19 Theophany - January 6, 2008

Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7

Matthew 3:13-17

The reading this morning from St Paul’s letter to Titus is a Gospel in miniature: “The Grace of God has appeared as salvation to all men.” In only a few words, it expresses the whole mystery of Christ and the spiritual riches contained in this season of the Winter Pascha.

There is a wonderful and I think spiritually meaningful connection between the feasts of the Church and what’s happening in nature. As the days grow short and dark, it’s as though nature is entering a cave. Coming to the Church on Christmas Eve, when the year is at its darkest point – and especially if the Christmas service is celebrated at midnight, the symbolic center point of the darkness, and the point when the old day passes over into the new day – is like entering with nature into the darkness of the cave. This liturgical movement of the Church can be a symbol also of entering into the darkness of our soul, when we feel pressed by the gloom of sadness or despair. And there in the cave, the Church reveals, in an aura of uncreated light, the Son of God lying in the manger, newly born of the blessed Virgin Theotokos, the Son of God now dwelling among us as the Son of Man.

Christmas opens onto the feast of Christ’s circumcision, made especially rich by its coincidental conjunction with the secular New Year. For those who center their mind and their heart on the feasts of the Winter Pascha, the New Year takes on a spiritual significance as a time to cut off from one’s body, one’s mind and one’s soul the fleshly passions of sin, the earthly wisdom of the world[1] and the wisdom of our own opinions in obedience to the Law of God, in order to be incorporated into the body of Christ, which is the Orthodox Church, and to become a member of God’s holy people in the mystery of Christ who becomes flesh and dwells among us in order to make the world new again and the clay of our flesh godlike by his participation in it.

This season of the Winter Pascha is also called the season or the festival of light, for in each of the feasts of this Winter Pascha season the theme of light dominates. The light that the Church celebrates is not the light of the sun, but the uncreated light of God who descends into the darkness of the world and illumines it from within by his divine presence. For those who choose to center their mind, soul and body on the worship of Christ in his holy Church, the strengthening of the sun’s light as winter begins to give way to spring becomes an icon of nature, a natural epiphany, of Christ filling the darkness of the world with the uncreated light of his divinity until finally, he fills even the darkness of the tomb with the life-creating rays of his uncreated light. He unites earth to heaven in the mystery of his Ascension, and he pours out the living waters of his Holy Spirit on all flesh in the mystery of Pentecost.

The Church in her liturgical texts gives voice to the amazement of heaven and earth as the angels and all of creation look with trembling, in fear and joy, upon the mystery of Christ coming into the world, the Lord of all, the Creator of heaven and earth, in his conception in the Virgin’s womb, in his birth from the Virgin, and in his baptism in the Jordan filling the whole of our human substance and the whole of creation with the uncreated light of his divinity. The glory of his uncreated light does not destroy our humanity but sanctifies it; the creation does not melt like wax in the fire but the creation is made clean and holy, new and godlike, filled with the luminous splendor of Christ’s divinity. By the Lord’s incarnation, God is with us. By his baptism in the Jordan, the earth is made holy, the waters are blessed, the heavens are enlightened, and mankind is set loose from the bitter tyranny of the enemy.[2] 

So why are there so many people, even so many Christians, who do not see the uncreated light of God shining in the darkness when the whole of heaven and earth see it? Christmas comes and goes; the New Year comes and goes. People, even Christians, party for a few hours, and then go back to the same routine as before. Outside a short-lived revelry, they see and experience nothing remarkable, nothing mystical, nothing heavenly, nothing divine; only the clock ticking away, day turning to night, night turning to day as it has always done. For people in the world, life is a monotonous, altogether unremarkable reality made interesting by throwing a party every now and then. In the arrogance and darkness of their ignorance, I think they view the mystical reality of Christ as it is described in the Church’s liturgical celebration as empty religious hyperbole, all the more pathetic because there is no revelry connected to it to make it fun or at least entertaining. What must they think of the faithful? Instead of dancing and carousing, the faithful quietly make their way to the church. There they stand quietly in a room dimly lit by candles. They sing some prayers, read from the Scriptures, eat some bread with a splash of wine, and then go home and to bed, to rise in the morning to say more prayers, read from the Scriptures again, and eat some more bread with a splash of wine.

