20 Sunday After Theophany - Jan 13, 2008

Ephesians 4:7-13

Matthew 4:12-17

This morning, we are still in the festal season of Theophany. We don’t leave the feast until tomorrow. And so we read our assigned Scripture readings these days in light of the feast. We also contemplate the meaning of the feast in light of the Scripture readings assigned during this festal season.

St Paul writes: “To each one of us, grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” (Eph 4:7) To understand exactly what is this grace that has been given to us, we reflect upon it in light of the Feast. Through his baptism in the waters of the Jordan, Christ God wraps round himself the waters of creation as a garment, just as at Christmas he wraps round himself the whole of our human substance. And so he stands now in the heart of our human nature as he stands in the heart of creation. He deifies our nature by his descent into the womb of the Virgin; and he deifies creation by his descent into the waters of the Jordan. He is the Word of God in whom all things came to be. In him is the life of God that is the light of men. Lying in the manger of the cave, standing in the waters of the Jordan, he sends out into the world the joy and life of his uncreated light. Those who come to this light are illumined in the knowledge of God, they are cleansed of the soul-destroying venom of the serpent, they are refashioned and made new again, for washed in the deified waters of the Jordan, the waters of holy baptism, they are born from above as children of God.

The grace that has been given to us, then, is the very life of God, that is light and joy, filled with God himself. The “measure of Christ’s gift” is the measure of God himself. Its measure, then, cannot be measured.

This gift of God’s grace illumines the whole of creation, but the arrogance, the pride and conceit of the human heart blind us so that we cannot see it. For all our scientific and technological knowledge, by which we have subdued the earth and sent rockets to the far reaches of the universe, we nevertheless sit in the darkness of ignorance; for we are ignorant of God. We think ourselves wise, but we are darkened by our pride and self-esteem. We are fools; we follow after the wisdom of our own opinions, we serve ourselves as our own religious counselors, our own spiritual directors, our own teachers of theology. To see the grace of God that has been given to us according to the immeasurable measure of Christ’s gift, one must lay aside the wisdom of one’s own opinions, renounce one’s own ideas and submit humbly to the teaching of Christ God incarnate, which he gives to us in his holy Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who is all in all, and in which he continues to manifest himself to the world.

So it is very good that you are here. Here, you are not sitting in the darkness but in the immaterial light of Christ that has shone on us. And you can see it if you will just listen and look at what the Church is telling you and showing you, for everything of the Church is of Christ, for she is his very body, in which his incarnation continues even down to this day, this hour, this very moment. In her dogmatic teachings and in the structure of her liturgical and sacramental worship, the light of God is shining on you. Let us lift up the ears and the eyes of our mind, and “let us attend” to the light of Christ that is shining on us even now, here in the worship of his holy Church.

Quoting from the Psalms, “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men,” St Paul writes: “Now, what is it to ascend if it isn’t also to descend into the lowermost parts of the earth? He who descended is the very same one who ascended up above all the heavens in order that he might fill all things.”

You can see how Christ’s baptism by John when he descends into the waters of the Jordan, is of one piece with the mystery of his Ascension. By this, we see at once that Theophany presupposes Christ’s Ascension into heaven when he is risen from the dead, and that Christ’s Ascension presupposes the feast of Theophany.

Now, according to the liturgical vision of the Church – which, as the vision of the Church, which is Christ’s body, is showing to us the mystery of Christ – when Christ descends into the waters of the Jordan, he reveals in the depths of the sea, the “better and changeless path”[1] that ascends to God. “By descending into the waters,” the Church teaches us, “we ascend to God.”[2] 

So what precisely is this better and changeless path that is to be found in the depths of the Jordan by which we ascend to God? Attend closely to all you see and hear in the Church and you will discover the answer.

The waters of the Jordan are the waters of our baptism. And we do not approach the font of baptism except by following the directive first of the Forerunner, John, and then of Christ himself as he calls out to us this morning in this Gospel that the Church sets before us on the Sunday immediately following his Epiphany: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” In other words, the better and changeless path that ascends to God is found by descending into the depths of our soul in the sacrament of confession.

The inner unity between Theophany and Ascension shows that the road leading from the banks of the Jordan to the tomb of Christ’s holy resurrection and to the Mountain of his Ascension is the sacrament of confession by which we descend into the depths of our soul, there to find the better and changeless path that ascends to God.

That you are here shows in itself that you desire to love God, and that you are hoping to find the way that leads to God. The Savior calls out this morning to us in the Gospel and gives the very first commandment of his earthly ministry: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The Lord is showing us very clearly that this is the first step we take to the Kingdom. To repent means to turn around and begin following after the things of the Spirit and no more the things of the world. As soon as we repent, we have set our feet on the better and changeless path that ascends to God. In the sacrament of confession, we descend into the waters of our soul as into the waters of the Jordan and into the waters of our baptism with the Lord. There, in the sacrament of confession, in the depths of our soul, is where we will find that better and changeless path that ascends to God.

Great Lent is approaching, the season of the great fast; a season of repentance when we renew our baptism with Christ in the waters of the Jordan by sincere and heartfelt contrition in the sacrament of confession. Do not take the sacrament of confession lightly; do not mock it by coming to the confession unprepared or insincerely, simply to fulfill an obligation.  Begin now your repentance, as the Savior commands, and begin preparing your mind and heart for the sacrament of confession. Turn the eyes of your mind away from the fantasies, the images of the world, your soul away from the worldly pursuits of fame and fortune, and through prayer and reading of Scripture, lives of the saints, and participation in divine services, begin making your descent into the depths of your soul, weaving for yourself a garment of humility in the humility of Christ. Begin calling out to him from your heart with whatever fervor you possess; begin to beseech the saints to intercede for you, to help you acquire sincerity of heart and contrition of spirit that you may be guided by their holy prayers on the descent into the depths of your soul through a heartfelt confession, and come upon that better and changeless path that ascends to God, and so come to that mystical Midnight on Pascha night when the Bridegroom comes, when the old passes over into the new, and that you may receive the Lord of Glory into the Bridal Chamber of your heart and so rejoice not just in word but in spirit in the joy of his holy Resurrection and in his holy Ascension. Amen 

[1] Festal Menaion 377

[2] FM 383