17 The Sunday Before Theophany - December 31, 2006

Galatians 1:11-19

Matthew 2:13-23

We are now in the liturgical season that we call the Winter Pascha. Pascha means a ‘passing over’, a transition, a change. With the birth of Christ, the shadow of the Law has passed and Grace has come. With the “yes” of the Theotokos, the clouds that blocked the sun have parted and Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, appears on the earth as a little child. The Sun of Righteousness clothes himself with our human substance as with a garment, and makes it radiant with the light of his divinity.

On the eighth day the Sun of Righteousness submits to circumcision. Circumcision of all male children on the eighth day was the rite ordained by God by which Abraham and all his descendants entered into covenant with God to become his chosen people, his elect nation. Circumcision reminded the faithful of Israel that they owed their life to the power of God, for it was God who made Abraham and Sarah able to conceive and give birth to Isaac, from whom all of Israel was descended, when they were as good as dead; for Sarah was old and past the age of childbearing. Christ, the Son of God born of the Virgin as Isaiah the prophet had foretold, is circumcised on the eighth day and reveals the inner meaning of this rite. It is a prophetic witness to his resurrection. Circumcision, the cutting off of the foreskin, is a prophetic witness to the cutting off of the old man and the raising up of the new man on the eighth day, the day of Christ’s holy resurrection. On the eighth day of his birth, Christ God, the Second Adam, joins himself to the covenant he himself ordained; and the shadow of the Law passes away for it receives the Sun of Righteousness and it is now fully illumined from within by the divine light of his divinity.

In another week, we come to the Feast of Theophany. Christ God, the Sun of Righteousness, will descend into the waters of the Jordan as into the primordial waters of creation. He will cleanse the waters by his descent and make creation holy again. The dark spirits that lurked in the waters of creation since the fall of man he will chase away by his Word as he did in the beginning; and, standing in the Jordan, he will clothe himself with the creation he himself made and he will make it radiant from within with the light of his divinity.

On February 2, we will celebrate his presentation in the temple. The priest Simeon, who is old and near death, will receive him into his arms as the Light that enlightens the Gentiles, the glory of the people of Israel. Here, we see an image of the old man, Adam, who is dead in his trespasses, receiving into his arms the uncreated light and life of the new man, the Second Adam, Christ God. The Sun of Righteousness, the radiance and life of God, clothes himself with the death of the old man and suddenly the darkness and shadow of death is radiant with the light and life of Christ’s divinity. The OT temple, whose sanctuary was an image of Paradise (St Ephrem the Syrian) and a type of the Blessed Virgin’s womb, receives the uncreated seed of the Tree of Life. All who will are invited to come and to partake of its fruit that they might themselves become clothed with the light and life of Christ God’s divinity.

These are the feasts of the Winter Pascha. You can see from the symbology of these feasts that the Winter Pascha is a liturgical season of great joy. It proclaims that God the Word has come into the world and has united himself to it so that he can be received by all who have awaited his appearing in faithfulness and love. It announces to the faithful where they should come to receive the incarnate God. “We have found joy in secret,” the Church of the faithful sings. We will find Christ God in the secrecy of the cave, in our heart, where our treasure is; we will find him hidden in the waters of creation, in the moments of our everyday life; we will find him in the temple in the arms of the righteous Simeon, in the privacy of our inner life devoted in humility and meekness to the observance of Christ’s commandments by which the old man in us is put to death and we are reshaped from within into the image and likeness of the new man that is in Christ Jesus.

In this morning’s Gospel, we read of Joseph being warned by an angel to take the Christ Child and his mother into Egypt because Herod was seeking to destroy the child. Egypt is taken as a symbol of the world, made dark and lifeless and lonely by human greed and lust. When St Matthew describes the holy family descending into Egypt, he is setting before us an evangelical icon that has many layers of theological meaning.

On one level, it is an icon of Christ God, the Sun of Righteousness, descending into the darkness of this world and filling it with the light of his divinity. On another level, it is an icon of Christ recapitulating in his own earthly life the whole history of Israel. Like Abraham, the father of Israel, he journeys down into Egypt with his family. Like the Israelites in their Exodus under Moses, he then journeys from Egypt to return to Palestine, the “Promised Land”; and, like the Israelites under Joshua, who led them into the Promised Land through the waters of the Jordan, he settles with Joseph and his Virgin mother in Palestine in the city of Nazareth. In his very Person and in the ‘history’ of his Incarnation, God becomes one with the history of Israel and unites her earthly life with his own divine life.

