Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Generosity of Grace: Homily on Zacchaeus for the 15th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

               Nobody likes to pay taxes. The people of first-century Palestine were no different; however, the Jews of that time had additional reasons to dislike paying taxes, for their money went to support the Romans, pagan foreigners who occupied their land.  It was collected by their fellow Jews who had gone over to the other side, who were viewed as traitors because they worked for the enemy.
            If that were not bad enough, the tax-collectors were thieves, collecting more than was required so that they could live in luxury from the oppression of their neighbors.    Zacchaeus was apparently one of the worst offenders, for he was a chief tax collector and was very rich.   He was a short little man who, for reasons we do not know, wanted to see Jesus Christ.  He could not see over the crowd, so he climbed a sycamore tree in order to get a better view.  That must have been quite a sight:  the tiny little tax-collector (whom everyone hated) up in a tree so that he could see a passing rabbi.
            Even more shocking was the Lord’s response when He saw this man:  “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”  Jewish religious leaders would have nothing at all to do with people like Zacchaeus, but this Messiah was different.  He blessed Zacchaeus with His presence, and the tax-collector received the Lord joyfully in his home. 
            Of course, others noticed what was happening.  A man who presents Himself as the Messiah has gone to be a guest in the home of a notorious traitor and thief.  No self-respecting righteous Jew would ever do something like that.  He would be defiled by going into his house and eating with him.  But before Christ says anything in response to the critics, Zacchaeus repents.  He accepts the truth about himself, that he is a criminal exploiter of the needy.  He says that he will give half of what he owns to the poor and will restore four-fold what he stole from others.  He says that he will make right the wrongs he had committed. In that moment, this wretched man began to turn his life around.  Jesus Christ, as He always did and still does, accepts the sincere repentance of the sinner, proclaiming that salvation has come to this son of Abraham, for He came to seek and to save that which was lost.
            This memorable story demonstrates the generosity of our God.  To be generous is to give freely and abundantly; it is not to be stingy or reluctant to bless.  Zacchaeus did not even have to ask for the love, forgiveness, and mercy of the Lord.  All that he did was to climb a tree out of curiosity, but that was enough to begin to open himself to the overwhelming generosity of Christ.    
            The Savior did not shout words of condemnation to this man.  He did not judge him in any way.  Instead, He blessed him with His attention and care.  When others complained about what a sinner Zacchaeus was, the Lord did not join in the criticism, perhaps because this dishonest tax-collector already knew that he was a crook.  Instead, the Lord let Zachaeus respond in freedom to His generosity.  He let him open his heart and soul to a divine love that is beyond the mere observance of a law and knows no human limit.
            We can see that Zacchaeus got the point, for his response to Christ’s generosity transformed him.  The one who previously was greedy and selfish became a living icon of the abundant love of God, freely giving half of what he owned to the poor and restoring what he had stolen four-fold.  No one told him what to do; no one required him to take these actions.  No one had to because he had been transformed by the mercy, love, and gracious abundance of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.   He had received a generous blessing and then became a generous blessing to others.
            Zacchaeus stands as a wonderful example of repentance because he spontaneously and freely entered into the life of Christ.  His actions shine brightly with the love and holiness of the Lord, which is quite strange because only a few minutes ago we spoke of him as a notorious, hated sinner.  His amazing transformation reminds us that salvation is not a reward that we earn or a matter of what we deserve.  Instead, our faith is about the mercy and grace of a God Who wants to share His life with us, Who stops at nothing to bring us into the eternal communion of the Holy Trinity.  Sometimes it is those who have hit rock bottom, who know their own sins so well that they do not need to be reminded of them, who in their humility receive our Lord’s generous mercy so completely and fully that they become powerful living proof of what God can do for even the most wretched human being.   
            King David, guilty of murder and adultery, became a man after God’s own heart.  Saul the persecutor of Christians became St. Paul, the missionary to the Gentiles and author of so much of the New Testament.  Mary of Egypt was a truly wicked woman who fled to the desert in repentance and became a great saint.  Recall also the thief on the cross who asked the Savior to remember him in His kingdom.
            A harsh, stingy, judgmental god would not make saints of such people.  He would punish or destroy them.  The good news is that the true God does not relate to us on the basis of our accomplishments or virtue, but in terms of His unbounded love, mercy, and forgiveness.  Our salvation is a matter of receiving His generosity, of accepting His abundant blessing.  The miserable Zacchaeus did that and we can too.  But truly to receive Him is not simply to pray certain words or feel a certain way; neither is it simply a matter of coming to church services or following religious rules.
            The Lord’s boundless love must penetrate to the core of our being and become characteristic of our lives, if we are to share in His.  Love for God and for neighbor must shine through our actions and words and purify our thoughts.  If we have stolen and hoarded money, we must give it back generously.  If we have ignored or neglected others, must learn to love them as Christ has loved us.  If have thought only about ourselves, we must learn to love our neighbors as ourselves.   
            Yes, that is our repentance:  to become an open channel for God’s merciful generosity in this world.  He is the vine and we are the branches.  And since the Father gave His only-begotten Son for our salvation, there are no limits to the mercy and love we are called to embody.   We did not ask Christ to be born in a manger or baptized in the river Jordan for our salvation.  We did not ask Him to die on the cross, to rise again, or to ascend into heaven.  But He still did so, out of His unfathomable love for those who abandoned and betrayed Him.  The only proper response to this divine love is to be transformed by it as we become a living and breathing icon of the unlimited generosity that is the only hope of the world.
            The Savior has come to us all, as he did to Zacchaeus.  No matter what we have done or left undone, it is time to respond like he did, joyfully receiving  Christ and allowing our lives to be fulfilled by the generous mercy of the Lord, and then showing that same mercy for others.  Such true, sincere, humble repentance is the only way to the Kingdom of Heaven.  The point is not to wallow in guilt, but to move forward in holiness.  It is not to follow a legal code, but to enter into a blessed new life.     That is how salvation will come to our houses, for “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”      


