Sunday, January 12, 2014

Light for Those in Darkness: The Good News of the Gospel on the Sunday after Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

             John the Baptist plays a very important role in the season of Epiphany, which we continue to celebrate, because it fell to him to baptize Jesus Christ.  Of course, John did not want to do so because he knew that he was unworthy to baptize the incarnate Son of God.  It should been the other way round.  But in humility, he did what the Lord told Him to do.  And it is in that context that the divinity of our Savior was revealed, as the voice of the Father proclaimed “This is my beloved Son” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove.  The Holy Trinity was revealed at Christ’s baptism, and surely even John, the Forerunner and Baptist, was amazed.
            But as we probably all remember, John the Baptist did not go on to a long and easy life.  He was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded by King Herod for criticizing the royal family’s immorality.   That’s noted in our gospel text, which refers to John’s arrest.  The gospel text also refers to light shining upon those who were in darkness.  Dungeons and torture chambers and tombs are dark places.  That’s where the man who baptized Jesus Christ ended up for his faithfulness in speaking the word of the Lord.
            Likewise, St. Paul reminds us that He who ascended into heaven, who was raised to the glory of sitting at the right hand of God Father, Jesus Christ, is also He who descended, Who entered fully into the dark waters of the Jordan and to the darkness of life in our fallen, corrupt world where sin and death are our all too familiar companions.   “Those who sat in darkness have seen a great light,” the glory of the eternal Son of God lowering Himself to become one of us at His birth and then to be symbolically buried in the waters of a river in order to make a way for us to enter into the eternal light of His life.
            In our culture, it’s common to think of religion as a coping mechanism, as a crutch that helps people deal with their problems.  Religion is like a commodity, something bought, sold, and marketed to meet the needs of particular people often when life is hard and harsh.  Those are understandable perspectives in a time where many believe in their own existence more than in God’s and in which too many of us think that the universe revolves around our own happiness, however we may define that.
            But the Good News of the Gospel is something entirely different.  Christ was not born and was not baptized merely to help us become a bit better adjusted or to give us what we want.  Instead, He came to make us like Him:  holy, blessed, and radiant with the glory of heaven.  Remember that we were created in the beginning in the image and likeness of God with the calling to become ever more like Him.  Jesus Christ is the Second Adam in Whom that calling is fulfilled and we are enabled to become truly and fully human, to grow into the full stature of Christ. And we do not pursue such a journey alone, for St. Paul teaches that we are to do so by building up the Body of Christ, the Church, by faithful stewardship of the gifts He has given us.
            I don’t know about you, but I am increasingly skeptical about the conventional means we hear about for solving the world’s problems.  Whether it’s government, business, or politics of whatever persuasion, whether it is what the scholars think or what popular culture produces in entertainment of the media, there is much more darkness than light, there is more despair than hope, there is more that gives rise to fear, worry, and hate than what inspires faith, hope, and love.
            Whether it is the persecution of Christians in Syria and Egypt, the sufferings of victims of war and poverty in Africa, the senseless violence that snuffs out crime victims in our nation, or the lack of love for the unborn, the starving, and the refugee, there is so much darkness in the world that needs the illumination of Jesus Christ, Who called His followers to be a city set on a hill whose good deeds cause others to glorify and give thanks to the Father in heaven.  In other words, we who claim to be in Christ must reflect His light to the world, must become points of light that point the way to the fulfillment and completion of this world as God’s good creation, as the very stuff of which the new heaven and new earth will be made.
            No, our faith is not here simply to reduce our stress or give us beautiful feelings.  It is not the icing on a cake that is otherwise pretty good by itself.  No, our faith is the way, the truth, and the life, the restoration of the high calling and dignity of every human being since Adam and Eve.  How God deals with those outside the Church is His business, but it is incumbent upon us on whom the light of Christ has shined to do all that we can to radiate that in the world, to manifest and reveal what it means for the blind to receive sight, for the sick to be healed, and for the dead to come to life.
            Of course, that may all sound a bit dramatic for us who do well just to come to church, to pray at home, and follow the most basic teachings of Orthodox Christianity.  But whether we are aware of it or not, the light of Christ shines in and through our lives whenever we put someone else’s interests before our own, whenever we help the poor and needy in Whom He is present, and whenever we play even the smallest and most obscure role in strengthening His Body, the Church.
            The truth is that every time that we spend a few minutes in prayer, every time that we read the Holy Scriptures, every time that we come to Church, and every time that we forgive someone or hold our tongue when we are tempted to speak with anger or self-righteous judgment, we become more truly the people we called to be in Jesus Christ.  Whenever we fast or go out of our way to help someone, we step more fully into the light that has dawned upon our darkened world.  Whenever we live like people who have truly dined at the Heavenly Banquet and are in personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we become living epiphanies or manifestations of the divine light. 
            The problem, of course, is that we are all too comfortable with the darkness and with adjusting our spiritual eyes to a cloudy world of sin and death.  We are masters at making excuses, letting ourselves off the hook, and thinking that God wants only an hour or two of our time on Sunday morning.  God isn’t like that, of course, because there are no limits to the divine blessedness and glory to which He calls us.  There are no boundaries to the blazing light that He wants to shine on and through us.  Nothing is off limits from His call to holiness, even as He held nothing back in His birth at Bethlehem or His baptism in the River Jordan.

            We do not have to flee to monasteries or become super pious in order to do that, of course.  Step by step, little by little, we just have to open the darkness in our lives to the Lord.  We can do that right here, right now, regardless of the outward circumstances of our lives.   He has descended into our corrupt life in order to bring us into His eternal glory.  He wants us to become epiphanies or manifestations of the light that shines even from the murky waters of the Jordan.  If, like John the Baptist, we will in humility obey Him as best we can, we can be sure that He will make up what is lacking.  He will illumine us and enable us to be part of that light that is the salvation of the world.  Of course, we are unworthy of such a blessing, which is why our life in Christ is all about mercy and grace which we receive through faith, love, and repentance.  By ourselves, we are as dark as the tomb; but in Christ, we will shine with the light of heaven.  That is the good news that we continue to celebrate in this season of Epiphany.    

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