On the Sunday before Theophany

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 2, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Christ is Born!

The Gospel according to St. Mark begins not with an infancy narrative like Matthew's and Mark's, but about thirty years after the Lord's birth with the story of the final Old Testament prophet. Isaiah prophesied that God's messenger would appear first and prepare the way for the Messiah. That messenger was John the Baptist.

The Baptist had two messages. He preached repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins. John also preached about the One who was coming after him, “the thong of whose sandal” he said he was unworthy to untie. This One, he preached, would bring a different baptism. It would be a baptism with the Holy Spirit, not merely an earthly baptism, but a heavenly one. In other words, he proclaimed the coming of the Messiah.

John's baptism in water for the forgiveness of sins was about the admission and correction of moral failings not just for individuals, but for society as a whole. All the Old Testament prophets addressed injustice and John was no different. They all spoke truth to power. They preached sermons of fire and brimstone against the powers that be. They spoke out against oppression of the poor, widows, orphans, and all forms of inequality. The judgment the prophets said was coming on Israel was because of the faithlessness of the people of God which was manifested in injustice, oppression and inequality in society. That is why many of the prophets were murdered. St. James echoes that message in the New Testament when he proclaims that true religion is the care of orphans and widows in their affliction. James was also a prophet in this social, moral sense.

The word “prophet” comes from the Greek word which literally means one who “speaks before” or “speaks out”. The prophets were not fortune tellers. They were not primarily tellers of the future. They saw injustice and spoke out against it. It just so happens that God inspired their message so that there was more to it than met the eye. Within the message were deeper and more mystical messages. It is the Orthodox understanding that every one of them spoke about the coming of Christ even as they were speaking about injustice and oppression in their times. At the same time they spoke about their own times and about things which were to come, although they may well have been unaware of the later.

A baptism with the Holy Spirit implies something that only God could do, a baptism that would not only bring forgiveness of moral failings, but a transformation of the whole person. The Gospel of Jesus is about far more than the correction of moral failings. Transformation is about change from the inside out. Thomas Merton writes:

"Good moral actions are not enough. Everything in us, from the very depths, must be cleansed and reordered..."

We are in need of a deep cleaning in those areas of which we are conscious and those of which we are not conscious. Only God the Holy Spirit can accomplish this. Only a Baptism with the Holy Spirit can penetrate to the secret corners of human consciousness. As the Resurrected Jesus could pass through walls in his body, the Holy Spirit can penetrate all the closed doors and dark corners of the heart and mind. John the Baptist's baptism was only an introduction to something far more significant.

This transformation is not a transformation into something new. The spiritual life is not the discovery of something “different”, but rather a return to the truth of what really is. God created everything and called it “good”. When he created human beings he called them “very good”. That goodness has never been undone. The creation remains 'good” and humanity “very good” in spite of the not-so-good stuff we participate in and see going on around us. The coming of Christ into this world reveals this truth and wakes us up.

When we bless water this week we will see this truth in action. We add nothing to the water. The water does not change into something other than water. Filled with the transforming power of God it is revealed to be what it was created to be, a means of communion with God. The Holy Spirit's descent enlightens us and reveals the innate beauty and holiness of the water.

Jesus was not changed in the Transfiguration, the apostles' eyes were changed, or rather, opened. The Bread and Wine in the Eucharist remain bread and wine and yet become also the Body and Blood by the power of the Holy Spirit, filling them and revealing them to us transformed into God. Our senses, our hearts, and our minds are the target of the sacraments. The world participates in the all-encompassing work of salvation through them and our perception is healed in the process.

The Christian spiritual life reveals the same thing about us. Our original goodness remains intact, but we have become oblivious to it. We begin to believe we are not good, that we are not worthy, that the sin we commit is what defines us, the thoughts and feelings we have are what define us. No wonder we are so unhealthy!

I like what the Sufi poet Hafiz wrote: "I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, The Astonishing Light of your own Being."

The “astonishing light” is what defines us. Put there by God it never goes out even when we try to put it out! Whatever we do we cannot undo our own goodness. The light in us can never be put out. Dwelling on the essential ground of our being takes us immediately to the One who put it there to begin with. Looking within we see Him. The Light is God and the light is us. When we are cleansed and reordered this is what we discover.