Monday, January 19, 2015

Humility, Obedience, and Faith: A Homily on the Grateful Samaritan Leper for the 12th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

           I am sure that most of us take too many of our blessings for granted.  We get used to the comforts and conveniences of life and to the people with whom our lives are intertwined.  We compare ourselves with others who seem to have it better than we do, and we forget that all our blessings are God’s good gifts to us.  When we do not appreciate them, we become selfish and fall into the idolatry of thinking that satisfying our own immediate desires is the most important thing.
            Today’s gospel passage is a powerful reminder that those who are most grateful are sometimes those who have the least and who have suffered the most--perhaps because their struggles have helped them see what is really important in life.  Today we read that the Lord healed ten people with the dreaded disease of leprosy, but the only one who came back to thank Him for the life-changing miracle was a Samaritan.  Samaritans were hated by the Jews as religious and ethnic half-breeds who had mixed the worship of the true God with paganism.  Since lepers were also outcasts and considered so unclean that no one could get anywhere near them, this Samaritan leper surely had nothing going for him in that time and place.  But he alone returned to Christ to thank Him for this miracle and to give glory to God.
            Perhaps he was so thankful precisely because he knew who he was and how others viewed him.  He probably would never have thought that a Jewish messiah would help him in any way.  Perhaps he had learned time and again to expect little compassion and that he could take nothing for granted. He likely felt out of place walking with Jewish lepers to Jerusalem to show themselves to a priest at the temple.  But as he went along, he was healed.  And he alone took the time to return in order to thank the One who changed his life.   And then Christ said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”
            This man’s healing is a sign, a glimpse, of the fulfillment of the good news that we celebrated at Christmas and Epiphany and that is at the very heart of our faith.  The healing of the Samaritan leper from a terrible disease is an icon, an image, of our salvation, of our fulfillment and transformation in the God-Man Jesus Christ.  And of course, this great blessing extends to all who have put on the New Man in baptism, regardless of their nation, race, health, or standing in any society. 
            As the healing of the Samaritan leper shows, God’s mercy extends to everyone who truly responds to Jesus Christ with faith, repentance, and gratitude—no matter how miserable, wretched, or sickened we have become due to our own sins, those of others, or any other circumstances in life.  But in order to receive Christ’s healing of all the effects of sin and death in our lives, we have to put to death the diseases of soul that have taken root in us.  These are the ways of the old man, the ways of corruption that lead only to despair. They are a spiritual leprosy that distorts and disfigures us and those with whom we come in contact, and—if not healed—will make it impossible for us to participate in the blessed eternal life of the Lord. 
            The leper in the gospel is a model for all of us who struggle to embrace Christ’s healing, for all of us who wrestle with the ways of the old man.  The Samaritan joined with the other lepers in calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  In other words, he began with humility, openly acknowledging that he was sick, needed to be healed, and could not work his own cure.  He did try to fool himself into thinking that he was well and did not need healing because of what he could accomplish by his own power.  We should do the same thing in our prayers every day of our lives, confessing our sins and asking for the Lord’s forgiveness.  We should also acknowledge our weaknesses daily and pray for strength to resist temptation, to calm our passions, and to help us grow in holiness. 
