Darkness Vanishes at the Appearance of God


Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, January 8, 2023

Matt. 4:12-17; Eph. 4:7-13. Jan. 8th, 2023

The Gospel reading we just heard today is rather short, but it is not without significance on this Sunday that follows both the Nativity and the Theophany of our Lord. Fr Alexander Schmemann once called this liturgical period the “Winter Pascha.” This term, of course, is patterned after our Spring Pascha, which is our central celebration of Christ’s coming to us, in order to save us. But you may well have noticed this Winter Pascha has many similarities to the Spring Pascha itself. The Christmas & Epiphany season, after all, have a 40-day fast, special Royal Hours observed in advance of the feast, and we even celebrate of the Divine Liturgy of St Basil prior to the feast day itself. And the Winter Paschal season ultimately concludes in the same span of time as the Spring Pascha — 40 days after the feast, or for us in this case, 40 days after the birth of Christ. And here is the parallel between the two: Christ’s birth, and His baptism in the Jordan, align with and correlate to His dying and rising again. As Fr Thomas Hopko teaches, “He was born in order to die. He was baptized in order to be raised.” 

Both our icons of the Nativity and the Theophany direct our attention to this fact. The Nativity icon, for instance, does not show us the infant Jesus nestled comfortably into manger, as we typically see in Western designs, but rather He is wrapped in burial clothes, and being laid to rest inside a coffin box. We can also see that the Nativity setting is not shown under the cover of a stable, but houses the baby Jesus inside a cave. A closer look reveals this is no mere cave, in fact, but a tomb hewn into a rock! The Orthodox icon of the Nativity, in other words, is not primarily concerned with a grand and majestic birth, but focused upon Christ’s eventual death. The tomb and the womb are both connected in this scene (I first read about the “tomb and womb” connection in John Behr’s “The Mystery of Christ,” where he states “to the tomb corresponds the womb.”)

Likewise, our icon of the Theophany shows this connection to the tomb and the womb — or, in this case, to death and life again. The late Jim Forest in his book on “Praying with Icons” writes the following:

“The water is at once both grave and womb; the old, unredeemed self is drowned and a new self is born, made one with Christ. While Christ himself had no need for the purification implied by baptism, he not only provided a pattern for the sacrament, but in his baptism we see his crucifixion and resurrection prefigured.” (Jim Forest, Praying with Icons, 96.)

Indeed, we infer from the icon that Christ appears to hover slightly above the waters in resurrectional form, as John baptizes Him. And at the bottom left is a tree symbolizing and foreshadowing the tree upon which Christ would eventually suffer and die. And we cannot ignore, of course, the gold halo circumscribed around His head, which depicts a small image of the Cross itself! All of our icons of Christ depict this same design, in fact — a halo inscribed with a Cross. Because as Christians, when we look upon Christ — no matter the feast or the season — the Cross is always in (plain) sight. Here again, the tomb and the womb are both connected. Both crucifixion and resurrection are depicted.

But the feast of the Theophany also marks for us the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. At the Nativity, only a select few knew about the reality of Jesus as the Messiah. But in the River Jordan Christ is now revealed as Messiah to ALL people — which is affirmed by the Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father from above. This is a visible manifestation, or Theophany, of the Holy Trinity at the River Jordan, and is the revelation of the Messiah made known to all who are standing there present. And this brings us right into today’s Gospel message.

We read today that following His baptism in the Jordan, Jesus caught wind of John the Forerunner’s arrest. And at this news Jesus departs his hometown of Nazareth and heads off to region of Galilee, to the city of Capernaum. This is to say, that the first action of Christ’s public ministry, wasn’t to minister to those to whom He was just revealed, but to depart from them entirely. It’s a curious first move if we’re being honest. But more broadly speaking, we see Jesus making these types of departures quite frequently throughout our Gospel accounts. In John Chapter 13, for example, Jesus tells his disciples in the Upper Room: “I am with you only a little [while] longer…[and] Where I am going, you cannot come.” So, Jesus was with the disciples a full 3 years at that point, but now He goes off to be crucified, where he will depart from them. Then at His resurrection, He will return again. In today’s Matin’s Gospel, Christ reveals Himself to Mary Magdalene inside the empty tomb, but quickly tells her "...I am ascending to My Father..." A forthcoming departure. And the post-resurrectional Christ also appears to His disciples on the road to Emmaus. They don’t recognize him at first, but after a short time they break bread with Him, and suddenly they know exactly who He is. But in that moment —as soon as they recognize Him — Christ immediately vanishes from their sight. A very abrupt departure in this case. And we have to admit, these departures produce a longing in one’s heart for Christ to return to our midst, in the same way we feel about a loved one who has gone away from us for a time. We long for their return!

And this imagery from Emmaus is, also, significant because it is something we practice in the Orthodox faith each and every Sunday. Take all of us standing here today, for instance. We have gathered together, and soon we will state aloud our profession of faith, and declare Christ to be in our midst. And not too long after one of us clergy folk will usher forth the literal manifestation of Christ in the Eucharistic offering. And what takes place after Christ is ushered in before us? Listen closely to the following reflection from Fr John Behr:

“In the Church, we are still on the road to Emmaus. In the Church, the Scriptures are opened to us – in the readings, the preaching, the hymnography, the iconography, the liturgical rites. And in the midst of all this, bread is broken in the Eucharistic offering, and we become his body.” (John Behr, Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image, 16.)

Christ comes to us in the breaking of the bread — our Eucharistic offering — and we consume His body. And once we’ve consumed the body, like the disciples at Emmaus, Christ disappears — or departs — and we become His body. And what happens after we become His body? We too also depart. We “depart in peace,” (as Fr Antony prays aloud) and we go out into the world as witnesses to the light of Christ. Which is exactly what Christ does in today’s Gospel passage.

We read today that Jesus departs his hometown of Nazareth in order to minster to those in Galilee who “sit in darkness.” “For those who sat in the region and shadow of death,” the passage tells us, “a new light has dawned.” The challenge for us as we “depart in peace,” is to do likewise — to carry the light of Christ into a world that sometimes prefers a little more darkness than light. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, sometimes we prefer it a bit too. It is only by Christ who IS the True Light that all darkness is vanquished. And if He does vanquish all darkness, He surely will reveal those dark spaces within us too, and show us the truth about ourselves, that we might also “Repent! and “Change our hearts,” which — as we heard from today’s Gospel reading — is the first proclamation of Christ’s public ministry. “Repent! Change your hearts for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near!

So taking all of this to heart, how exactly do we demonstrate the light of Christ to the world around us? By admitting in the first place that we are just as in need of Christ’s love and light as anyone else, no matter the darkness we think they’re in. And second by remaining focused upon Jesus Christ as our starting point. For Christ the True Light has appeared and His light is granted to ALL people. 

Today we will gather another time along the banks of the Jordan, as we stand together as His body, bearing witness to the Holy Theophany of our Lord and Savior. Let us boldly take heart then as we exclaim together: “Today the darkness of the world vanishes with the appearance of our God.”