Sunday, January 13, 2013

Homily for the Sunday After Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

          You can learn a lot about the Orthodox faith by looking at icons.  For example, their gold backgrounds are signs of the glory of God.  Whenever we see an icon, an image of our salvation, we see an image of the brilliant light of the Kingdom and of what it means for a human being to be illumined by the divine glory.
            We need and welcome that light, for like the people of Galilee, we often find ourselves in darkness and shadows.  We usually do not have to look far at all in our own lives or the world in which we live for discouraging, painful, and fearful realities that can take the joy out of life and make us miserable.  That kind of existence can seem as black as midnight and as pointless as wandering around with our eyes closed. 
            The good news during this season of Epiphany is that the Son of God has brought the brilliant light of heaven into our darkened world.  His divinity is revealed, is made clear, immediately after His baptism when the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased” and the Holy
Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove.   The light of His divinity shines clearly from the dark waters of the Jordan.  He was lowered into the waters of baptism.  He was symbolically buried under them.  Thus, He entered into the corruption of His fallen creation.
And He did so in order to raise us from darkness to light, to illuminate us—and the entire universe—as an icon of His salvation.  Even as He rose up out of the waters, He raises us up from the futility and pain of spiritual blindness and death.   For we were not created for misery and despair, but in the image of God and with the calling to grow in His likeness.  But we follow in the way of Adam and Eve, choosing to live according to our own will, not God’s.  And as such we bring the entire creation down with us.  Instead of being priests who offer the world and ourselves to God for blessing, we have become self-centered consumers.  We devour ourselves and one another with our own addiction to our passions.  We do the same thing to our physical environment, obscuring the beauty of the world our Lord spoke into existence.
Had not the Son of God entered into our darkened world and corrupt life, had not His light dawned upon us and the entire creation through the waters of the Jordan, there would be no hope for us.  For by entering into our life and world, He makes it possible for us to share in His.  He descended into the lower parts of the earth to raise us up to the divine life.  As St. Paul writes, “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”  He brings a new heaven and a new earth, the fulfillment of the entire universe in the Kingdom of God.
This is all tremendously good news, but we must not fall prey to the temptation to make general statements that miss the practical, daily challenges of our life in the world.  For if Epiphany is merely a collection of religious services and pious statements, we will the point completely.  We are not called in this season simply to remember Christ’s baptism, but to participate personally in the salvation that He has brought to the world.  And that means, in St. Paul’s words, that we “all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” 
You see, our Lord’s divinity was revealed at His baptism and must also be revealed through us.  His divine glory has dawned upon a darkened world and must continue to shine brightly through our lives.  That’s what it means to grow into the stature of the fullness of Christ, to become perfect in Him, truly to know the Son of God.  Like an iron left in a fire glows red hot, we are to become living, breathing manifestations of the holiness, love, and mercy of our Lord.
But since we have been in darkness and shadow for so long, as has the rest of the creation, we should not be surprised that our fulfillment in Christ is a process, an infinite journey of creatures sharing in the life of the Creator.  That journey begins with our baptism, in which we put on Christ, but we err to think of baptism merely as one religious service that was completed long ago.  For the entire Christian life is a process of entering more fully into the death of Christ, of dying to our sins and passions so that we may rise and ascend with Him into the new life of the Kingdom.  This season of Epiphany, we should all examine our lives for areas where we have not yet put on Christ, for sinful habits or attitudes or actions which have not yet died.  Yes, we all still need to grow into our baptism.
We all still have dark shadows within us.  We should not be surprised or shocked by that.  Neither should we wallow in paralyzing guilt.  The light of Christ’s divinity does not shine brightly in order to kill us, but to bring us more fully into His life.  The point is not obsessive self-judgment, but to offer the weak, distorted dimensions of our lives to the Lord for healing, blessing, and transformation.
We are baptized into the Body of Christ, for He was baptized and later died, rose again, and ascended into Heaven as a whole, complete human being who is also God.  He did all these things with a body just like ours so that He could bring people—just like you and me—into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.
The Body of Christ also refers, of course, to the Church; and it is through baptism that we become members of His Body.  Not only was the Lord raised in the Body, He makes us part of His Body, He shares Himself and His life with us fully.  One of the symptoms of our sinfulness is our belief that we are isolated individuals, that true life and freedom are found on our own terms with us calling all the shots and letting no one constrain our freedom.  We pity people who are so self-centered that they cannot maintain meaningful relationships with others.  Human community takes many forms, but no one finds fulfillment in complete isolation.  That’s a recipe for misery.   
All the more is the truth about the Christian life.  If we want to grow into the full stature of Christ, if we want our lives to become epiphanies of the glory of God, we cannot do it by ourselves.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church embodies various ministries for the equipping of the saints, for the edifying of the body of Christ.  No one person possesses all those gifts, graces, and ministries.  If we want to die with Christ to our sins and ascend with Him into the new life of the Kingdom, we will do that in His Body, the Church, where we pray, repent, work, and serve together--and also learn to put up with one another’s weaknesses with patience, humility, and love.
So let us celebrate Epiphany this year by becoming more like the saints whose images we see in the icons.  They are illumined by the divine glory, for they have put on Christ without reservation.  They have left behind the dark shadows of sin and now radiate the brilliant light of the Kingdom.  And in doing so, they have become more fully and beautifully themselves, and found eternal life, peace, strength, and blessing.  We may do the same by joining our Lord in the Jordan, by dying to sin and death and corruption so that we may ascend with Him into brilliant light and unending joy of the Kingdom.
Let us live out our baptism, then, together as members of one another in our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ as we become epiphanies of His salvation.  For that is really the only way to celebrate this feast.    

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