            The struggle to live faithfully can certainly be frustrating at times, especially when we are aware that our sins isolate us from one another and even from our selves. The burdens of guilt and shame can literally separate us from others and make us feel as unclean and helpless as a Samaritan leper.  That is one of the reasons why the sacrament of Confession is such a blessing, such a source of strength in our journey to the new life in Christ.  In Confession we are reminded that we are not left alone to struggle with our sins, for the priest is an icon of the Lord, conveying His mercy and providing guidance for the healing of our souls.  If we want to be healed like the Samaritan leper who called out for mercy and then returned to give thanks, we will come to Confession regularly, naming our sins, especially those of which we are most ashamed and which threaten to destroy our relationships with the Lord and our neighbors.  We will kneel before Christ in humility, bare our souls, and be assured of His forgiveness, if we are truly honest and repentant.   Confession is a therapy for our healing, and a reminder that we are members of a Body united together in love and mercy. Christ says to each of us in Confession through the voice of a priest, “Arise, go your way.  Your faith has made you well.”  All who want to hear those blessed words from the Lord should come to Confession on a regular basis, and especially when they are aware of a grave sin in their lives.     
            The Samaritan is also an example for us in his obedience because he did what Christ told him to do, to head toward Jerusalem to show himself to the priests.   And as he was going, he was healed.  Here we have another powerful image of the Christian life, for we open our lives to the Lord’s healing by obeying Him, by actually keeping His commandments. 
            A drug dealer will not find honest work by continuing to sell heroin.  An alcoholic does not become sober by continuing to drink.  No one will experience victory over any sin in their lives if they simply give into it or make up excuses to justify their actions.  In other words, we all have to repent, to turn our lives around toward God in specific, practical ways.  We may fall flat on our faces a thousand times, but we must at least be inching along in the right direction.  The Samaritan was going toward Jerusalem in obedience to Christ’s command and we also must be on the path to a holier life through obedience, doing what we know we must do in order to live as those who have put on the New Man Jesus Christ in baptism.
            The reality is that we cannot expect to find healing for the corruptions of our souls if we do not obey the Lord.  If we do not pray at home and at church, practice fasting or other forms of self-denial, give to those in need, forgive those who have offended us, and keep a close watch on our thoughts and actions as we struggle mightily against our besetting sins, we put major roadblocks along our path to the healing of our souls.       No matter what we do, we will not heal ourselves any more than the leper did, but we must put ourselves in the place where we may receive the mercy of Christ.  That is always the place of humble obedience to His commandments.
            Finally, we learn from the Samaritan leper to be grateful for every step of progress, for every bit of strength we gain.  It was not simply walking toward Jerusalem that healed this man; it was the mercy of Christ. The leper certainly knew that, which is why he returned to the Lord to thank Him. 
            And what thanks should we offer God for our blessings, for life itself, for the promise of forgiveness, and the hope of salvation?   We give thanks by offering every aspect of our lives to Him and thus become epiphanies of His salvation in every word, thought, and deed.  For He is the Alpha and Omega Who created all reality out of nothing and on Whom our life is entirely dependent.  We have nothing and are nothing apart from His mercy, love, and grace.  Nothing fits in its proper place in our lives until it is offered to Him for blessing and fulfillment.  But everything is healed when—through humble repentance, obedience, and faith—we turn from the dark night of sin and toward the brilliant light of holiness.   

