18 Sunday After Theophany - January 7, 2007

Ephesians 4:7-13

Matthew 4:12-17

Through the Scriptures assigned for our daily reading this last week, and through the prayers and hymns of the Feast, the Church brings us in spirit to the shores of the Jordan to contemplate in wonder Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan. Even in the icons of words and pictures that reveal to us the full meaning of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, the full meaning of this mystery remains hidden to us because it is so deep and full, so pure and heavenly, we can scarcely take in even a glimpse of it.

The scripture lessons this last week from St Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews make it clear that the mind lays hold of the meaning of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, to the extent the mind can lay hold of it, only in faith. But faith is not mindless assent to some religious mumbo jumbo. Faith is how the mind thinks; it is a way of thinking that is grounded and shaped not in the wisdom of human opinion (that leads to arrogance, presumption, self-righteousness and to blindness and forgetfulness of God); but it is grounded and shaped in total submission to which alone is truly substantive:[1] the mystery of the Holy Trinity as revealed in the baptism by John of God the Word incarnate. As St Maximus the Confessor says somewhere: “Faith rightly expressed is the practice of the commandments of Christ.” This is how St Paul defines faith for us in a passage of his letter to the Hebrews that was assigned for our daily reading on Thursday last: “Faith is the substance of what is hoped for; the verification [the proof] of what is not seen.”[2] 

Note that faith has substance. In this substance faith is a substantive hope. It is not mindless or wishful thinking. St Paul makes this clear when he equates faith with a certain way in which the mind thinks. He joins faith with the mind when he says, “By faith, we know, we understand, we see with our mind [nooumen] that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible [but of things which are invisible].”[3] Therefore, the hope of faith is not wishful thinking hoping desperately that what one wishes for and is hoping in is true. Faith is substantive hope that fills the believing mind with the substance of what truly is because in faith the mind sees – by thinking in the way of faith – the truly substantive. Faith, therefore, is not a blind leap. It is quite the opposite; it is not a leap because it is grounded in the truly substantive. Or, if we were to follow the Church’s teaching from this Feast of Theophany, we would say that faith is not a blind leap but a descent into the waters of the Jordan, the waters of our baptism; a descent that comes in the Jordan’s depths upon the better and changeless path that ascends to God.[4] Grounded in the truly substantive, immersed wholly in the River of Joy, the Fountain of Life that is Christ God, faith is revealed not as a blind leap but as an illumined ascent in which the feet are firmly planted on the substantive road of Christ’s Cross, the ladder to heaven. The eyes of faith are not blind because they are illumined by the light of Christ’s Cross which shines on the believing mind in the form of Christ’s commandments – and, I think we must also say, in the iconographic form of the hierarchical and sacramental structure of the Church, the body of Christ by which the fullness of him who is all in all is made accessible to our physical senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and even taste. Faith therefore can see where it is going not only in the invisible ways of the Spirit but also in the visible ways of the Church’s holy iconography. Faith therefore most decidedly is not blind; for it is in itself the very proof, the verification, the evidence of the heavenly Father who cannot be seen in his substance that alone truly is and truly exists.

In the light of St Paul’s teaching on Christian faith that we have been reading this last week in his letter to the Hebrews, we come to this morning’s Gospel. St Matthew quotes from the prophecy of Isaiah in order to give us the prophetic meaning of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan: “The people sitting in darkness have seen a great light; and on those sitting in the regions and shadow of death a light has risen.”[5] The word here for people is laoV; this is the word for the laity or the faithful of the Church into which we enter through our baptism. Biblically, the laity is the great company of the faithful, and it is they who see the great light. The light of Christ shines on all, but the unfaithful do not see it. They are blind, for their minds think not in the way of faith, the way that is grounded in and shaped by the mystery of the Holy Trinity, but in the way of unbelief, the way that is grounded in and shaped by love for the wisdom of human opinion and for the comforts and pleasures and vanities of the world. Their understanding is therefore empty, for it is shaped wholly by what can be seen and by what the wisdom of their own opinions can deduce from what they can see. Their mind is therefore grounded in the vanity, the emptiness of the visible world, which has no substance in itself, for the seen came into existence from the nothingness of the primordial abyss. In the vanity of their own wisdom, the wisdom of unbelief, they are ignorant of God and blind to the truly substantive that cannot be seen. When Christ is baptized in the Jordan, if they hear anything it is not the voice of the Father but something that sounds like thunder. If they see anything, they see not the Holy Spirit but an ordinary dove alighting on the Christ’s shoulder. Those sitting in darkness, in the region and shadow of death, who see the great light of divine life, of heavenly wisdom and understanding rising when the Christ ascends from the waters of the Jordan are the faithful, the laity or the people of God who in all the generations of mankind have lived not in the way of the world but in the way of faith like the faithful of the OT whom St Paul in his letter to the Hebrews set before us this last week: Abel and Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, Gideon, Barak and Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets. These are the faithful who in faith saw the promises of God even when those promises were far off. The hope that was born in their hearts when in faith they saw those promises was of such substance that they lived their life on this earth as strangers and pilgrims, choosing to endure suffering, imprisonment, mocking and even death for the sake of the promises of God in the substantive hope of a better, a heavenly country.

