Ephesians 4:7-13; Matthew 4:12-17
In this season we 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, both in the brokenness of our hearts and in our relationships with one another. 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 to 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 delivers us from the nakedness and vulnerability of slavery 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 their descendants, and the entire creation, fulfilling the glorious purposes for which He breathed life into us in the first place.
That does not mean, however, that the rest of our lives after baptism will be without pain, disease, death, and other grave challenges. In contrast with the divine glory of the appearance of our Lord, the darkness of sin becomes all the more apparent. Recall that, 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, death, and crushed hopes. 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 and establish a 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 very 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 wicked 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 shared with us by the New Adam. In order to do so, we must find healing for the passions that have taken root in our hearts and have distorted our relationships even with those we love most in this life. In how we treat everyone from those closest to us to complete strangers, we must reject the temptation to be controlled by pride, hatred, anger, resentment, or the desire to dominate others. It does not matter whether we are at home, work, school, or other settings, or whether we think we are in private or in public. If we have put on Christ in baptism, we must become living icons of Christ’s salvation and peace to all we encounter.
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 prayers for God’s healing mercy to come upon all people in all times and places, and the Church around the world makes these same petitions. We may not exclude any dimension of our lives or any person or group from these prayers. Our Lord’s Kingdom is not the possession of any nation, ethnic group, or other faction, but is open to all who respond to Him with faith, hope, and love. We must treat all our neighbors accordingly and never assume that any aspect of our lives is somehow separate from the calling to become radiant with the divine energies.
Instead, we must be on guard for all the ways in which we remain inhabitants of “the region and shadow of death.” That requires struggling each day to find healing for our passions so that we may become epiphanies of Christ’s peace even in relationships and other areas of life where we know we routinely fall short. Because the Savior has hallowed the water and the entire creation through His baptism, absolutely nothing is intrinsically evil or profane. No dimension of God’s good creation requires us to return to the nakedness of passion in any way. 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 each day, we must always strive to manifest our Lord’s healing of the human person in every thought, word, and deed.
If we are to discern how to fulfill our vocation to bear witness to our Lord in the midst of a world still enslaved to the fear of death, we must embrace the full meaning of our baptism. We must die to the power of sin and enter more fully into the life of our Lord. That requires constant vigilance against allowing self-centered desire to creep unnoticed into our hearts and distort our vision of ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. That 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 those we consider our enemies. That requires turning away from whatever fuels our passions so that we may build peaceable relationships even with those we find it hardest to love. As we celebrate Theophany in “the region and shadow of death,” let us focus mindfully on living each day as those who have died to sin and risen up into a life of holiness. That is how we may wear a garment of light and become living epiphanies of the salvation of the world.