(2 Timothy 4:5 – 8; Mark 1:1 – 8; Malachi 3:1-5, 4:2-6)
More than a century and a half ago, (Lord) Alfred Tennyson wrote words in memory of a friend’s passing, words that would be used among English speakers for decades as they mark the passage from one (Western) year to another:
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true….
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhyme,
But ring the fuller minstrel in….
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
His words, though written in Victorian England, pick up many of the themes that we see surrounding John the Baptist, the messenger of the covenant, the last of the Old Testament prophets, and the one who prepared the way for our Lord. He, too, spoke of a change in eras, of the need to exchange the false for the true, to deal with sin and coldness, to move from mourning to joy, to prepare the way for the coming Christ who would shine in the darkness of the land, and accomplish all so that we might become “valiant” and “free” humans, with enlarged hearts for God and for those around us. He longed for a movement from the old covenant to the new.
As we think of movement from old to new, it is always helpful for us to notice that Theophany comes on the heels of Nativity. This this year we are particularly reminded of this conjunction because of the co-incidence of the Leave-taking of Nativity and the Sunday before Theophany. Jesus, that babe who showed light and favor to the shepherds and the magi, in the baptism is shown to be the God-Man, the One who took on everything it is to be human so that we could share in His divine nature. The humility of the Babe in Mary’s arms and the Just Man under the Baptizer’s hand is the same; the astonishing taking on of our human condition is the same; the Light that shines in our darkness is the same.
This coming Sunday, the end of a secular year, we read again of the Forerunner, and are encouraged to prepare the way for the God-Man whom we know has already come into our world in an ineffably mysterious way, in the recesses of a cave, and among the poor. The evangelist Mark describes the actions of John as “the beginning of the gospel,” when we read his first eight verses:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8)
By the ministry of the Forerunner, we hear the encouraging words of Isaiah repeated. But we also hear words about preparation, and a challenge to baptism and repentance—a rather shocking invitation for Jews of the first century, who were already circumcised, and who associated such baptism only with the initiation of converts to Judaism! Yet they responded in Judea to this wild and ascetic prophet, and also heard him speak of new beginnings—the coming One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself (to the three who descend mount Tabor with Him after the Transfiguration) declares John’s startling actions and words to be a fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi. Malachi had promised a messenger like Elijah, one whose words would elicit repentance, and who would prepare the way of the LORD:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts…. For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings…Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 3:1-5, 4:2-6)
The prophet’s words, of course, were not fully understood until Jesus himself appeared. But there the prophecy stood, at the end of the Hebrew Bible, as a tantalizing hope for those who kept faith with God in faithless times. A remnant of them— people like Simeon and Anna, like the family of the Theotokos, and like John— cherished Moses and the prophets, waiting for God to act, knowing that he would rise as the sun of righteousness with healing for them. They longed for God to make himself known in such a way that His people would again be righteous—indeed, would be even more righteous than ever possible before, with their hearts completely remade. They delighted in the LORD, in His covenant and in His promises, and they knew that His holiness was unapproachable; yet He had promised to approach them.
And so, in a little Child, He does! In Mary’s arms, before the gaze of uneducated shepherds and educated magi, is nestled the hope of all the ages, the one who will purify them, so that they can present right offerings to God. In the arms of the circumcising priest at the Temple, and then in the arms of Simeon and Anna, lies the one who will enact both the fall and the rising of Israel, and bring light also to the Gentiles. Perfectly at one with God, He nonetheless is circumcised on the eight day (January first in our celebration), purified with his mother by an offering on the fortieth day, and plunged into the river by the one whose hand trembles, knowing that he is immersing the One who is all-pure, and the Source of his own purification! Yes, He appears suddenly in His Temple: in the cave-become-heaven where the Theotokos offers Him herself as a throne, in the Temple of Jerusalem where he submits to the circumcising knife, within the “temple” of His gathered repentant people flocking to John in the wilderness, and then deeply immersed in the waters of the Jordan which He has purifies, along with the rest of the cosmos.
Even the good things of the old era, including the witness of the faithful John, give way to this new One, who is yet the Oldest of All. As John cries out, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” And the ramifications of this coming of the Alpha and the Omega are impossible to fully fathom. Jesus himself speaks of the benefits of being in the new age (in which we blessedly participate) in this way:” Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mat 11:11). His words imply, of course, that we, participating in Christ’s own baptism, will no longer be merely born of women. No, as we were reminded by St. Paul last week, all of us, from least to greatest are now “sons of God,” and baptized into Christ! The new is rung in as the old has been rung out.
What, then, does all this mean. St. Paul, coming to the end of his earthly life, brings home the practical implications of this great change that has been brought about by Christ’s advent and immersion in our world. To Timothy he writes:
As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully. As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim 4:5-8)
Christ has appeared: but we also long for Him to come again, and are reminded of this great finale every week in our divine Liturgy. The righteousness promised by prophet Malachi, that we will “present right offerings” to the Lord, is promised yet again by the apostle Paul, who says that not only for him, but for “all who have longed for his appearing” there will be a crown of righteousness from the righteous LORD. This very assurance spurs us on to stay in the race, to continue the struggle against evil, knowing that our lives are themselves a libation, an offering to the LORD. We must keep alert with a joyful sobriety, carrying out the ministry that God has given to each of us, and to all of us together. Soon we will leave this feast time, and go back to the circle of feasts and fasts: a reminder that we live in a time where Christ has already come, but also has (in another sense) not yet come in fullness. Every day, and not just at this time, we must ring out the old and ring in the new: or as St. Paul puts it, “put off” the Old Adam, and “put on” the New. In another letter, he reminds us:
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Rom 13:11-14).
Yes, we know what time it is! It is the “time between.” Even as we delight in this time of rejoicing, this festive time, we know that all is not yet accomplished, and so our joy is matched with watching and discipline. Eternity has come into our time, and filled it up; yet we wait for the complete joining of heaven and earth when He comes to reign. And so the coming together of Theophany and Nativity reminds us forcibly of the vulnerable yet wonderful state in which we find ourselves, a state in which time has been redeemed and yet has not been completely fulfilled. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his poignant little book For the Life of the World, comments upon the paradoxical way that Christians must experience time, as they live in the world, and as they ascend into heaven in the Eucharist:
[T]wo complementary, yet absolutely essential, dimensions of time shape our life in time and, by giving time a new meaning, transform it into Christian time. This double experience is, indeed, to be applied to everything we do. We are always between morning and evening, between Sunday and Sunday, between Easter and Easter, between the two comings of Christ. The experience of time as end gives an absolute importance to whatever we do now, makes it final, decisive. The experience of time as beginning fills all our time with joy… It is when we have reached the very end of the world’s self-sufficiency that it begins again for us as the material of the sacrament that we are to fulfill in Christ. “There is no new thing under the sun.” Yet every day, every minute resounds now with the victorious affirmation: “Behold, I make all things new. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end….”
Let us then embrace the witness of Malachi, who anticipates God’s “sudden” coming, that of Mark, who declares the “beginning of the gospel,” and that of wise St. Paul, who encourages us to “know what time it is.” In joy we travel through the twelve days of Christmas, as we also look forward in repentance to the breathtaking baptism of our LORD in the Jordan for us, when worship of the Trinity was revealed. We ring out the old and ring in the new, putting off the old Man, putting on Christ, and looking to the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s way and will in our lives, and in this, His world.