Ephesians 5:8-19; Luke 18:35-43; Zephaniah 1:14-17; 3:9-20
Illumine our hearts, O Master Who lovest mankind, with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Thy gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto Thee. For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, Who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
In the seventh century B.C., the people of Judah and Israel were both in a bad way. Israel, the northern kingdom, had been plunged into the darkness of idolatry, with many of its inhabitants calling upon the name of the LORD, but worshipping him before idols, and including a whole slew of other pagan rites in their daily lives. Judah, the southern kingdom, was not much better, though it had the Temple as the center of its religious focus. It seems that the reading of the book of the Covenant had fallen out of fashion, for during his reign as a young king, Josiah’s priests found the book in the corners of the Temple, brought it to him, and he instituted a reform that had been needed for some time. One of the great prophetic voices that called out alongside the young king for purity and light was that of the prophet Zephaniah. His tiny book in the Old Testament speaks both of the doom that was awaiting those who refused to return to faithful worship, and of the hope for God’s people, and indeed for the whole world. Listen to the movement from judgment to hopefulness as we read first from chapter 1 and then move to the end of the final chapter:
The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast… A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.
I will bring distress on men, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the LORD. (Zep 1:14-17 RSV)
“Yea, at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering. On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD, those who are left in Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. For they shall pasture and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.”
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has cast out your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.
“I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.
Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together; yea, I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the LORD. (Zep 3:9-20 RSV)
The prophet does not shy away from plain speech: He has seen what the great nation of Assyria is capable of, and indeed knows that the LORD plans to chasten his people by means of these pagans, taking away the great men of the northern kingdom. The south would only just escape the clutches of these armies, who would come down, as the poet puts it, “like a wolf on the fold.” The Day of the LORD would not be a vindication for God’s people, but a judgment, a day of darkness, a day when “distressed” men would “walk like the blind”—with no idea of where they were going. And yet there was a further day that the prophet foresaw—a day when the LORD would “restore” their “fortunes before [their] eyes.” God’s people would become praised among all the peoples of the earth, and indeed God would turn all the broken languages into one pure voice of praise. The lame and the outcast would be gathered, and God would himself sing songs of gladness and praise over his people.
What a poignant picture that is—the one who is The Word, the one from whom all words and singing comes, would himself speak and sing in the midst of a dejected, exiled and frightened people. It is true, of course, that the exile of Judah, eventually accomplished under the Babylonians, did not last forever. They rebuilt the Temple, and came back to the land—some of them. But the true illumination, the true restoral, the true unification, was not to come until God himself visited his people, a Light shining in the darkness. Zephaniah’s great vision of joy, of a renewal “before the eyes” of the world, came to pass in the advent of our Lord, for which we are now preparing. We are the ones who can truly rejoice, for the LORD is in our midst, among us, in a way that Zephaniah and the Old Covenant people could not even have imagined.
We see the light at work in our Gospel reading for this Sunday.
As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging; and hearing a multitude going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” And he cried, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped, and commanded him to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me receive my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God. (Luke 18:35-19:1 RSV)
Here is one of the outcast of the world—a blind beggar. This man, though he even has to ask the crowds what is going on, utters something close to the most perfect prayer in the world, and will not cease until he gets an answer: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” He does not know the whole story, that Jesus is far more than the Messiah, the Son of David. And his concern was for his physical eyesight, not the whole of his darkened being. But his confidence in the Messiah is enough for Jesus, who calls him near, asks his request, and heals him of his immediate concern. NO doubt on receiving his physical sight he began to see spiritually as well, for we are told that he “followed Jesus, glorifying God!” No one who follows Jesus for very long remains in the shadows, but sees the truth more and more clearly. I suspect that before long, the newly illumined man was praying, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner:” following the LORD leads us to see him more clearly, and ourselves as well! An imperfect but sincere prayer makes a good starting point.
At this point in the year, we sing of the preparations that the world should have made to receive the God-Man. In this pre-feast, we sing,
“Make ready, O Bethlehem; for Eden hath been opened for all. Prepare, O Ephratha; for the Tree of Life hath blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin. For her womb did appear as a supernatural paradise, in which is planted the Divine Plant, whereof eating we shall live and not die as Adam. Verily, Christ shall be born, raising the image that fell of old.”
The song reminds us of how the life blossomed, and the light dawned in a cave. It reminds us of our fallen state, but of how there is now another tree of Life, so that we may be raised, and shine again with the image of God. This is not our doing–it is a sober and a joyful time, all bound up together.
The apostle Paul addresses us in this in-between time in which we find ourselves. In our epistle reading for this Sunday’s Divine Liturgy, he speaks pointedly about the light and the darkness, and about the importance of our decision, our continuing decision, to walk in the light, and to indeed care about, and discern, what is pleasing to God. No doubt we would like this to be automatic—after all, God has visited us, and changed the world, and so our living in the light should be a natural thing. But old habits die hard, and we need continually to be reminded of what we were, and of the One to whom we now belong:
Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it is said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, (Eph. 5:8-19 RSV)
Look at all the imperatives here: Walk! Take no part! Expose them! Awake, O sleeper! Arise! Look…how you walk! Make the most of the time! Do not be foolish! Understand! Don’t get Drunk! Be filled with the Spirit!
So many instructions….And yet these are interlaced with assurances and promises. There are promises about the “fruit of light”—what a lovely mixed metaphor. Light can produce FRUIT! There is the promise that “Christ shall give you light!” And there is the lovely scene attached to the concept of “being filled with the Spirit”—how we should converse with each other, praising God and making melody in our hearts! The instructions, then, are predicated upon what God has given, what he is doing among us, and what He plans to do. That light that is His is to be made ours. That understanding of His is to be put before our very eyes. That joy that is his, the song that he is said to have sung in the prophecy of Zephaniah, is to become our very own song of joy, as we enter into the melody that he himself has composed for us to sing.
We are looking forward to a feast of reunion, sustenance, singing, and light. May the candles that we light, the nativity lights that we see all around, the music that we hear, the prayers that we offer, all be for us signs of that greatest Light who came into the world, and who promised a new day, when we would need no created light—for He will be the source of Light to us in that great City, where all is festivity and joy. Zephaniah saw quite far to that day for his own erring and beleaguered people; but in the Spirit of Christ, and with the help of all the saints and fathers, and our loving Theotokos, who bore for us the Light in our darkness, we can see further still!