the time! A long life was cut down because this man refused to pretend Jesus wasn’t alive. This saint refused to live a vain life in the delusion that “this is all there is” of the world. He knew there was an eternity waiting for him and he refused to pretend it wasn’t real.
Today, are you gripped by “vain things?” The answer is to remove the focus of your life from yourself, your circumstances, and your “abilities” and focus rather on Another; on Him Who fills up your life with meaning and insight, and sober honesty. Allow your life to be governed by eternal reality instead of the illusory fantasy of your own strength and wisdom. That way your Normal Orthodox life will shout to the world “Don’t be a slave to vanity!” By the way, those gripped by vanity will hate you for this.
P.S. We sacredly acclaim you as Jesus Christ’s kinsman, and as His steadfast Martyr, O all-lauded Hierarch. For bravely have you destroyed all deception and kept the faith. Hence, O Symeon, we keep your holy remembrance on this festive day; and by your prayers, we are granted the pardon of grievous sins.