Saturday, January 10, 2015

Putting on a Robe of Light: Homily for the Sunday After Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

             With all the focus on fashion and style in our culture, we may overlook the most obvious function of clothing:  to protect our bodies.  With the very cold weather we have had lately, most of us have probably been wearing the warmest clothing that we possess.  Unlike our family’s three well-fed cats who seem to have enough fat and fur to survive an ice age, we have to protect ourselves from the elements in order to survive.
            God gave Adam and Eve garments of skin when they left paradise after turning away from Him.  Through their disobedience, they had become aware that they were naked and were cast into the world as we know it.  The spiritual meaning of their nakedness was that they had repudiated their calling to be in the image and likeness of God.  Having stripped themselves of their original glory, they were reduced to mortal flesh and destined for slavery to their passions and the grave.   
            As we prepared for Theophany last Sunday, we heard this hymn:  “Make ready, O Zebulon, and prepare, O Nephtali, and you, River Jordan, cease your flow and receive with joy the Master coming to be baptized. And you, Adam, rejoice with the first mother, and hide not yourselves as you did of old in paradise; for having seen you naked, He appeared to clothe you with the first robe. Yea, Christ has appeared desiring to renew the whole creation.”   If it seems strange to think of Christ being baptized in order to clothe Adam and Eve—and the rest of us—remember St. Paul’s teaching that “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  In the Orthodox baptismal service, the priest puts a white garment on the newly baptized person immediately after he or she comes out of the water with the words “the servant of God is clothed with righteousness…”   Then the chanter sings “Grant to me the robe of light, O Most Merciful Christ our God, Who clothes Yourself with light as with a garment.”
            In baptism to this day, Jesus Christ clothes us with a garment of light, restoring us to our original vocation to be in the image and likeness of God.  He saves us from the nakedness of being reduced to mortality and the vulnerability of being enslaved to our own passions and those of others.  He is baptized in order to save Adam and Eve, all of their descendants, and the entire creation, fulfilling the glorious purposes for which He breathed life into us in the first place.   Through His and our baptism, He makes us participants in His divinized humanity.
It would be very nice, of course, if that meant that the rest of our lives after baptism would be perfect in every way without pain, disease, sin, or death.  Obviously, that is not the case.  Remember that, in the aftermath of Christ’s birth, the wicked Herod had all the young boys in the region of Bethlehem murdered out of his desire to kill the Savior.  Today’s gospel text begins with a reference to the arrest of St. John the Baptist for his bold prophetic denunciation of the sins of the royal family.  St. Matthew tells us that the Lord’s going to “Galilee of the Gentiles” to begin His public ministry fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that “’the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’” 
Those who suffered under the oppression of Herod and the Roman Empire knew all too well about darkness and death.  The countless victims of war, terrorism, and persecution in the Middle East, the Ukraine, and now even France, certainly do also.  We do as well, not only when we understandably worry about the problems of our world and nation or recall the loss of loved ones, but also when we acknowledge the truth about our own dark thoughts and desires, how our actions and failures to act have harmed others, and the many other ways in which we would often rather remain in the darkness than live as those who wear a robe of light.  When we do so, we prefer the ways of the old Adam to those of the New Adam.  We choose nakedness and weakness over divine glory and strength. 
St. John the Forerunner called people to repent in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.  Interestingly, Christ’s preaching after His baptism focused on repentance also:  “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  We usually get a bit nervous about repentance and may associate it with punishment.  Of course, it is really a very different undertaking, fundamentally positive in nature, of reorienting ourselves in light of the truth, of walking out of the darkness into the light, of leaving behind the sorrow and anxiety of naked vulnerability for the joy of being fully clothed as the sons and daughters of God.
Even as being fully clothed on a cold winter’s day warms the whole body, repentance concerns offering every dimension of our life to Christ for healing and transformation.  That is one of the reasons that we bless houses with holy water in the weeks following Theophany.  By being baptized in the Jordan, Christ made water holy by fulfilling its original intended purposes to give life, cleanse, and satisfy our deepest thirst.  Holy water manifests Christ’s blessing of the entire creation extending even to the small details of our daily lives.  In light of our Lord’s baptism, we are always on holy ground; now nothing is intrinsically profane, evil, or cut off from God.  All reality is called to shine forth with holiness.
 Our challenge, then, is to play our role in showing forth the holiness of our bodies, our words, our relationships, our actions, and every aspect of the creation for which we are responsible.  Christ calls each and every one of us uniquely to offer ourselves to Him and to play our distinctive roles in fulfilling His purposes in the world.  In other words, we already participate by baptism in the divinized humanity of Jesus Christ.   We wear the garment of light that He has given us, but at the end of the day each of us must actually do the work of wearing it; each of us must actually turn away from sneaking around naked in the garden like Adam and embrace the glory of our salvation personally and intentionally.  That is what repentance is all about, and no one else can do that for us. 

Epiphany is a great feast of our salvation in Jesus Christ.  The eternal Son of God has made a way for us to participate in His divine glory by humbling Himself to be baptized the waters of the Jordan.  He does so to save Adam and Eve, all their descendants, and the entire creation.  He clothes us in a garment of light to cover our nakedness, which had reduced us to slavery to our mortal flesh in a world of death and decay.   Even as we eagerly turn away from freezing when we put on warm clothing, let us joyfully celebrate our Lord’s baptism by remembering that He has already clothed and restored us to our ancient dignity in His image and likeness.  Let us drink and sprinkle holy water as a sign that we must play our unique roles in making every dimension of our lives an icon of God’s holiness.  In other words, let us behave each day as those who have put on Christ.  Let us shine with the great glory that He has given us both through His birth and His baptism. There is no better way to bear witness that the prophecy really has been fulfilled:  “[T]he people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

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