15 - Sunday Before Theophany

2 Timothy 4:5-8

Mark 1:1-8

“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God” actually looks more like the title of Mark’s Gospel. If so, then the whole book of Mark is setting forth the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The beginning of Mark’s Gospel, then, comprehends this word of the prophet at the opening of Mark’s Gospel – “I send my Angel before your face…” – and the word of the Angel to the myrrh-bearing women: “He is risen, He is not here!” at the end of Mark’s Gospel.

Suddenly, the atmosphere of St Mark changes for me. I suddenly feel as though I am stepping onto sacred ground with Moses and am drawing near with him to the Burning Bush. I feel that I catch a brief whiff of that sacred dread that seizes JnBapt when He sees Jesus coming to be baptized by him at the Jordan such that he is not able, because of his fear, to baptize the Savior until the LORD commands him. For, consider: the One who is mightier than he – and he was the 2nd Elijah (cf. Mk 1:6 & 2 Kgs 1:8) and so he was greater even than Elijah; indeed, no one born of a woman is greater than JnBapt (Lk 7:28) – the One mightier even than JnBapt is no longer a prophetic word. He is here. He has come. He has appeared in the flesh, the Word of the prophets submitting to the prophet, to be baptized by Him when it is the prophet – not unlike Isaiah (Isa 6) – who needs to be baptized by Him.

From this, I suddenly see a striking parallel at the beginning and end of Mark’s Gospel. At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, the people of Judah and Jerusalem are “walking out” to the Jordan in the wilderness to be baptized with the baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins. They are surely in fear of God’s impending judgment that John, God’s “messenger” or “angel”, proclaims. At the end of Mark’s Gospel, the myrrh-bearing women come out to the LORD’s tomb. They see the Angel or Messenger of the LORD. They hear his word: “He is risen! He is not here!” and, they “flee”, they run, for trembling and ecstasy take hold of them. They are afraid, even in terror, (cf. Ex 23:27 & Mal 3:2) at the word of the Angel. Suddenly we see that John’s baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel opens onto the LORD’s Resurrection at the end of his Gospel. John’s, “He is coming! He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire!” (cf. Mt 3:11) directs us to a spiritual path that will take us to the angel’s, “He is risen! He is not here!”

John said that this One would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with unquenchable fire. (cf. Mt 3:11) Malachi said: “He is like a refiner’s fire. He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Mal 3:2-3). This is a baptism that does much more than simply forgive sins; it forgives as it cleanses. It is a purging that renews and heals. It penetrates all the way to the heart. For, “I will give you a new heart, and I will put within you a new spirit,” says Ezekiel (36:26). “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me,” was the prayer of King David, a murderer and adulterer. “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow!” (Ps 50:10 LXX) It is the prayer of the Church, said by the priest just before the gifts are consecrated and made to become the Body and Blood of the LORD Almighty; which, as we learn from the vision of Isaiah, is the cleansing Fire of the prophets’ preaching. It burns on the heavenly altar (Isa 6:1ff.), and in the Church, it now is given to the faithful to “touch their lips” as it touched the lips of Isaiah, (i.e., their heart since the lips are one with the heart in the biblical vision), “to take away all their sins, to remove all their iniquities.”

The LORD will say to His disciples: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled. I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained (pressed on all sides) until it is accomplished!” (Lk 12:49-50) The Savior is speaking of His death on the Cross.

This baptism of fire that the LORD baptizes us with, then, is His Cross. And so, the path that leads from JnBapt’s “He is coming who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” to the Angel’s, “He is risen! He is not here!” is the Path of the LORD to Golgotha – or rather, it is the LORD Himself, for He alone is the Way that leads to the Father. (Jn 14:6) He, then, is the Mighty One who “hides”, or should we say, becomes “incarnate” in the liturgical path of the Church that goes from the Cave of Bethlehem to Holy Pascha, that ascends from Eden that was opened in the Cave of Bethlehem to the Heavens that are opened at the Jordan. He is the Path the Church calls us to as she calls us today to come from Jerusalem and all Judea out into the wilderness and to the waters of the Jordan in repentance and in the confession of our sins.

In other words, the Church is calling us to turn away from the world and to make our way into our soul that has become like a desert (Ps 143:6) and to begin preparing ourselves for Great Lent whose sacred light already begins to glow above the horizon. Beloved, here in the desert of our soul is where we come upon the Way of the LORD that is the LORD. We begin now to get ready to take up our cross of prayer and fasting to follow the LORD, because as the Way of the LORD, He alone is able to bring us into our soul and penetrate all the way into the tomb of our heart, so that we can be cleansed in the waters of His Holy Spirit that He wants to pour out over us, and be purified with His Fire and refined as gold and silver.

Beloved faithful, listen closely: the waters of the Jordan open onto the waters of the soul. When we come to the Church on this Feast, we are coming to the Jordan; and, when we “do” this Feast, we are engaging directly the mystery of our soul. Now, on this Feast of Theophany, the Church reveals in the waters of the Jordan, that is, in the depths of our soul, two hidden paths. The one is of the “evil spoiler”; it is the path that leads to destruction. (FM 376) But, there is a deeper path. It is the “better and changeless path” (FM 377) that “ascends to God” (FM 378). It is the deeper path, so that in order to get to it, we must descend into our soul. But, we must descend with the LORD Almighty, for the “evil spoiler” is the prince of this world who is mightier than we are. He holds us in bondage to the spirit of disobedience in the power and the fear of death. If we try to descend into our soul without the LORD (i.e., by way of the many meditation techniques taught by the world), we will never break through to the deeper path. If you will, we will never break through the tomb of Lazarus to “come forth” into the LORD’s Tomb, the tomb of our heart where our soul lies dead in her sins and trespasses, and we will never come out onto the Angel’s: “He is risen! He is not here!”

And so, the Church tells us: “By descending into the waters,” – specifically, the waters of the Jordan, the waters of JnBapt’s baptism which was a very specific kind of baptism, viz., a Trinitarian baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins in the Name of the Mighty One who has come, Jesus Christ, Son of God, God With Us! – “By descending into these waters of the Jordan, we ascend to God!” (FM 383) For, into these waters of repentance and forgiveness of sins, the LORD most powerful has borne the creation down into the stream and has brought it to that deeper path, the better and changeless path that ascends to God, (FM 377 & 383) the Path that is the LORD Himself who has descended into hell and trampled down death by His death and granted life to those in the tombs.

Beloved, come to the Feast! Approach the gates that open onto the depths of your soul! But, let’s not come to the Feast as the Sadducees and Pharisees came to the Jordan. They came out to John’s Baptism, but they would not be baptized by him. They would not repent. Let’s not just come to the Feast; let’s come to the Feast in repentance. The better and changeless path that ascends to the heavens is before us. It is the blessed way of Great Lent. Let’s come to the Feast and begin now to prepare our mind and soul for the ascetic disciplines of the Cross, that we may descend with Christ into the tomb of our heart and hear the Angel say: “He is risen! He is not here!” Amen.