Preparing for Christ’s Baptism by Repentance: Homily for the Forefeast of and the Sunday Before the Theophany (Epiphany) of Christ in the Orthodox Church

2 Timothy 4:5-8; Mark 1:1-8

          Today is the Sunday before the Feast of Theophany (or Epiphany), when we celebrate Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan and the revelation that He is truly the Son of God.  His divinity is made manifest and openly displayed at His baptism when the voice of the Father declares, “You are my beloved Son” and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove.  Theophany shows us that Jesus Christ, who was born in the flesh for our salvation at Christmas, is not merely a great religious teacher or moral example.  He is truly God—a member of the Holy Trinity– and His salvation permeates His entire creation, including the water of the river Jordan.  Through Christ’s and our baptism, we become participants in the holy mystery of our salvation, for He restores to us the robe of light which our first parents lost when they chose pride and self-centeredness over obedience and communion.  He enters the Jordan to restore Adam and Eve, and all their children, to the dignity of those who bear the image and likeness of God.

At the time of His earthly ministry, however, people were looking for a very different kind of Savior.  The word “messiah” means “anointed one,” and the Jews wanted a leader who would deliver their nation from Roman oppression, not unlike how any people living under foreign rule typically want their liberation and independence.  Christ’s own disciples thought of Him in those terms until after His resurrection, for even those closest to the Lord had great difficulty accepting that He was not the earthly king they had expected.  They were so focused on how Jesus Christ might fulfill their dreams for power in this world that they were blind to His true identity as the Son of God, the incarnate second Person of the Holy Trinity, the divine Word Who spoke the universe into existence.

In order to prepare the way of a Messiah Who did not fit popular preconceived notions, God sent a very bold prophet.  Many people were surely not comfortable around St. John the Baptist and Forerunner, for he was a strict ascetic, living in the desert, eating only locusts and honey, and wearing camel skin.  Like many of the Old Testament prophets before him, John did not serve anyone’s worldly agenda.  In addition to his stark appearance and lifestyle, his message was severe to the point of being insulting.  He proclaimed God’s truth and did not care who might be offended, perhaps because harsh words were necessary to open people’s eyes to where they stood before God.   John mocked the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a brood of vipers—a bunch of slimy snakes.  He told the rich to share with the poor, soldiers to stop abusing their authority, and tax collectors to stop stealing from the people.  He let no one off the hook, fearlessly proclaimed God’s word even to those who had the power to destroy him, and ultimately lost his head for criticizing the immorality of the royal family.

God shook up Israel with John the Baptist, the Forerunner of our Lord, who began to open their eyes to a Messiah Whom they did not expect.  They needed a call to repentance from a wild and holy man who served none of the petty kingdoms or factions of this world, but instead called everyone to repent by changing the direction of their lives in relation to God and neighbor.  They were to make straight whatever crookedness was in them.   They were to abandon hypocritical and self-serving distortions of God’s Law.  No one was to say, “But I am a child of Abraham or a religious leader or a well-respected person, so repentance is not for me.”  No one was to point to the offenses of others as a distraction from reorienting their lives toward God.  The Forerunner called everyone straightforwardly to greater holiness in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, Who is truly the God-Man.

As we prepare for the Feast of Theophany, we must recognize that John’s message applies to each of us today.   If we have put on Christ in baptism, we must conform our character to His because we have already received the robe of light.  Having celebrated His birth as Orthodox Christians, we already proclaim that our Savior is not merely one of many insightful teachers or inspiring examples, but truly the Son of God.  In Him, we are “partakers of the divine nature” by grace as members of His Body, the Church.  The more that we share in His life, the more clearly we will see how infinitely much more room we have for growth in embracing the healing of our souls because none of us has become a perfect epiphany of what Christ’s salvation means for those who bear the divine image and likeness.

It would be different if the Epiphany of Jesus Christ as the Son of God were merely an idea to be grasped as an abstract truth. It would be different if Theophany were a calling to put down those we deem our enemies or to achieve some conventional personal or political goal.  This feast is nothing like that, however, for it calls us to enter into the great mystery of our salvation by becoming radiant with the divine glory that the Savior has shared with us.  We must no longer live as those driven by obsessive insecurities rooted in the fear of death, but as those clothed with a robe of light and enabled to shine like an iron left in the fire of holiness.

In order to share more fully in the eternal life of the God-Man, we must follow the path of ongoing repentance proclaimed by John, always seeing ourselves as those who must prepare the way of the Lord in our lives.  That means that we must persist in cooperating with Christ’s healing mercy, actively making straight whatever remains crooked.  Like those who first heard the Forerunner, we have become too comfortable with life on our own terms, perhaps thinking that we are somehow God’s favorites and that repentance is for someone else, likely for particular people or members of groups upon whom we like to look down.  John would surely correct us for that quickly and in no uncertain terms.  As he did to the Jews of the first century, he would tell us to stop trying to turn God into an idol who serves our agendas for gaining whatever we happen to want in this world.  He would call us, instead, to become true icons of our Lord, sharing as fully as we can in the divine healing and transformation made possible for us in Jesus Christ.

Those who have put on Christ in baptism and who receive the Communion of His Body and Blood must become epiphanies of His fulfillment of the human person in God’s image and likeness. As we prepare to celebrate Theophany, let us gain the spiritual clarity to behold the glory of Christ’s baptism by straightening the crooked areas of our lives.  Instead of finding ways to ignore the preaching of the Forerunner, let us take his sobering message to heart as we confess and repent of our sins and reorient ourselves to our Lord and His Kingdom.  The Messiah is born and is on His way to the Jordan where His divinity will shine forth.  Will we have the eyes to behold His glory?  Will we be ready for Him?  There is only one way to prepare:  namely, to repent as we turn away from all that hinders us from shining brightly with the divine glory manifest in Him. Nothing can keep us from doing so other than our own stubborn refusal to prepare the way of the Lord by making His paths straight in our own lives.  That is truly the only way to enter into the great joy of the Feast of Theophany.

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