Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 10, 2021
At the end of a truly shocking week in our country and the beginning of coming ones that may be just as difficult, let’s shift our attention to something positive. January 6 may remain in our memory as a "day of infamy" for America (it certainly will for me) and yet it is preeminently something else: a day of revelation for the world. I will spend my time today talking about the second because I do not think the Church is the place for politics. So, let’s turn our attention to the meaning of the Great Revelation of the kingdom of God on earth that is Theophany.
Epiphany means: "a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. An intuitive grasp of reality through a simple and striking event. An illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure." It is not only a religious term. It can refer to any other sphere of human interest as well. For example, there is the famous story of the Greek mathematician Archimedes who, when he discovered the concept of relative density while taking a bath, ran naked through the streets shouting, “Eureka!” which means, “I have found it!” That was a mathematical epiphany. A very important one.
Theophany, which is also used to describe the Feast on January 6 is a slightly different and more specific word. It means a manifestation of God to humanity like all those times in the Hebrew Bible where God revealed himself to the Israelites. Think, for example, of the Burning Bush and the giving of the Ten Commandments on the fiery summit of Mt. Sinai, or, in the New Testament, the Transfiguration and the Cross.
Now, let's add to the mix the word Apocalypse means revelation, an unveiling of things not previously known. The Great Feast of Theophany/Epiphany is a manifestation of the essential nature of life itself, a manifestation of God to the world and an Apocalyptic event where the ultimate truth is unveiled. Apocalypse does not just refer to the end of things, but to the beginning, middle and end all at once. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega and Everything In-Between. All that Jesus reveals throughout his historical life and the mysteries he discloses as his life grows in each of us, is a Theophany, an Epiphany and an Apocalypse.
Christianity is the path of enlightenment through the manifestation of the Holy Trinity through the Person of Christ. It is not a philosophical path or a juridical, ethical or moralistic endeavor. It is an unveiling of the true meaning of life. Not just a revelation of the Person of the Incarnate Lord, but of the Holy Trinity and the nature and meaning of human life and the nature of all things.
First, what of the Trinity, that dogma so confusing to the human mind? We Orthodox are particularly guilty of worshipping the Trinity. We mention it in our liturgies all the time. Every time we cross ourselves we invoke that Holy Name. Our Catholic and Protestant friends are sometimes surprised that we do it so frequently. Why do we? It is because the Holy Trinity is God and he is the center of our life and worshipping him is our way of life. Theophany is a revelation of the Father who speaks, the Holy Spirit who descends and the Lord who is baptized – the Holy Trinity, One God.
I am always looking for ways to talk about the Trinity to make the doctrine less confusing. You can read the classics by the great Cappadocian fathers or Athanasius ON THE INCARNATION for example, or Richard Rohr’s THE DIVINE DANCE. Again, I turn to Alan Watts from his superb book BEHOLD THE SPIRIT. Listen to how he writes about it. His words are clarifying and powerful.
"The Holy Spirit is the breath of God’s life, the flame of his glory, and the stream of his love. In its elusiveness it is God’s mystery; in its liveliness it is his playfulness and beauty; in its inescapable presence it is his faithfulness. Through the Holy Spirit we come to know God most intimately, because he is not God above us, the Father 'who dwelleth in light unapproachable,' nor yet God over yonder, the Jesus of history, but God within us. In the revelation of God as the Father we learned that he is the just Creator; in the Son we learned that he is love; in the Holy Spirit of love we learn that the heart of God is absolute joy."
The blessing of water is not a change of the nature of water just as the prayers of the Anaphora in the Liturgy does not remove the nature of bread and wine and replace it. The Bread and Wine are fulfilled, not destroyed. They do not need a magical transubstantiation to be a means of union with God. The nature of matter is fully capable of being a means of grace and a vehicle of communion just as it is. Sacramental elements are revealed in the Church as God’s presence in the concrete form of water, oil, bread and wine.
God created all matter to bear the divine energy. This is the purpose and end of all things. Our prayers do not alter the elements, they alter our perception and enlighten our senses. "Eureka! Once I was blind, but now I see." All creation is aflame with God’s uncreated grace. Nicholas Motovilov certainly discovered this in the forest with St. Seraphim of Sarov for it was not only Seraphim who was glowing with uncreated light. Nicholas was as well and the snow and the forest and the ground they both walked on. Even Christ’s clothing on Tabor glowed.
It hard to see this in human beings when people become hateful and destructive. And yet, the Incarnate Lord has taken all of us into himself and lifted us to the heavenly places. Why do people who are in God and God in them, act the way they do? Because the road is long that leads to Life. Everyone is at a different place on that road. Some see more clearly than others. Some do not even want to see. Some yearn for it. Some are deluded and some are enlightened. Still, no one is separate from God.
Here is something Fr. Schmemann once asked us, "When does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus?" We tried to answer, but didn’t really know. Then he asked, "When does a pot of water on a hot stove begin to boil?" Again, we weren't sure what he was getting at. He continued, "It begins to boil when you put the pot of water on the stove."
The Father has supplied the materials. The Incarnation has put us on the stove. The Holy Spirit is supplying the heat, and so, we have already begun to boil even though the bubbles may not be rising yet. We are all at different stages and unless we choose to turn off the stove, we will, at some moment, now or later, be revealed as a pot of water come to an apocalyptic boil. We will be revealed as one with Him, filled with love. Transfigured into his likeness by the Holy Spirit who dwells in all things. The kingdom of heaven is here and now and if it is not, then it is no place at all.
Now let’s pray for our country that the Holy Spirit will cleanse the eyes of perception and heal the wounds caused by the deception and lies and hatred so prevalent these days. Let’s fix our minds on Christ and allow his thoughts to become our thoughts, his life to become ours, and our treatment of others ruled not by ideology, but only by the law of Love.