            So just as we offer bread and wine in the Liturgy, let us offer thanks to the Lord by living lives that are pleasing to Him, by living according to the New Man Jesus Christ, and killing the habits of death and darkness that can so easily destroy us and harm others.  For Christ was born and baptized in order to heal us and to bring us into the new life of His Kingdom.  He made a wretched Samaritan leper an icon of His salvation and He will do the same with us, despite our weakness and corruption, if we follow that man’s example of humility, obedience, and gratitude.  At the end of the day, that is a powerful reminder to take absolutely nothing in this life for granted and always to give thanks.  

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.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Christmas Truce of 1914: Learning About Peace from the Men in the Trenches of the Great War


          One hundred years ago this past December 24, many soldiers in the trenches of Western Europe started singing Christmas carols and stopped killing one another for at least a day.  Despite the different uniforms that they wore, they knew that the birthday of the Prince of Peace was no time to engage in gruesome slaughter.  Popular enthusiasm for a quick, decisive victory had given way by then to a stalemate that would continue for years,   take millions of lives, and sow the seeds of even worse conflicts.   The spontaneous Christmas truce was surely not in keeping with military discipline and did not happen again on such a large scale, but it has gone down in history as a sign that the way of Christ contradicts the ways of worldly powers.
            With the exception of the Ottoman Empire, the major players in the Great War were thought of as Christian nations, whether primarily Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox.  It was not their theological disagreements that led to the senseless conflict; nonetheless, their leaders did their best to use the faith to support their respective war efforts.   The late American entry into the war in 1917 had the flavor of a messianic crusade as a war to end all wars and to make the world safe for democracy. Wilson learned in France, however, that America’s allies had not fought for such high-minded ideals, as though any nation in any war—including the United States-- ever had.  It is one thing finally to take up arms after the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping, for example, but quite another to do so in order to usher in a western democratic millennium of peace.   One would hope that nations influenced by even mildly historic forms of Christianity would see the folly of secular salvation by warfare, but the crusading spirit apparently does not die easily.       
The Swiss Calvinist theologian Karl Barth was profoundly disillusioned when his German theological mentors supported the Kaiser’s war effort.  He saw the global conflagration as the end of the easy identification of God’s Kingdom with the advance of modern western culture.  Barth was among the first to recognize an even more perverse idolatry in the rise of the Nazis, whose heretical distortion of Christianity made pagan nationalism and racism their true lords in the aftermath of the Great War and its resolution at Versailles.  Before the collapse of imperial Germany, the Russian Revolution had led to a separate peace on the Eastern front and the rise of a bloodthirsty and godless Communist regime that made countless martyrs and confessors, eventually played a leading role in destroying the Nazis, and then enslaved Eastern Europe for decades. 
The Great War’s impact on the Middle East was no less profound, as the victorious European powers dismembered the Ottoman Empire, sometimes creating nations out of whole cloth.  If you have ever wondered why jihadist terrorists hate western influences, why certain Middle Eastern nation states have so much trouble holding together competing ethnic and religious groups, and why brutal dictators often seem fairly successful in that part of the world, the answers lie at least in part with the legacy that the outcome of World War I left that region.  Contradictory promises to Arabs and Zionists concerning Palestine are part of the story also, as is the West’s thirst for oil.  The Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides at the hands of the Turks, as well as many other humanitarian disasters, find their place in the trajectory of the Great War.   
The deadly conflicts of our time have their roots in the deadly conflicts of earlier times, which is nothing new. It is has been that way since Cain and Abel.  Nations and cultures often place these conflicts—and the sacrifices they require-- in the context of happy narratives about progress or virtue.  Yes, things can get relatively better in various ways due to the outcome of a war in this way as opposed to that.  While some people display the worst human qualities in these tragic situations, others display the very best.  However, our Lord’s teaching that those who live by the sword will die by the sword remains all too true.  And the sins of the parents are visited upon the children for many generations, as the resentment and vengeance sparked by past outrages—whether recent or ancient—bear witness to this day
We live in the tension between the heavenly peace that we celebrate in the Divine Liturgy and the broken, imperfect peace of a world in which we must also pray in the Liturgy for the tranquility and salvation of our civil authorities and armed forces. That is not because politicians and armies will ever save us, but because those who bear the spiritual burdens of sustaining a tolerable level of peace in the world as we know it especially need our prayers for guidance, healing, and mercy. The risks to the soul in these matters are great and the more realistic we are about them, the better.   We cannot undo World War I or any other historical event, but we can learn what not to do from its many bad examples and draw inspiration from the prophetic witness of the Christmas Truce of 1914. 
Had the Great War not sown the seeds of so many later conflicts, surely some other course of events would have done something similar.  But near the beginning of that paradigmatic catastrophe of this age, soldiers on different sides of the trenches paused to praise a King Whose peace is of a different kind than that of an uneasy armistice between powers exhausted from years of pointless slaughter that in turn sowed the seeds of countless other blood baths. In memory of the men in the trenches who broke out spontaneously in Christmas carols a hundred years ago, we must pray and work for ongoing epiphanies of Christ’s peace that provide ways to prevent mass slaughter in the name of ideologies of whatever kind, for even the best among them so easily become false gods that require unholy sacrifices from generation to generation.



