Many voices compete for humanity’s attention. Fortunately, the voice of the authentic shepherd has a distinct quality that only his affiliates can distinguish. In fact, the voice of the “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11) is the only voice that can successfully summon the vulnerable, abducted, and forlorn. When compared to the genuine resonance of the Lord’s call, the thud of all other invitations sound counterfeit, worrisome, and hollow.
In “Finding Your Voice” (Part 1), the subject of vocational authenticity was discussed from the vantage point of the Akathist Hymn, a 6th century Christian poem dedicated to the virtues and merits of Mary the Holy Mother of Jesus. Examined from the perspective of leadership, the Canticle’s 24-stanzas provide a valuable four-part paradigm for the discovery and use of executive voice: (a) vocation, (b) validation, (c) valuation, and (d) veneration. In this second of four distinct commentaries on the general theme, Frankly Speaking will specifically focus on the topic of vocational validation and its relationship to incarnational presence.
As previously discussed, finding voice begins when leaders discern and accept their calling, their life’s vocation. In order to do so, however, like the Blessed Virgin, they must first acknowledge the induction of the Holy Spirit and consent to becoming reserves of God’s Word and Will. The Akathist Hymn repeatedly describes Mary as the “throne,” “tabernacle,” and “ark of God’s Word.” Her “ever-virginal womb” is specifically referred to as a “treasury,” “garden,” “pasture,” and “fertile meadow of Divine Incarnation.” While the hymn’s First Section (Stanzas 1-6) highlights Mary’s acceptance of the Holy Spirit’s vocare, Section Two (Stanzas 7-12) poetically illustrates the validation of the Virgin’s acquiescence.
The life of the Blessed Mother illustrates that, once accepted, vocation must be validated by authentically epitomizing the incarnational presence of God. The cornerstone of Christianity, the Incarnation, is the doctrine that outlines how God the Son, the Word and second Person of the Trinity, “emptied himself,” took on “human flesh,” and entered His creation (Philippians 2:5-8). The Incarnation informs the mission of the Church in society. “As you [Father] have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). As such, the vocation of the Church is expressed by the presence of every human being and leader called to grow in and manifest the image and likeness of God (Matt. 5:48).
In her book, Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success (2014), Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, insists that three vital criteria are required for executive presence to exist. According to Hewlett, the vitality of a leader’s presence is appraised according to: (a) gravitas 67%, (b) communication 28%, and (c) appearance 5%. As gravitas exerts the greatest influence, Hewlett concludes that it is the most important skill of executive presence, signaling intellectual expertise, confidence, and credibility.
According to Bill George, Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School and former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, the current problems in society have underscored the need for a new kind of leader in the 21st Century: the authentic leader. In his book, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value (2004), George concludes that there is a great need for authentic leaders who “lead with purpose, values, and integrity.” Unlike Hewlett, he advocates the need for leaders to develop executive presence based on honest introspection and not merely through the refinement of relational skills. While the majority of leadership literature is overly focused on superficial personality styles of executive presence (EP) – the ability to project gravitas, confidence, poise, and decisiveness – George insists that authentic presence is based on “character” and the “inner forces that shape human beings.”
The Akathist Hymn emphasizes the incarnational presence of the authentic leader whose authority is determined by the degree to which they embody the “inner forces” of God’s word and will. The “self-emptying” of Jesus Christ (kenosis) (Eph. 2:7) delineated throughout the Canticle’s theological stanzas, challenges all leaders, regardless of context, to “kenotic” forms of service. God demonstrated His abiding love for humanity by becoming human through the free will choosing of a virgin mother. As such, the second section of the Akathist Hymn describes four significant encounters that validated the incarnational vocation of the Theotokos: (a) Shepherds, (b) Magi, (c) Egyptians, and (d) Simeon.
The following Matrix utilizes select verses from the 2nd Section (Stanzas 7-12) of the Akathist Hymn to provide discussion questions concerning the incarnational impact of the aforementioned encounters. The Matrix can be used to facilitate private and/or group leadership discussions concerning the validation of vocation.
The “idol worshipers” of Egypt are the third collection of individuals impacted by an encounter with Mary. According to the Akathist Hymn, dutifully compliant to her vocational responsibilities, Mary’s flight to Egypt brought the “Light of the True God” to the land’s “pagan inhabitants.” The hymn’s verses highlight how the Theotokos’ escape to Egypt validated her incarnational vocation by “dispelling the darkness of falsehood” and “trampling down the dominion of delusion” of those sitting “in darkness.”
Finally, the 2nd Section of the Akathist Hymn concludes with a description of the Holy Family’s encounter with an elderly priest named Simeon in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2:25–35). As a result of this final review, Simeon’s voice of validational praise joined those of the shepherds, Magi, and Egyptians. According to the Biblical account, the Holy Spirit had promised Simeon, that he would not die until he had seen the arrival of the Messiah. Recognizing who it was that he held in his arms, he uttered a prayer, which is still used liturgically in many Christian churches, and gave a prophecy alluding to the crucifixion. “You, O Lord, may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2: 29-30). Simeon is thus portrayed by the Akathist Hymn as having “marveled” at Mary’s “ineffable wisdom,” crying “Alleluia!”