The faithful in the generations before the coming of Christ are the great cloud of witnesses into whose company the Christ calls us in this morning’s Gospel with his very first commandment at the beginning of his public ministry: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.”[6] The Kingdom of Heaven is that heavenly country for which the faithful of the OT lived in the substantive hope of faith. In the body of Christ, in the Church, where, through the Church’s hierarchical and sacramental iconography, we enter invisibly and visibly into the personal presence of Christ, that heavenly country has drawn near to us. In the wonder of Christ, that heavenly country is “in our midst.” The Joy of its feasts is forever with us. The faithful of the OT did not enter the heavenly city that was to come, and St Paul gives the reason: it was because God wanted them to be made perfect with us. They are made perfect with us in the sacramental mysteries of Christ. In his coming, and in his death and resurrection, Christ has led them into the heavenly country of the heavenly Father for which they hoped and for which they lived and died, and here in the Church, they stand with us in that heavenly country, surrounding us like a cloud of witnesses to the substance of faith’s hope: Christ the Sun of Righteousness, Christ the River of Joy, Christ the Fountain of Life, Christ the only-begotten Son of the Father, who by his baptism in the waters of the Jordan renews all of creation, infusing it with the uncreated light and life of his Holy Spirit, and who by his death on the Cross turns the death of the faithful into a Pascha, a New Exodus, a passing over from the land and shadow of death in this fallen world into the glorious light of the eternal Father’s heavenly Kingdom.

“Repent.” This is the first commandment of Christ. It is the commandment by which we may enter into and become members of the laity, the faithful of the Church to find ourselves surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses from every land and country of every age. Repent means to change the way your mind thinks. In repentance, we change what our mind is grounded in and shaped by so that we begin to think in the way of faith. In repentance, the mind looks in faith no longer to the comforts and pleasures of the world that is passing away for its hope, but it looks steadfastly to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. In faith, we sell the treasures of the world that we harbor in our heart. With the virtues we acquire as our spiritual gold in the practice of the Church’s ascetic disciplines, centered on the right expression of faith – the observance of Christ’s commandments – we go out to purchase the pearl of great price, the pearl of eternal life in the Holy Spirit of God the Son, the very radiance and glory of the Heavenly Father. Repentance, then, is the work of faith by which the eyes of the mind are opened to see the substantive hope of faith. In repentance, we establish our mind in the way of faith and we find our joy in Him who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and who is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God. This the mind of faith knows from the testimony of the NT saints such as St Stephen the proto-martyr. This joy born from the substantive hope of faith that is rightly expressed in the observance of Christ’s commandments is the proof of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the earnest of the Holy Spirit given to those who take up their Cross, the spiritual disciplines of the Church, as Christ commands those who desire in faith to follow him into the better country of his Heavenly Kingdom.

In the waters of the Jordan, Christ lays down his robe of glory that the faithful may pick it up and put it on.  No wonder the hand of the Baptist trembles as he touches the head of the Christ. He is touching the Creator of all who, having emptied himself to take on the form of a servant, now clothes himself in the waters of creation and “burns up the evil spoiler hidden in its depths.”[7] He descends into the waters and bears all of creation with him down into the stream. He washes us clean of the sins and transgressions that lead us into the dark regions and shadows of death. The prince of darkness groans. Creation finds itself free. All deadly error is consumed in the fire of dew that shines from the Holy Trinity in the Person of Christ with the bright rays of a threefold holiness to mingle with mortal men to their great blessing.[8] In the illumination and substantive hope of faith, we put on Christ and clothed ourselves in the robe of glory that he laid down for us in the Jordan, in the waters of our baptism. Let us the faithful, therefore, keep ourselves safe through grace and through the seal of baptism. Let this divine washing unto regeneration be our Exodus. In faith, let us walk in the commandments of Christ, let us go from here now to the Lord’s rising in Pascha that we may behold the light of the Trinity that never sets.[9] 

[1] Cf. Maximus the Confessor, First Cent. Of Various Texts, §2, in Philokalia II, p. 164.

[2] Heb 11:1

[3] Heb 11:3

[4] FM 383

[5] Matthew 4:16

[6] Matthew 4:17

[7] FM 376

[8] FM 378-379

[9] FM 380