Saturday, January 3, 2015

Prepare the Way of the Lord: Homily for the Sunday Before Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

2 Timothy 4:5-8
Mark 1:1-8
Today is the Sunday before the Feast of Theophany or Epiphany, when we will celebrate Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan and the revelation that He is truly the Son of God.  His divinity is manifest, is shown openly, when—at His baptism-- the voice of the Father declares “You are my beloved Son” and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove.  Epiphany shows us that Jesus Christ is not merely a great religious teacher or moral example.  He is truly God—a member of the Holy Trinity-- and His salvation permeates His entire creation, including the water of the river Jordan.  Through His and our baptism, we become participants in the holy mystery of salvation.    
Think for a moment how stunning these statements about Jesus Christ as God would be to those who knew Him before He began His public ministry.  St. Luke records that the Theotokos and St. Joseph were shocked to find the12-year-old Savior discussing the Law in the Temple in Jerusalem with the elders.  The witness of the angelic choirs, the visit of the wise men, and all the wonder of the events surrounding His birth were apparently forgotten or unknown by the disciples and the religious and political leaders of the day.  The gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke record these events, but do not tell us that they figured prominently during His earthly ministry.
Moreover, no one expected a Messiah who was both God and man.  The word “messiah” means “anointed one,” and most Jews were looking for a leader who would deliver them from Roman oppression and lead Israel to political power and independence.  Christ’s own disciples thought of Him in those terms until after His resurrection.  Even those closest to the Lord had great difficulty accepting that He was not an earthly king, the kind of Messiah they had grown up expecting.  How difficult it was for anyone to accept that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God, the incarnate second Person of the Holy Trinity, the divine Word Who spoke the universe into existence.    
Perhaps that is part of the reason that God sent a prophet to prepare the way, to begin opening the hearts and minds of the people for a coming Messiah Who did not fit their preconceived notions.  Of course, few people would be comfortable around St. John the Baptist and Forerunner.  He was a strict ascetic, living in the desert, eating bugs and honey, and wearing camel skin.  Like many of the Old Testament prophets before Him, St. John was outrageously bold.  In addition to his shocking appearance and lifestyle, his message was severe to the point of being insulting.  He proclaimed God’s truth and did not care who might be offended.  Instead of gently welcoming the Pharisees and Sadducees into his movement, St. John mocked them as a brood of vipers—a bunch of slimy snakes.  He told the rich to share with the poor, soldiers to stop abusing their authority, and tax collectors to stop stealing from the people.  He went beyond offending those powerful groups by criticizing the immorality of the royal family and lost his head as a result.
God began to shake up Israel with St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner of our Lord.  He began to open their eyes to a Messiah Whom they did not expect.  Gentle words from a respectable rabbi would not cut it; everyone had seen and heard that before.  They needed a call to repentance from a wild and holy man who was absolutely fearless in calling the people to repent, to change the direction they were going in relation to God and neighbor.  They were to make straight whatever crookedness there was in their lives.  They were to stop violating God’s requirements for how to live.  No one was to say, “But I am a child of Abraham or a religious leader or a well-respected person, so repentance is not for me.”  He called everyone to greater holiness, to serving God more faithfully than they had done before.