Of all ancient icons depicting the Incarnation, the most descriptive is the one that portrays Jesus as the “Good Shepherd.” Based on the famous words of Jesus noted in the 10th Chapter of the Gospel of Saint John, the image was a great comfort to the early Christina Church. Pronounced on the heels of healing the blind man at the Temple, Jesus unabashedly declares Himself the “Good Shepherd,” who cares deeply for the wellbeing of His sheep (John 10:11). Apart from disclosing His incarnational plan for humanity, the 2nd Section of the Akathist Hymn highlights Jesus’s self-description that, additionally, discloses the characteristics of the authentic leader.
Emphasizing the implications of Jesus’ leadership epitomes, the 4th Century Church Father, Saint John Chrysostom, writes that it is “a great matter to preside over a Church.” According to the “Golden-Mouthed” preacher, spiritual shepherding “is a matter needing wisdom and courage as great as that of which Christ speaks.” Such a leader, continues the Archbishop of Constantinople, should be willing “to lay down his life for the sheep, and never leave them deserted or naked, that he should stand against the wolf nobly.”
The Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel, the Chrysostom of his day, warned leaders, that they, like shepherds “who do not feed, clothe, protect, strengthen, and properly guided their sheep” are “offensive,” and will be “held accountable by God” (Ezek. 34). “As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them,” insists the Prophet, “so will the Sovereign Lord look after His sheep and rescue them” (Ezek. 34:11-12). In the end, the Lord will search for his sheep and look after those that have been neglected and mistreated.
The designation of shepherd is a prominent metaphor for leadership in the Bible, mentioned over 115 times. In addition to Ezekiel, the 23rd Psalm of David details the manner in which God Himself shepherds His people. Finally, the Resurrected Lord charged Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21). It is, consequently, not surprising that Jesus uses the Old Testament image of the shepherd to illustrate the responsibilities of the authentic leader whose vocational responsibilities include: (a) self-sacrifice, (b) provision, (b) inspiration, (c) guidance, (d) protection, and (e) security.
Authentic leadership is based on self-sacrifice. Jesus establishes this distinctive on His own example. As the “Good shepherd,” He is willing to “sacrifices his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Spiritual leaders should, therefore, be willing to sacrifice time, energy, and even their lives in order to care for the people that God has entrusted to their oversight.
Responsible for their flock’ provisions, shepherds are constantly on the move, leading their sheep from one pasture to another (Psalm 23:2, 5). Like shepherds, who realize the danger of remaining in one place for an extended period of time, authentic leaders recognize the value of inspiring change (Psalm 23:3). To do so, leaders must prudently guide adherents to ever-higher aspirational vistas and lush sources of appropriate nourishment.
In addition to self-sacrifice, provision and inspiration, shepherds carry rods and staffs to guide and protect their flocks (Psalm 23:4). While the rod was used to fend off predators, the staff was employed to rescue, guide, and stimulate. Similarly, authentic leaders will lead, discharge, and prudently prod as necessary.
Finally, apart from being the “Good Shepherd,” Jesus also describes himself as the very “Portal” through which the flock enters/exits the security of their penfold. In ancient times, shepherds would often lie across the opening of their sheepfold to serve as its gatekeeper. No one could get in or out without being vetted by the shepherd-monitor. Only thieves and robbers entered by another means. Jesus assures the faithful that He is the “Gate,” through which those who pass “will be saved . . . safely enter and exist . . . and find pasture” (John 10:9).
As Mother of the “Good Shepherd,” the Akathist Hymn routinely refers to Mary as the “Theotokos,” the “God-giver,” who “pastured” Jesus in her virginal womb. In particular, the 2nd Section of the Canticle assigns the leadership characteristics of a shepherdess to her incarnational vocation. In doing so, the hymn writer provides contemporary leaders a valuable model for their respective obligations.
Reminiscent of Ezekiel’s prophecy of the Temple’s “ever-closed gate” (Ezekiel 44:1-2), the Akathist Hymn refers to the Theotokos as the “gate” through which the “Good Shepherd” entered the penfold of humanity. She is called the “fertile meadow” that nourished the unborn “lamb” of God. She was the “guardian” of the savior’s life who “defended Him from those who sought His destruction. By reason of these validations, the Church recognized the Theotokos as its own “Protectress.” She is the shepherdess that defends and guides the Church to the Shepherd/Lamb – the Priest/Victim – whose sacrifice provides the sacramental gifts of forgiveness, nourishment, and eternal life (John 10:11-18).
At His crucifixion, Jesus presented His Mother to the Church. Addressing His beloved disciple from the cross, Jesus said “Behold, your mother.” We are told that in response to the Savior’s command, “from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:27). In compliance to the Lord’s will, the holy Church has, throughout the ages, courageously honored and defended the identity of the Holy Mother of Jesus who, subsequently made manifest by miracles, her great love of her Son’s sheepfold.
