Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Creation Fulfilled and Restored: Homily for the Sunday After Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians. 4:7-13; Matthew 4:12-17
Some people think of religion as a way of escaping the problems of life in the “real world.” They may view our physical bodies and their weaknesses, as well as all the problems that people and societies have in relating to one another, as evil or pointless realities from which they hope God will deliver us.  Perhaps they want an imaginary spiritual bliss of not having to put up with others or with the other challenges that life in the created world presents.  That hope may fit with the sensibilities of some and even be appealing to us at times, but it has nothing to do with the God Who revealed Himself as the Holy Trinity when Christ was baptized by St. John in the Jordan for our salvation.  
            Think for a moment about how the Holy Trinity is manifested.  Jesus Christ submits to the baptism of St. John the Forerunner in a river full of water.  When the Lord comes out of the water, the voice of the Father identifies Him as His Beloved Son and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove.  Instead of escaping the creation or rescuing us from it, God enters into it.  The Son lowers Himself into a river and gets as wet as anyone else who did so.    The deepest mystery of the universe, that God is the Holy Trinity, is proclaimed in relation to what happened in a river full of water.
            The Savior was not baptized as a sign of His own repentance, of course, for He had no sins of which to repent.  Instead, He makes the water holy by entering into it, by restoring the entire creation to its right relationship with God.  As the God-Man, He descended into the world that He spoke into existence in order to free it from subjection to futility and fulfill it as an icon of His salvation.
We, of course, are part of that creation in every dimension of our existence, both as particular persons and in relation to one another.  Recall the nakedness of Adam and Eve when they turned away from God, for they stripped themselves of the divine glory by repudiating their calling to become ever more like God in holiness.  They diminished themselves and the entire creation by serving their self-centered desires instead of the Lord.  They brought death and slavery to our passions into the world, which we see so vividly when their son Cain murdered their son Abel.    
Our Savior entered fully into our distorted world of brokenness and pain in order to set it right.  He was baptized in the Jordan in order to clothe the naked Adam, in order to restore us to the dignity of those who wear the robe of light of His beloved sons and daughters.  We put Him on in baptism like a garment.  By His mercy and grace, we participate personally in His healing and blessing of every aspect of our humanity.  He does not call us to flee from His world, but to be so united with Him in holiness that we play our unique parts in fulfilling His gracious purposes for it.  He invites us to become like Him as partakers in the divine nature by grace.  That is really simply what it means to be a human being in the divine image and likeness.
I hope that you will sign up today for a time to have your house blessed, which is a standard Orthodox practice at Theophany.  We bless houses with holy water, which was blessed at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy on the day of the feast. By entering into the water, the Lord made the water holy, which means that He restored and fulfilled its very nature.  We need water in order to live.  The earth needs water in order to become fertile, bearing fruit and giving life to animals of all kinds.  We wash with water and use it to maintain cleanliness and health.  Without water, we become weak and die, as do other creatures.  And in the world as we know it, water can kill us through floods and storms. Since the creation has been subjected to futility through the sin of human beings, the very water through which God gives us life may become the means of our death.
    The good news is that our Lord has made even death an entrance into life.  When we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into His death.  When we put Him on in baptism, we died to sin and rose with Him in holiness, regaining the robe of light and being restored to our intended place in the creation in God’s image and likeness. When we bless holy water, we restore water to its intended place, to its original role in giving life and cleansing impurities.  These are fulfilled in baptism, by which the Lord shares His eternal life with us and washes away our corruption. Here we see the purpose of water, and the creation itself, fulfilled.
 When we bless a home, or anything else, with holy water, God restores it to its natural state, to its place in fulfilling God’s purposes in the creation.  And since our homes are where we and our families live each day, how could we not want that blessing on our marriages, our children, and the physical space where we offer our lives to the Lord?  When we bless our homes, we join what is most important to us to Christ’s healing and restoration of the entire universe. We make our daily lives a liturgy, an entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
We cannot stop there, however, for we must actually live as those who have put on a robe of light, who have entered into the fulfillment of all things in Christ.  We must make our marriages, families, and daily interactions with others an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s gracious purposes.  We must become icons of the Holy Trinity as particular people united in holy love with others. 
As St. Paul taught in today’s epistle lesson, “And His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  Christ blesses us, not as isolated individuals, but as members of His Body for the blessing of all our fellow members and ultimately for the entire world.  We become truly human together in Him. 

We will not find salvation in isolation, but as persons united in holy love who share a common life in Christ.  As those created in His image and likeness, that is our natural state.  It is revealed at Christ’s baptism that He is the Son of the Father.  That is a relationship of holy love beyond our full understanding.  To be in loving relationship with others is a key dimension of what it means to be a human being in the divine image and likeness.  When we bless our homes, we find strength to make our marriages and families icons of the fulfillment of God’s gracious purposes. That is only a start, however, as we must intentionally turn away from darkness in all its forms in order to become radiant with the light of Christ.  In other words, we must repent. That is ultimately how to celebrate this great feast, by offering every dimension of our lives to the Lord such that we become living epiphanies of His salvation in the world as we know it.  The point is not to escape the world, but to become icons of its fulfillment. 

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