Daniel Siedell, in the course of discussing the Russian film The Passion of Andrei Rublev (1966), about an icon maker who returns to his craft when he helps a child, makes some important connections between Lent and Vocation. (Notice too how Luther’s doctrine of vocation–with his focus on loving and serving the neighbor–is different from that of other theologies.)
Lent is an observance that reveals our weakness and failure in remarkable ways. Each year we vow to “keep” it better, each year we fail, often in unexpected ways—either in the mounting sense of pride we experience in our self-sufficiency, dedication, and discipline or in the despair that our failures somehow reveal God’s true assessment of us.
And so it is appropriate to consider vocation during this most sensitive time of the year, a time in which are reminded that we are unable to set aside those things that so easily ensnare us, like food, drink, Twitter, and sin. Lent reminds us that the Christian, as Martin Luther says, “lives not in himself, but in Christ and neighbor,” in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Lent reminds us just how much we live in ourselves. And our work is one of the most explicit ways in which we do so.
We are trained in the church to think about the work that we do—our vocation—as a means by which we please, honor, or otherwise show God our gratitude. In short, we are trained to regard our work as a form of justification before God—to make God love us or to keep him loving us. Our work is a matter between God and us—it’s a private “spiritual” affair—a matter of “worship.”Yet the work that we do is unable to justify us. Because we are justified by faith, apart from works (Rom. 3. 28) God doesn’t need our work. But, as Gustaf Wingren observed in his ground-breaking study, Luther on Vocation (1942), even though God doesn’t need our good works, our neighbor does.
For Luther, the doctrine of justification freed the Christian to work not for God but for his neighbor. It freed the Christian to be content to make a good shoe and sell it at a fair price. Our vocations, the work that we do, whether coaching a football team, shuffling papers, or painting pictures, exists for our neighbor. Vocation is, then, merely the outgrowth of the implications of the doctrine of justification. For justification by faith is the means by which we live in Christ and vocation is the means by which we live in our neighbor.
This is especially difficult for artists to understand. They’ve been trained to think about art as a private, devotional, priestly affair, the result of a special encounter with God. But Rublev’s breakthrough occurs when he discovers his neighbor—not God—in his vocation. Through Boriska—observing and comforting him and promising to care for him as a father—by being Christ to his neighbor, as Luther once said—Rublev receives his vocation anew. He receives it liberated of the burden to justify himself through paint before the face of God.
Sitting in the mud with a broken, grieving orphan, Rublev is truly free.
He is free to paint icons.
May God use this season of Lent, and the failures it brings, to set us free to see the face of our neighbor.