From the Darkness of Pride to the Light of Holiness: Homily for the Sunday After the Theophany (Epiphany) of Christ in the Orthodox Church

 

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

          When we celebrated our Lord’s birth at Christmas, the humble and scandalous circumstances of His coming into the world became apparent. He was born in a cave to a family that lived under the oppression of Roman occupation.  They had to flee to Egypt at night as refugees in order to escape the murderous plot of a wicked king.  These circumstances reflect the unfathomable condescension of the Son of God in becoming a human person, for He entered fully into our world of corruption even to the point of public execution as a traitor and a blasphemer.

Perhaps He became one of us in such a lowly context in order to show that His salvation extends to the very depths of our brokenness and suffering.  At Theophany, we see something similar, for after His baptism, the Lord went to Galilee “so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—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.’”  There was such a strong Gentile influence in Galilee that it was thought of as a place of darkness.  St. Matthew tells us that this is the context in which Christ began His public ministry, calling people to “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

At the Savior’s baptism, the voice of the Father proclaimed “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased.”  (Matt. 3:17) The Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove.  His divine glory shined brightly from the murky waters of the Jordan, in which He was immersed.  He appeared openly as the God-Man Who alone is able to heal and restore corrupt humanity in the divine image and likeness.  He did so, not through a display of earthly glory and success, but by lowering Himself to endure the pains and risks of life so familiar to “the least of these.”

As St. Paul wrote, Christ was able to rise in glory and ascend to the heavens precisely because He had lowered Himself.  That is how he conquered the enslaving power of death and loosed us from its captivity.  It is not surprising, then, that the Savior’s divinity became manifest through His going down into the water, into the creation itself.  Through water, He preserved Noah and his family at the time of the great flood.  Through water, He delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.  Through water, He restores us to the dignity of those created to become like Him in holiness.  Because the Lord has sanctified the waters, we may put Him on like a garment in baptism, rising up with Him into eternal life.

Christian baptism is not merely a ritual of initiation into a religious community, but truly an entrance into Christ’s death. Baptism is how we participate in the Savior’s victory over the deadly power of sin through the Cross.  It is how we are reborn to participate in the life of the Kingdom.  We may not say, however, that simply because we have been baptized our journey of dying and rising has been completed.  No, it has only begun.  The Lord tells us to “be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) He enables us to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace. (2 Pet. 1:14) Since God is infinitely holy, we must never fall into the delusion that we have already attained the full healing of our souls, which is truly an eternal goal that transcends our life in this world. The greater our spiritual health, the more aware we will be of our ongoing need to enter more fully into the deep mystery of our baptism as we struggle to die to the corrupting power of sin and to ascend to a life of holiness.

We must be on guard against many temptations that would be keep us from doing so.  A common one is to become so discouraged about our apparent lack of progress in the Christian life that we simply give up.  The passions that have taken root in our souls do not find healing in an instant, and most of us struggle to repent of some version of the same sins time and time again.  When we resolve to turn away from them, we often stumble and feel like failures due to our hurt pride. We do not like facing the truth about our spiritual state. Some people quit pursuing the Christian life and withdraw from the life of the Church as a result. It is also possible simply to ignore the need for the ongoing healing of our souls by becoming willfully blind to our sins or rationalizing their unimportance.  That amounts to worshiping a false god in our own image who requires nothing that challenges our own preferences and inclinations.  This is an especially dangerous temptation because it is possible to imagine that we are being faithful Christians when, in reality, we are simply serving ourselves.

These temptations are rooted in the pride of making the faith all about us, not about dying and rising with Christ.  When our struggles reveal truths about the state of our souls that we do not like, we can give up in one way or another.  That can mean abandoning the life of discipleship or rationalizing doing whatever we want to do.  Regardless of the particulars, these are simply different forms of the same self-centered refusal to embrace the infinite journey of dying to the corrupting power of sin so that we may ascend with Christ in holiness.  They are ways of trying to be our own spiritual father or mother, of forgetting that we are members of a Body in which, as St. Paul wrote, there are different ministries “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.”

If we simply rely on ourselves for spiritual guidance as isolated individuals, we will not find the healing of our souls.  Contrary to popular opinion, true Christianity is not a “Jesus and me” religion focused on how we feel at the moment.  Instead, it requires sharing in the common life of the Body of the Lord Who was born, baptized, crucified, and resurrected for our salvation. The divine glory of the Savior is manifested to us in the life of the Church, where we receive every blessing necessary to become living epiphanies of His healing and restoration of the human person.  Instead of despairing when we see our own personal brokenness clearly, we must use that awareness to fuel our humility as we press forward in faithfulness as best we can. Instead of fooling ourselves that confession, repentance, and other basic spiritual disciplines are only for other people because we are already righteous or somehow otherwise excused from them, we must straightforwardly acknowledge how we have fallen short of our high calling and reorient our lives to the Lord.  That is how we will open ourselves to receive God’s grace and find strength for the healing of our souls.

We remain those who sit in darkness and have seen a great light, the light of the One Who entered fully into the black night of sin and death in this world of corruption in order to make us partakers of the glory of His heavenly kingdom. Through our ongoing struggle to die to sin and ascend in holiness, we must learn to see ourselves as the lowly people for whom the Savior has entered the world in a shocking and scandalous way.  Let us get over our pride and become living epiphanies of the salvation of the One Who was baptized by St. John the Forerunner in the Jordan.

 

 

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