Sunday, January 14, 2018

In Communion with Christ and One Another: Homily for the Leave-Taking of and the Sunday After Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 4:7-13; Matthew 4:12-17

It is certainly possible to have a letdown after the holiday season.  Though it has its own stresses, a time of year filled with parties, rich food, and visiting with loved ones appeals to most people, if only as a cultural observance. The same is surely true for those of us who celebrated the Savior’s birth at Christmas and His baptism at Theophany.  We enjoyed the beautiful services with their joyful hymns and familiar readings, as well as the blessing of the holy water.   As the season of Theophany concludes today, we may have a sense of loss that this special time of year is coming to a close.  That is understandable, but we will have missed the point entirely of this great feast if we think that we should now simply forget about it and get back to life as usual.
             Today’s gospel reading tells us what the Lord did after His baptism, at which it was revealed that He is the Son of God and a member of the Holy Trinity.  He went to “Galilee of the Gentiles,” an area where Jews lived in a culture with such strong Gentile influence that it was called a place of darkness.  The Lord went there in fulfillment of 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.”  Christ went there to begin preaching openly as He said “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
             The miraculous events that occurred at the Lord’s baptism were not ends in themselves, as though all had been completed when the voice of the Father declared “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove.  The truth about Him had been revealed, and the Savior blessed the waters and restored the entire creation when He lowered Himself into the Jordan for baptism by John.  Even with their cosmic significance, these extraordinary events were preparatory for the Lord’s public ministry.  They showed that He is the Light Who shines on those who live in darkness, who remain captive to the fear of death and blind to His divine glory.  In order for people to benefit from the revelation that He is truly the Son of God, they had to respond to His call for repentance.  Christ proclaimed the good news in order for them to be able to respond to Him with obedient faith.
             St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that the One Who ascended into heaven is the One of Who first “descended into the lower parts of the earth.”  The same Lord Who lowered Himself to Hades after His death then rose up in glory and ascended into heaven.  At His baptism, He also descended into the dark waters of the Jordan, into the physical creation itself which had been “subjected to futility” because of human sin. (Rom. 8:20)   The wages of sin is death, and the Savior took upon Himself the full consequences of our estrangement from God in order to conquer them and bring us into the holy joy for which He created us in the first place.
           After the Savior’s resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit, Who descended upon the Lord in the form of a dove at His baptism, fell upon upon His disciples as flames of fire upon their heads, enabling them to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and to minister boldly and prophetically in His Name.  Christ’s followers became the Church, His Body, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The point of this great blessing was not for them to rest content with their personal religious experience, but to strengthen all the members of the Body in their ministries “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.”  The Lord provided them with spiritual gifts in order to strengthen the Church in faithfulness as they drew the world to salvation, not for their own glorification.
            As we conclude the season of Theophany today, our focus should not be on regretting that we are back at work or school or that the beautiful trappings of the holiday season have come down.  It should also not be on how we have fulfilled a religious duty by focusing on the spiritual truth manifested at Christ’s baptism:  that He is truly the Son of God and member of the Holy Trinity.  Instead, our focus must be on becoming ever more brilliant epiphanies of the Light of Christ in our darkened world.  We do not do that as isolated individuals or on the basis simply of our emotions, our opinions, or even our morality.  No, we do that when we live our lives faithfully as members of Christ’s Body, the Church.  We must use our gifts “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” There is no other genuinely Christian way of life.  
             Contrary to popular opinion, the Christian life is a life in community, a shared existence, and an experience of communion with God and one another.   It is not something that can be pursued apart from the Church.  When we celebrate the revelation of the Holy Trinity, we proclaim that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons Who share a common divine nature.  “Father” and “Son” are relational terms, and it is through the Holy Spirit that we are brought by grace into intimate communion with the Lord.  As St. Paul taught the Galatians, the Father has adopted us through the Son, making us sons and heirs through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.  (Gal. 4:4-7)  Our calling is nothing less than to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  (2 Pet. 1:4)
          Should it be surprising, then, that growth in the Christian life is also relational and communal?  We share in the eternal life of our Lord, not as isolated individuals, but as members of Him and of one another.  That is why our common life must become an icon that images the eternal love of the Holy Trinity, if we are to grow in holiness.  Anything less falls terribly short of manifesting what we celebrate at Theophany.    
After His baptism, Christ called the people to repent and get ready for the coming of God’s Kingdom.  We must repent of thinking that we can serve Him faithfully apart from using our gifts, whatever they may be, for the edification of His Body, the Church.  God has given us different strengths and abilities, and we must offer ourselves to Him and to one another to build up His Body if we are to have any hope of attaining “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
Our calling is nothing less than to become an epiphany of the communion of divine love shared by the members of the Holy Trinity.  We have certainly not ascended into heaven, but we have died to sin in being baptized into the death of the One Who is now seated at the right hand of the Father. We have put Him on like a garment, being clothed in the robe of light.  We are Christ’s Bride, the Church, and He is the Bridegroom.  In receiving Communion, we become one flesh with Him through union with His Body and Blood.  We are also one flesh with one another, with all who commune with Him, for we are members of the same Body.     
So after celebrating Theophany, we simply cannot go back to life as usual.  In order to respond faithfully to the revelation of the Holy Trinity, our common life must shine with the light of God’s salvation in our darkened world. There is no other genuinely Christian form of witness, no other way to attain to “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” than to love and serve our Lord in one another. That is how the worship of the Trinity will be made manifest in the life of our parish. as we build up the Body of Christ.  That is how we will obey the Lord’s command:   “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”


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