Those who sit in darkness may wonder: where is this uncreated light of God that fills the earth and that the faithful sing about in their liturgical worship? Where is this Grace of God that St Paul says in his letter to Titus this morning has appeared as salvation for all men, enlightening those who sit in darkness?

The hymns and Scriptures of the Church’s liturgical worship are not religious hyperbole spun from the filaments of human religious imagination. They give voice to the testimony of what the saints have seen and experienced. “We did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” writes St Peter; “but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”[3] And St John writes in his first epistle: “That which we have heard with our ears, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, what we have seen and heard, this is what we proclaim to you.”[4] 

St Paul writes to Titus. “The Grace of God has appeared (epefanh) as salvation for all men.” The Grace of God has not appeared in some abstract way. The Grace of God is the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ who has appeared in the flesh. So how are we to see him in the flesh? I think St Paul gives the answer: “The Grace of God has appeared as salvation for all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live in this present age righteously and godly in the wisdom of God.” In other words, whether or not one sees the Grace of God who has appeared in the flesh, and is now incarnate in his holy body, the Church, depends on where we are getting our instruction. Who is instructing us: those who are shaped by the wisdom of the world, the wisdom of human opinion, or the Wisdom of the Church, the body of Christ, the fullness of him who is all in all?  To see the Grace of God, Christ the Lord, who has appeared in the flesh, one must submit to the instruction of the Church that teaches us how to live in the present age not in a worldly way but in a godly way, so that we so we are shaped body, soul and mind not in the wisdom of the world but in the Wisdom of God who is Christ Jesus as he gives himself to us in the teachings, the ascetic disciplines and the worship of the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who is all in all. How can we be instructed by the Church if we are immersing ourselves in the wisdom and in the ways of the world? How can Christians be instructed by the Church so that they are shaped body, soul and mind by the Wisdom of God, if they do not come to the Church to listen to what she has to say to them and to see what she has to show them in her liturgical worship? Or if, when they leave the Church, having heard and seen the teaching of Christ, having even received his Heavenly Spirit in holy Eucharist, they go back into the world and continue to immerse their minds in the values of the world, their souls in the pursuits of the world, and their bodies to the pleasures of the world, thinking, speaking and acting in a worldly way?

The mysteries of Christ are not worldly realities that can be measured by science or by the senses. They are spiritual realities that can be measured only by the human spirit that submits as a student to the Spirit of God. From the epistle of St James, we read this last week that the wisdom of the world is full of jealousy and selfish ambition. If we follow after this wisdom, we continue to sit in the darkness, and our darkness is dark indeed for we won’t see the light of God even as it is shining on us. The wisdom of God that we are to pursue, and that shines in our hearts the light of divine wisdom, is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, unwavering, without hypocrisy.[5] And as St Paul indicates in his letter to Titus from this morning, it is a Spiritual wisdom not of the world that is granted only to those who are obedient to God in the practice of his commandments.

Christians are called to pursue this Wisdom of God that they have seen and heard in the worship of the Church, and that they have even partaken of bodily in the sacramental mysteries of the Church. This is how we are instructed and shaped in the Wisdom of God so that we may ascend out of the darkness of blindness and ignorance, and into the light of divine Wisdom to behold the Christ, the Grace of God that has appeared to us in the flesh, in the liturgical worship and in the sacramental mysteries of his holy Church, the body of Christ, the fullness of him who is all in all.

“Today the creation is enlightened. Today all nature is glad, things of heaven and things upon earth. Angels and men mingle with one another, for where the King is present, there his army also goes. Let us run, then, to the Jordan; let us all see how John baptizes a sinless and uncreated head. Therefore let us cry aloud with one accord, echoing the voice of the apostle: The grace of God that brings salvation to all men has appeared, shining upon the faithful and granting them great mercy.”[6] O Lord, glory to Thee.

The joy of the feast be with you! 

Christ is in our midst!

[1] James 3:15

[2] FM (Festal Menaion) 298

[3] 2 Pet 1:16

[4] 1 Jn 1:1-3

[5] James 3:17

[6] FM 362