Sunday before the Theophany of Christ, January 3, 2016
2 Timothy 4:5-8; Mark 1:1-8
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
We are now just three days into 2016—the new year. It would be tempting, of course, to say that for Orthodox Christians, this is not the “real” new year, that the Church begins her new year on September 1. And that’s true in a technical sense, though the Church calendar itself doesn’t really change much as a result of coming to September 1. And that choice of September 1 is really just a reflection of an old civil custom that was adopted by the Church many centuries ago.
That said, living as we do in this civil society which has just changed all the dates to 2016 and shown all the big countdowns on television and in which some of us are no doubt still recovering from a few New Year’s Eve parties, we cannot but help feeling as though this is the new year, that this is a new beginning.
It is of beginnings that I wish to speak today.
Even if the Church’s calendar doesn’t seem to notice that this is a new year, there is still something very new that is happening in our imaginations as we place ourselves within the story of Jesus. The Church makes it a little complicated, since we are actually given two different beginnings to contemplate in quick succession with each other. So what are these beginnings?
Nine days ago, we celebrated the Nativity of Jesus Christ. On that day is born the pre-eternal God, begotten of His Father before all ages and now begotten of His mother in time, on an actual date in an actual year in an actual place. And His body—His own human body—is placed in that manger, a feeding trough for animals.
Although He had been conceived as a man, becoming incarnate nine months before, this was the beginning of His appearance on earth. The secret beginning which the Virgin had been hiding inside was now revealed openly in a cave in Bethlehem of Judea.
And we ponder for some forty days the mystery of His appearance on earth, celebrating it with two more feasts, the Feast of the Circumcision on the eighth day, which is celebrated on January 1, and the Meeting of Christ in the Temple of the fortieth day, celebrated on February 2.
But then, into the midst of that forty days of focus on the beginning of Christ’s appearance on earth, we also add another feast of beginnings, the feast we celebrate on January 6, Holy Theophany, the feast of the baptism of Jesus Christ.
This seems a little confusing. Why can’t we get all that birth-related stuff over with before we move on to the baptism? This mixes up the chronology. We see Jesus as a baby, born in Bethlehem, circumcised eight days later, then we see Him as a thirty year old man in the Jordan being baptized, then a few weeks later, we see Him as a baby again being dedicated in the Temple.
Of course, even on the Nativity feast itself, we actually celebrate two events that are some two years apart—the birth of Jesus Christ and the adoration of the Magi from the East, who visit Jesus in a house two years later, not in the cave where He was born. But then we jump back to the early days of His life to celebrate the Circumcision and later the Meeting in the Temple.
If you’re familiar with the patterns of Orthodox liturgical life, you know that this is nothing terribly unusual. We love to layer things on and create multiple overlaps of seasons and cycles. Today, for instance, even while we are still thinking about Christmas but beginning to sing about Theophany, we are also celebrating the resurrection because it’s a Sunday.
But the confluence of the Nativity with Theophany is not just happenstance of liturgical layering. It’s a fascinating bit of liturgical history that the Nativity and Theophany used to be celebrated together on January 6. It was one feast, a feast that commemorated in one sweeping event the coming of the Son of God to earth and the beginning of His ministry to the world. It was a feast of beginnings. They later were separated to become the two feasts we have today, but they were once the same feast.
It’s also worth noting here that, while Matthew and Luke begin their Gospels with the birth of Jesus, the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, which we have just heard read, starts with the appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness, preparing for the baptism of Jesus. So there is a resonance of these beginnings together in the Gospels, as well. All three of these Gospels begin, in one way or another, with the introduction of Jesus Christ to the world.
And then John’s Gospel starts before even creation itself, with the revelation that the Word of God—that is, God the Son—existed with the Father from before all time and was Himself God. It is, in a sense, a beginning before all beginnings, but a beginning that is not bound by time.
And all of that is a rather long way of saying that I do not mind that we have these feasts around the civil new year, even though it is not the Church’s new year. Why? Because we have beginnings on our minds. We are in the mood for something new.
So what will 2016 be for us? As we consider 2015, with its delights, its pain, its triumphs, its strangeness, its struggle, its catastrophe and its divine providence, where will we now go? What will 2016 be for me and my family?
I am not in the business of predicting the future, but I can say that in this time of beginnings, here are three things that I would like to begin in 2016, three resolutions. I will word these things in the first person, but perhaps they will apply to you. These three are especially important to me right now.
In this year, I will begin with a firm resolve to believe that my wife, my children, my family, my colleagues, my superiors and my fellow-parishioners are not “in the way” of my life. They are all given to me by God as “the way” for my life. I am being saved through them.
In this year, I will begin with a firm resolve to pray. Prayer is not just a duty. It is not a formal “requirement.” It is not just something I do at church or before a meal or even in a crisis moment. It is my ongoing life of being real before God. I will do it with my family, with you, with the Church, and I will do it alone. I will do it in speech, in song and in silence.
In this year, I will begin with a firm resolve to order my life by what is good, not by what feels good. I am often tempted to order my time by whatever coddles my exhaustion, whatever numbs my struggles or whatever gains me possessions or advantage. But my life has to be ordered with prayer, with fasting, and with reading that is good. From that interior structure flows my exterior interactions.
And in all these things, if perhaps sometime in the past, I already made that beginning, may this year be the year when I begin again, either to return to what I had lost or to begin a new and higher stage of growth.
In this time of beginnings, will you join me in these three resolutions? If we do not begin now to nurture our souls with God’s grace, when will we? If we do not resolve now to make this beginning, when will we? Faith in Jesus Christ, our identity as Christians, is not something that fits conveniently into a life which is otherwise defined by other pursuits—praying or going to church or reading spiritual things when I don’t have something else going on. No. True Christianity means living in this way, that the life in Christ is who we are. Everything else happens in between that and in service to that.
If we have to ask ourselves whether our Christianity is “good enough,” or especially if we actually say to ourselves that our Christianity is “good enough,” then we have missed the whole point. Good enough… for what? For getting into heaven rather than hell when we die? I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.
God isn’t in the business of selling tickets to heaven. Christ is the Knower of hearts. He is looking into your very heart, and He sees whether your heart is with Him or if it is somewhere else.
So let us resolve to make this beginning. He began all this Himself some two thousand years ago, making many beginnings all in the service of one, the beginning of our salvation, our healing from sin, corruption and death. So let us make this beginning.
To our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore, with His Father and Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.