On yet another level, one can see the holy family’s journey to Egypt and then back to Palestine after the death of Herod as an image of Christ God’s descent into hell, his gutting of the evil one, his destruction of death by his death, and his illumining the darkness of hell with the light of his divinity. On this level, the slaughter of the children, the innocent ones, by Herod becomes an image of the faithful who have become as little children in their union with Christ God through holy Baptism. United to Christ their Lord, they are made members of his body; and as members of his body, they, too, can expect to suffer in this world that has rejected Christ persecution, reviling, all manner of evil said against them falsely and even martyrdom for the sake of Christ’s name. But united to Christ, they experience these sufferings as their participation in the likeness of his crucifixion and death. In Christ, these trials and tribulations can be transfigured into the working out of their baptism, the taking up of their Cross, their descending into the waters of their baptism in the likeness of Christ’s death on the Cross. And so, in Christ, they can learn to rejoice and to be exceedingly glad when they suffer trials and tribulations of all kinds in this life. For, united to Christ’s body and blood through holy Eucharist, they are united both in body and soul to him who has destroyed the power of death by his death, who has become the first-born of the dead through his holy resurrection, and who, by the power of his Holy Spirit, has transfigured the way of death into the death of the old man and the birth of the new man raised up from the waters of holy baptism in a resurrection like Christ’s to walk the better and changeless path that ascends to God.

On yet another level, the story of the holy family fleeing into Egypt is an image of Joseph and the Virgin Mary bringing the Christ child to each one of us wherever we are here in Egypt. As was portrayed to us in the midnight service of Christmas Eve, he comes to us in the darkness of our life here in Egypt, and transfigures it into midnight where the old passes over into the new, where the dark gives way to the dawning of the morning light. His heavenly Father sends forth his angels to announce to the sons of men the coming of his Son who is the very radiance, the express image of his uncreated glory. The angels are described by the Psalmist as his ministers of flaming fire. They are, in other words, messengers of light sent to the shepherds abiding in the fields and to the wise men, astrologers who interpret the light of the stars, to proclaim the appearance on earth of the Light that knows no evening, the Light that shines in the darkness and which the darkness cannot comprehend, the Light that illumines everyone who comes into the world of God’s heavenly Kingdom (so the holy fathers interpret the meaning of this passage in St John). But to us, the Father sends forth his very Word himself in the beauty of the Church and in the sweetness of his holy Gospel. And he calls us to come to the manger, to the waters of the Jordan, into the temple of our heart that we may behold the Christ, the Son of God, the radiance of the Father’s glory, shining in the darkness of the world in the uncreated light of his divinity. He calls us to come and to partake of his Son, the fruit that has blossomed forth in the boughs of the Tree of Life from the sanctuary of the temple, the Garden of Eden, the bridal chamber of our heart. Renounce the darkness of this world, the pleasures of its fruit, the pleasures of lust and greed, anger and vanity, self-righteousness and presumption, hatred and envy, disdain, cynicism and despair. Turn away from the wisdom of your own opinions. Lay hold of the idols you have constructed for yourself, images of God, even of Christ, that you have constructed in the secrecy of your mind and heart, and smash them. Take off the garments of sexual immorality which clothe your body and your mind. For these are all products of the darkness. They are filled not with the light of God’s self-emptying goodness but with the deadly toxins of self-centered evil. They do not open the eyes of the soul to behold the beauty and glory of God. Only the pure in heart can see God, and these things are not pure. They open the eyes rather to the spiritual fact that we have been stripped of the garment of immortality that God himself wove for us and with which he clothed us in the Garden. Renounce all of these things and come to the Sun of Righteousness who has clothed himself in our humanity and made it his own body, the Church which is the fullness of him who is all in all. Come to Christ, become one with him and let the history of your own life become one with the history of the incarnate God that the Good News of the bible proclaims.

As you can see, there is in these feasts of the Church’s Winter Pascha a Pentecostal character. For, when we come to the Christ who has come to us and receive him by taking up our cross, the spiritual disciplines of the Church, we receive the grace of his Holy Spirit by which we are enabled to walk in his commandments on the path that will bring us to the feasts of the Spring Pascha. In the feasts of the Spring Pascha, the feasts of the Winter Pascha are consummated. Those who receive the Christ who has come to us in his Winter Pascha are received by Christ in the Spring Pascha of his holy Resurrection and Ascension, and by his grace are made worthy to come with him into his heavenly Kingdom. Having received the light and life of God in the crucifying of the flesh and its lusts through the practice of the Church’s spiritual disciplines and the observance of Christ’s commandments, they are received into the Light and Life of God. Clothed in his light, they are made one with him who has clothed himself with them, and they radiate from within, from their heart where their treasure is, the uncreated light of his divinity.

In the fear of God, with faith and love, let us now draw near to the feast of Holy Theophany and let us look in wonder on the Christ who is baptized. “He who covers himself with light as with a garment and who has vouchsafed to become as we are is covered by the streams of the Jordan and bestows regeneration on us. He comes up out of the waters and he carries up the world. He sees the heavens opened that Adam closed against himself and his posterity.”[1] In contrition of heart, let us pray God that we may be enlightened by the light of knowledge and godliness through the descent of the Holy Spirit, that we may be deemed worthy to be filled with holiness through the partaking of the holy waters of the Jordan, and that the Lord may hearken to the entreaty of us sinners and have mercy on us. Amen.

[1] FM 361 & 360