|19 - Sunday After Theophany, Jan 13, 2013|
Our Gospel reading from St Matthew this morning tells us how Jesus’ ministry began after He had been baptized by Jordan and then defeated the evil one in the wilderness. St Matthew tells us that when He heard that John had been put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee. He left Nazareth, which had been the town in which He grew up, and took up His dwelling in Capernaum.
St Matthew says that these movements of the Savior were the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, giving us to understand that he (St Matthew) is not satisfying some creative itch to try his hand at a charming bit of story-telling when he takes up the story of how Jesus began His earthly ministry. Jesus did not begin His earthly “career” from an accident of personal whimsy. Jesus’ earthly life is the very content of the prophet’s message. Even the imprisonment of John the Baptist is an essential part in the prophetic message that was unfolding in the earthly life of Jesus Christ. This is clear from the witness of the Evangelists. They testify, whenever Jesus said or did anything, that this was “in fulfillment of the prophets”. I take from this that Jesus’ earthly life in all its movements and events is the heart, the inner meaning of world history. Nothing in the historical life of Jesus is incidental or accidental. The whole of of Jesus’ earthly life is the epiphany, the coming into view of the mystery that was hidden in God from before the ages, the mystery that reveals the world’s spiritual nature and the original destiny of man.
St Matthew sees the hidden meaning of Jesus’ settling in Capernaum, in the region beyond the sea and in the hill country of Zebulun and Naphtali to be revealed in this prophecy of Isaiah (chptr 8 -9:1) This prophecy is taken from a passage in Isaiah that speaks of Israel’s subjection to the King of Assyria as the result of Israel’s idolatry. In the course of this prophecy, we read of a prophetic act by the prophet, Isaiah. He goes to his wife, the prophetess, and she conceives a child whose name in Hebrew, “Quickly Despoil,” or “Swiftly Plunder” is given as a prophecy of Israel’s deliverance from Assyria.
Of course, we easily see this child of the prophetess as a kind of living prophecy that prophecies the birth of the divine Child, Jesus Christ, born in the flesh of the Blessed Virgin; for He will “deliver Israel from her sins”. He will “quickly despoil”, that is to say, and “swiftly plunder” the devil in his kingdom of hell and death when He descends into hell and plunders it by His death on the Cross and leads those held captive there into the light of His glory in the triumph of His Holy Resurrection.
Against the backdrop of this prophecy from Isaiah, St Matthew shows Jesus settling in Capernaum, after – remember – the heavens had been opened to Him when He was baptized by John in the Jordan, and after His triumph over the devil in the wilderness. The light that Isaiah says shines on those in darkness is the glory of heaven. It is the light of God that brims with divine life; for it is Christ who is Himself the true Light that enlightens all men, Christ who is Himself the Resurrection and the Life, Christ who is Himself the very Radiance of the Father’s Glory, so that the light is shining on those in Zebulun and Naphtali physically, concretely, because Christ has taken flesh and is settling in the hill country of Zebulun and Naphtali in the flesh, as it had been foretold – by Christ Himself! – through the prophet Isaiah. The darkness, of course, is the darkness that follows upon idolatry. It is the darkness of spiritual blindness, of not seeing God anymore and so not knowing Him and not being with Him, not being in His Light anymore. This separation from God is the essence of the disobedience of idolatry, when we follow after, when we “obey” gods and lovers other than the God who made us, who gave us life, and who clothed us in His own divine glory. It is the essence of a living death, a spiritual blindness, an ignorance of God, not knowing who God is and not knowing, therefore, who we are, because we were made in God’s image.
Showing that Jesus settled in Capernaum following His baptism and His victory over the devil in the wilderness in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy tells us that Jesus was not “just” settling in Capernaum, in the hill country of Zebulun and Naphtali. On the level of spiritual reality, He was descending “prophetically” already into “hell”, even as He was doing when He descended into the Jordan to be baptized by John. For, He settles where, according to Isaiah’s prophecy, people were sitting in the despair of their captivity under the king of Assyria; where there was hunger and thirst, and where there was a darkness of a great despair so severe that people could not see, they were blind; and in their distress they went so far as to seek for the living among the dead (Isa 8:19). They turned to magic and sorcery, the arts of darkness filled with the empty promises of hell.