As we prepare for the Feast of Theophany, St. John’s message should ring loudly in our ears today, right here and now.  For even more than the Jews of old, we must bring our lives in line with God’s salvation in Jesus Christ because we have already received the fulfillment of the promise, the fullness of the blessing.  Having celebrated His birth as Orthodox Christians, we already know that our Savior is the Son of God.  The Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts and we are members of the Christ’s own Body, the Church.  Nonetheless, everyone single one of us has much room to grow in living according to the great truth that we have received, for our lives have not yet become perfect epiphanies of what Christ’s salvation means for human beings. 
It would be different if the Epiphany of Jesus Christ as the Son of God were merely an idea or concept to be grasped as an abstract truth, like a mathematical equation.  Perhaps then we could be satisfied with giving the correct doctrinal answer.  The spiritual life is not like that, however, because this feast calls us to be in right relationship with the One who unites humanity and divinity in Himself.    In order for our Lord’s epiphany is to occur in us, every dimension of who we are as we live and breathe in this world must be transformed by His divine glory.  His life must become ours.  Like an iron left in the fire, we are to participate in Him fully, sharing in a communion ultimately beyond words and radiating the glory of His divine salvation.  
The hard truth is that repentance is essential for opening ourselves to the life of Christ.   No, this calling is not to a self-righteous legalism that allegedly earns salvation or somehow impresses God.  We must do our part, however, cooperating with the great mercy of Christ, actively receiving and responding to Him in ways that make straight what is crooked in our lives.  Like those who first heard the Forerunner, we have  become too comfortable with life on our own terms, perhaps thinking that our religious, ethnic, or political heritage lets us off the hook as God’s favorites, as those who are respectable and decent and therefore do not have to worry about repentance.   “At least we are better than those groups we love to hate,” the Jews thought of the Gentiles and we might think of whomever we do not like.  St. John would have no patience with such foolishness, of course.  As he did to the Jews of the first century, he would tell us to wake up, abandon our excuses, and stop trying to turn God into an idol that pats us on the back and serves our agendas.  He would call us, instead, to become true icons of our Lord, to participate as fully as we can in the divine healing and transformation of Jesus Christ.  Those who have died to sin and been raised to new life in Him, those who have put on Christ in baptism, must live in a manner that manifests the holy union of God and humanity that our Savior embodies.  

So let us prepare for the great feast of Christ’s baptism by straightening the crooked areas of our lives.  Instead of finding ways to ignore the Forerunner, let us take his sobering message to heart.  For the Messiah is born and on His way to the Jordan where His divinity will be made clear.  But will we have the eyes to see His glory?  Will we be ready for Him?  There is only one way to prepare and that is to repent, to turn away from everything that hinders our full participation in the divine glory that He brings to all who bear His image and likeness and to the entire creation. That is what His baptism makes possible for us, but we must prepare by repentance in order to share personally in this great mystery of our salvation.