|19 Sunday After Theophany, Jan 9, 2011|
The feasts of Christmas and Theophany are of the highest importance for what they reveal concerning the answer to the ancient riddle of the One and the many, or the real nature of reality, what the ancient philosophers called the “really real”. This is a question that has always been the chief concern of philosophy and science and of those who want to live responsibly, who don’t want to waste their life in idleness and lazy living but want to use their time on earth to find the answer to the riddle of our existence and what it means. And so, on the assumption that the Scriptures assigned for our reading on the Sunday after Theophany are illumining further the meaning of Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan, a kind of “Gospel koan” of the meaning of life, let’s look at this morning’s Scripture lessons very closely to see where a close exegesis of them takes us.
We read in our Gospel this morning that, after Jesus heard that JnBapt was “arrested”, He withdrew from Nazareth to “settle” in Caparnaum, in the regions of Zebulon and Naphtali. One might assume that Jesus withdraws from Nazareth to settle in Capernaum upon news of the arrest of JnBapt by Herod in order to get farther away from Herod, to avoid arrest Himself. But, we are not reading a newspaper or a historical biography of Jesus that records events; we’re reading the Gospel of Jesus that proclaims the Good News of salvation to the world “in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and so attain in His Name to eternal life.” And, St Matthew is not telling us this simply to report what Jesus did; for, he tells us that Jesus did this specifically to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. St Matthew means to say that it is this prophecy of Isaiah that explains why Jesus did what He did when He heard the news of St JnBapt’s arrest; which is to say that the move Jesus makes from Nazareth to Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulon and Naphtali in response to the arrest of St JnBapt is a “prophetic” move. It has a “theological” or a “hidden” spiritual meaning. Then, after quoting from the particular prophecy of Isaiah, St Matthew says: “Then Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at near.” St Matthew, I think, is telling us that we are to understand the meaning of Jesus’ preaching of repentance and of the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven in light of the message of the prophets, and in particular, this prophecy of Isaiah.
So, let’s look to this prophecy of Isaiah quoted by St Matthew to see what we can learn about the meaning of the things that Jesus did and preached – and therefore of what the Church does and preaches; for, the Church is the body of Christ and she does and preaches exactly what Jesus did; otherwise, she is not the “really real” Church.
This prophecy of Isaiah is given when Assyria, the new power of the Near East, was threatening to conquer Israel. Isaiah records how the king of northern Israel, which included Samaria and the regions of Zebulon and Naphtali where the cities of Nazareth and Capernaum are located, plotted with the king of Syria to go up against Judah and the city of Jerusalem. Here is an act of treachery and betrayal by the king of northern Israel plotting with a Gentile, a foreigner, the king of Syria, against the king of Judah. It is a betrayal of a brother, a son of Israel betraying a son of Israel, Ephraim betraying Judah.
This treacherous act of “Ephraim” against “Judah” may be the setting for the arrest of St JnBapt, when Jesus leaves Nazareth to settle in Capernaum; for, the word St Matthew uses that the English translates as “arrested” is a Greek word that also means “betrayal”. It is, in fact, the same word used of Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus.
That Jesus moves to Capernaum in the land of Zebulon and Naphtali – associated in Isaiah’s prophecy with the treachery of the northern kingdom of Israel against the southern kingdom of Israel or of Judah – when St John is arrested or “betrayed”, as “Judah” was betrayed by “Ephraim” in the time of Isaiah’s prophecy, makes me wonder if this act of Jesus is meant to point to His descent into hell, the place of ultimate darkness, the abode of the devil, the ultimate betrayer as a murderer and the father of lies from the beginning, who holds us captive through the fear of death. And, is it not through fear of death that we deal treacherously with each other, betraying each other in the hope that we will be spared while others perish, just as “Ephraim” did to “Judah”? We may not betray each other literally to death; but are we not tempted to betray others through gossip and insult, in the hope of saving our reputation at the expense of the reputation of our brother?
So, when Jesus withdraws from Nazareth and “settles” in Capernaum, He is not running away from Herod at all. Rather, He is going deeper into the darkness, in anticipation of His final victory on the Cross, when He will descend into hell to destroy evil and death and the devil who holds us captive – captive to gossip, to insults, to betrayal and treachery in so many different ways – through the fear of evil and the fear of death.
This prophetic background for the move Jesus makes from Nazareth to Capernaum illumines further the meaning of Christmas; for, it is from this same passage in Isaiah that we come upon another prophecy with which we are very familiar: “Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call His Name, Immanuel – God With Us.” “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given…” Against this prophetic background, the move Jesus makes from Nazareth to Capernaum would seem, therefore, to proclaim to those who have ears to hear that this Jesus is the Child spoken of by Isaiah. And if Jesus is the Child spoken of by Isaiah, then the “Kingdom” that He says is near in His preaching and teaching is His Kingdom, the Kingdom not of the earthly but of the heavenly Jerusalem, the Kingdom of the Son of David who is the Son of God, whose kingdom is established in righteousness and judgment, whose government will be great, for it will bring peace and health, and of His peace there will be no end. Moreover, Jesus, the divine Child-King spoken of by Isaiah, is proclaiming the coming of His Kingdom from Capernaum in the heart of Zebulon and Naphtali, the land of darkness, where He has “settled”, taken up His abode. Jesus, then, is the great light seen by those in the land of darkness; He is the light shining on those dwelling the land of the shadow of death. His light is the light of God’s righteousness and judgment that heals the bitterness of treachery and betrayal, that makes even the evil to be good by His goodness. Jesus’ call to repentance, then, sounded from the land of Zebulon and Naphtali, in the heart of the “country of the shadow of death and darkness”, goes out to those living in the darkness and dwelling in the land of the shadow of death. It goes out from the divine Child-King, the Son of David who is the Son of God, who Himself has “settled” in the land of darkness and dwells amidst those who sit in darkness. His call to repentance, then, must be understood as a call to come to the Light; i.e., to Jesus Himself because He is Himself the true Light that illumines everyone who comes into the world, the world of His Kingdom, which is a Kingdom of Light. This, then, is the answer to the riddle of life, of the one and the many. The riddle is answered not through philosophical inquiry or scientific research. It is answered through repentance in obedience to Him who is Himself the Light, who clothes Himself with Light as with a garment. We therefore attain to the answer to the riddle of life by walking in the Light as He is in the Light. And, when we keep His commandments and do as He tells us to do in His Holy Church, His body, the fullness of Him who is all in all, that is when we begin to walk no longer in the futility of our mind, in the darkness of our understanding, the wisdom of our own opinions. That is when we stop being alienated from the life of God, and when we are no longer alienated from the life of God, we withdraw from the ignorance that is in us, that is how we the eyes of our heart are healed of their blindness, and when the hardness of our heart begins to soften, as St Paul exhorts us in his epistle this morning. For, Christ is the Wisdom of God whom we begin to see, the One in whom all things were made and who is the Logos, the meaning, of all things. He is the love of God whose deeds and words are all epiphanies of His love and mercy. And in the light of His love, from the heart of our darkness, He calls us to communion with Him, to believe in Him by practicing obedience to His commandments that we might have eternal life in His Blessed Name. Amen.