How is this not like us today when in the despair of our darkness we go looking for light, for life, for joy in movies, in video games, in fantasies and diversions of all kinds that are not of the light but of the darkness? We go looking for the living among the dead. I think we see here in Isaiah’s prophecy a prophetic description of the hell on earth that we live in and that we take as life because we have become ignorant of God and His glory in the spiritual blindness of our idolatry, our love for the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Those living in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, the land of despair and darkness, then, are us today; and Zebulun and Naphtali, in fact, would be, prophetically, the whole world, because we have all sinned and given our love and our life over to idols and to their empty promises, and so we, too, are hungry and thirsty in soul, but we have become too numb to feel it anymore, and we constantly anesthetize ourselves against it with the food we eat from the sacrifices we make to the idols of the world.
Reading our Gospel this morning in this light of Isaiah’s prophecy shows us that the whole of Jesus’ earthly ministry is His coming to us here in this world to lead us out of the darkness of our hell and into the light of heaven that was opened to us in the mystery of Christ’s baptism in the waters of the Jordan. His call to repent, then, is His call to us to turn around to greet Him shining from the East as the True Light coming into the world, and to follow Him out of the darkness of hell into the Light of His Heavenly Kingdom, which is now very near because the King Himself has become flesh and dwells among us.
This Gospel this morning brings to light the mysteries of the spirit that are veiled by the prayers and liturgical rites of our baptism into Christ. And, it sets the stage for the next “leg” of our liturgical journey in the life of the Church, when we begin to make our approach to the royal gates of Great Lent.
This morning’s Gospel tells us that in our baptism, we came upon Christ in the darkness of the tomb of our soul, and that there, in the darkness of our souls dead from our sins and trespasses, from our idolatry, the light of Christ shined on us and stirred us to the life of the Spirit that is “carried” in the Light of Christ. United to Christ, the heavens were opened to us. The Spirit of God descended on us – it descended on Christ in the form of a dove, it descended on the holy apostles at Pentecost in the form of fiery tongues; I think it descended on us in our baptism and our Chrismation in the joy that came over us as we made our way from the font to the ambon to eat and drink from the Cup of Life.
It was by the Spirit that Jesus was led into the wilderness where He fasted for forty days for the purpose of being tempted by the devil. From His victory over the devil in the wilderness, we see Jesus walking throughout Galilee to Jerusalem and to Golgotha. This was not Jesus turning aside from the path that leads into heaven. It was Jesus walking throughout Galilee as throughout the wilderness, as He once walked in the Garden, looking for Adam and Eve in order to lead Him back from the wilderness into Eden that is now opened to all in the mystery of Christ.
By the same Spirit, we are now being led into the wilderness of Great Lent. It is a little ways away, yet; but, it is the next destination of our liturgical journey. And in this time before Great Lent begins, the Church gives us time to prepare ourselves for the Great Fast, to reflect on what we really want to live for. Do we really want to follow Christ into the glory of the heavens that are opened to us? Then, the Church is now giving us time to prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually to take up our Cross and to follow Christ into the wilderness of the Great Fast for 40 days, for the purpose of being tempted by the devil; so that, united to Christ, the ascetic disciplines of the fast become the cross by which we gain the victory over the devils that are in us, to descend in the light of Christ into the darkness of our own souls, to put to death our idolatrous love for the gods of this world, and to illumine our “inner man” with the light of the joy of Christ, that we may go forth from the tomb of our hearts as from a bridal chamber, led by our Beloved Lover, Jesus Christ our God, into the heavens opened to us in the Great Joy of Christ’s Holy and Glorious Resurrection. For by His Glorious appearing, God is with us! Understand all ye faithful, our God is with us! Christ is in our midst! Most holy Theotokos, save us!