The Church has a responsibility to humbly continue its veneration of Mary, and the intentional broadcast of the “Good Shepherd’s” authentic Voice to the world. The Apostle Peter wrote to the elders to shepherd their flock by “exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God” (1 Pet. 5:2-4). Like Mary, contemporary leaders should, therefore, nurture an incarnational presence that expresses a similar divine-human vocational synergy (Philippians 2:5-8). Such leadership, however, requires certain orientations, attitudes, and motivations.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian (4th Century) calls devotion to the Holy Mother “the opening of paradise.” “To serve Mary and to belong to her court,” writes Saint John of Damascus (7th Century), “is the greatest honor we can attain. To serve the queen of heaven and to live in obedience to her commands, is to reign already in heaven.” According to Saint Methodios (9th Century), the Theotokos is “the beginning, the middle, and the end of humanity’s blessedness. The beginning, because Mary obtains for us the pardon of our sins; the middle, because she obtains for us perseverance in divine grace; the end, because she finally obtains for us paradise.” Finally, Saint Symeon the New Theologian (10th Century) counsels that “having their own souls chaste and pure,” leaders “should hold in their own hearts, the very one whom the chaste Virgin also received.”
Apart from more ancient Church leaders, Saint Alphonsus de’ Liguori, the 18th Century Italian Catholic bishop, composer, and founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) wrote extensively about Mary. In addition to other theological and ascetic works, this widely read Catholic spiritual author is best known for his spiritual reflection entitled, The Glories of Mary, that present a theological defense of the life and vocational merits of the Blessed Virgin.
Quoting the words of numerous saints of the Eastern as well as Western expressions of the early Church, Alphonsus refers to the Blessed Virgin as “Advocate,” “Bridge of salvation,” “Noble Chariot,” “Star of the sea,” “Ladder,” “Priest,” “Tabernacle,” “Peace-maker,” “Queen,” “City of God,” and “Gate to heaven,” Whatever title used, her incarnational vocation is validated in terms of being the “Shepherdess” and “Guide” of the Church. “For this reason,” writes the Saint, Mary is “full of grace.”
In a prayer provided in his tome, Saint Alphonsus straightforwardly validates the vocation of Mary. “This was the most important office given to Mary,” he writes, “when she was placed upon the earth she was responsible for lifting the souls fallen from divine grace, and reconciling them to God.” He contends that when she was created, the Lord instructed her “to feed His lambs.” As such, according to Alphonsus, “whoever bears the seal of being a servant of Mary, has their name already written in the book of life.”
More recently, John Paul II, Catholic Saint and Pope (1920-2005), wrote that the Theotokos “is constantly present on the journey of faith of the People of God towards the Light.” As Pontiff, John Paul presided in numerous celebrations of the Akathist Hymn. As a result of his great love for the ancient canticle, the Pope granted the recitation of the hymn the same indulgences as the Holy Rosary (Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2003). “This is my happy wish,” wrote Pope John, “because with such a wealth of praise, built up by the different forms of our great tradition, the Church can begin once more to breathe fully with her ‘two lungs,’ the East and the West.”
A famous actor was once the guest of honor at a social gathering where he received many requests to recite favorite excerpts from various literary works. An old preacher who happened to be there asked the actor to recite the 23rd Psalm. The actor agreed on the condition that the preacher would also recite it. The actor’s recitation was beautifully intoned with great dramatic emphasis for which he received a lengthy applause. The preacher’s voice, however, was rough and broken from many years of preaching. His diction was anything but polished. But when he finished there was not a dry eye in the room. When someone asked the actor what made the difference, he replied, “I know the psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.”
Authentic leaders know their Shepherd! Their influence is not authenticated through thespian-like stagecraft or expert expressions of command and control models of influence. Authentic leadership is validated through the vocational manifestation of God’s incarnational presence. While important, such leadership is not about results, but the genuine expression of the “Good Shepherd’s” love, care, and guidance. It is about transforming people through and in Christ (Matthew 20:27-28; 2 Corinthians 5:20; Eph. 4:1-16; I Peter 5:1-7).
In his 1997 encyclical entitled, “The Blessed Virgin Mary In The Life And Ministry Of The Priest,” Norberto Rivera, Archbishop, and Primate of Mexico, insists that, “the acquisition of a solid Marian spirituality is an essential aspect of Christian spirituality. According to Rivera, the disciples, conscious of the mission that God had entrusted to her, accepted her “as a mother and a teacher in the spiritual life.” All leaders are therefore called to “remain with her and to be like her in light of the Incarnation and the Pascal mystery.”
The word “Akathist” means “unseated.” As such, worshipers stand during the entire chanting of the ancient Canticle’s stanzas, in order to express, in word and posture, their honor and reverence of the Virgin to whom the Church addresses its salutations. In the end, “all generations” are invited by Mary “to call her blessed,” (Luke 1:48) and to heed her summons throughout the ages to “do whatever He (Jesus) tells you” (John 2:5). This, in fact, summarizes the incarnational presence of the Theotokos and validates the vocational responsibilities of all authentic leaders who intimately know, and are devoutly interested, in manifesting the Word and Will of the “Good Shepherd.”