Ephesians 4:7-13; Matthew 4:12-17
Today we continue to celebrate the great feast of Theophany, of Christ’s baptism when the voice of the Father identified Him as the Son of God and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove. Epiphany reveals that the Savior Who appears from the waters of the Jordan to illumine our world of darkness is the God-Man, a Person of the Holy Trinity. He is baptized to restore us, and the creation itself, to the ancient glory for which we were created.
Tragically, our first parents turned away from their high calling and ushered in the realm of corruption that we know all too well. God gave Adam and Eve garments of skin when they left paradise after disregarding Him. Through their disobedience, they had become aware that they were naked and were cast into the world as we know it. Their nakedness showed that they had repudiated their vocation to become like God in holiness. Having stripped themselves of their original glory, they were reduced to mortal flesh and destined for slavery to their passions and the grave. Because of them, the creation itself was “subjected to futility…” (Rom. 8:20)
As we prepared for Theophany, we heard this hymn: “Make ready, O Zebulon, and prepare, O Nephtali, and you, River Jordan, cease your flow and receive with joy the Master coming to be baptized. And you, Adam, rejoice with the first mother, and hide not yourselves as you did of old in paradise; for having seen you naked, He appeared to clothe you with the first robe. Yea, Christ has appeared desiring to renew the whole creation.” If it seems strange to think of Christ being baptized in order to clothe Adam and Eve, remember St. Paul’s teaching that “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27) In baptism, Jesus Christ clothes us with a garment of light, restoring us to our original vocation to become like God in holiness. He saves us from the nakedness and vulnerability of being enslaved to our own passions and to the fear of the grave. Through His and our baptism, He makes us participants in His restoration and fulfillment of the human person. He is baptized in order to save Adam and Eve, all of their descendants, and the entire creation, fulfilling the glorious purposes for which He breathed life into us in the first place.
That certainly does not mean, however, that the rest of our lives after baptism will be perfect in every way without pain, disease, death, and other forms of brokenness. In the aftermath of Christ’s birth, Herod the Great had all the young boys in the region of Bethlehem murdered. Today’s gospel reading refers to the Forerunner’s arrest by Herod Antipas for prophetically denouncing the king’s immorality. After the one who baptized Him was arrested, the Lord went to “Galilee of the Gentiles” to begin His public ministry 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.’” (Matt. 4:15-16)
The Jews who suffered under the oppression of the Romans and their client kings knew all too well about darkness and death. Their homeland was controlled by foreigners who worshiped other gods and exploited the people. Understandably, the dominant expectation among the Jews was for a Messiah like King David to defeat their enemies militarily and establish a political reign of national righteousness. Jesus Christ, however, rejected the temptation to become an earthly king throughout His ministry, from His testing by Satan in the desert to His crucifixion. He repudiated the ultimately idolatrous attempt to identify the Kingdom of God with politics as usual, or even at its best, in our world of corruption. Even though the Savior did not seek earthly power, political rulers still viewed Him as such a threat that a king tried to kill him as a small child and the Roman Empire crucified Him at the request of corrupt religious leaders. He rose in glory over the very worst that those addicted to hatred of their enemies could do.
We are baptized into Christ’s death in order to rise up with Him into a life of holiness in which we regain the robe of light rejected by our first parents. In every aspect of our lives, we must become radiant with the divine glory given to us by the New Adam. In order to do so, we must find healing for the passions that so easily corrupt how people relate to and view one another. Instead of being motivated by hatred, anger, or a desire to dominate or get even with others, we must become living icons of Christ’s peace. Throughout the Divine Liturgy, we pray for the peace of the entire world, including “all civil authorities and our armed forces” and for “peaceful times that we, in their tranquility, may lead a calm and peaceful life in all reverence and godliness.” These are not prayers merely for the interests of our own nation, but for all people. Our Lord’s Kingdom is not the possession of any nation, ethnic group, or system of government, but stands in transcendent judgment upon them all.
In the violent insurrection in our nation’s Capitol on the very day of Theophany this past week, we beheld a shocking and vivid epiphany of the corruption of the first Adam that the Savior came to heal. In contrast to those who act according to the ways of “the region and shadow of death,” we must struggle to find healing for our passions so that we may become epiphanies of Christ’s peace even in relation to those whom the world tells us we should hate as our enemies. Because the Savior has hallowed the water and the entire creation through His baptism, we must never fall prey to the temptation of thinking that politics or anything else in this world is intrinsically profane. We must never accept that participating in any dimension of God’s good creation requires us to return to the nakedness of passion. Theophany reveals that we are always on holy ground and must speak, act, and think as those who wear a garment of light. Though we fall short of meeting the goal, we must always strive to relate to others in a way that manifests the peace of Christ.
That does not mean, of course, that there is some kind of perfect Christian politics, government, or economics in the world as we know it. The tension between God’s Kingdom and the kingdoms of the world remains. If we are to discern how to fulfill our vocation to bear witness to the peace of Christ in the midst of a world still enslaved to the fear of death, we must embrace the full meaning of our baptism. That requires an ongoing commitment to die to the power of sin in our lives and to enter more fully into the restoration of the human person that the Savior has brought to the world. Doing so requires constant vigilance against ways in which self-centered desire creeps unnoticed into our hearts and distorts our vision of ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. Doing so requires turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and treating others as we would have them treat us, especially when we think we are justified in responding in kind to our enemies. Doing so requires turning away from whatever fuels the passion of anger so that we may direct our energies toward repentance and building peaceable relationships even with those we are tempted to hate, fear, or disregard.
As we continue to celebrate Theophany in a world that remains in “the region and shadow of death,” let us focus mindfully on living each day as those who have died to sin and risen with our Lord to a life of holiness. That is how we may wear a garment of light and become living epiphanies of the salvation of the world.