A homily delivered in the Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on the Sunday before Theophany, 2015.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Today is the fourth day of January. We’ve taken the first steps into 2015. This time of year is a season of beginnings. It is the beginning of a new year. Eleven days ago, we celebrated the Nativity of our Lord, the beginning of Christ’s sojourn on the earth, and on this Sunday the Church directs that we hear the first words of the Evangelist Mark: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1).
And in beginning his Gospel, St. Mark starts us off with the fundamentals: Repentance and baptism. God’s messenger, John the Forerunner, appears before our faces, proclaiming “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk. 1:3). It is the response that God desires of all people when confronted with the Good News: to repent, that is ‘to change one’s mind’, one’s perspective, one’s lifestyle, one’s habits, to change oneself from top to bottom. Repentance is a revolution of heart and a shocking rejection of the world not in a morbid way, but in a way that is centered on love of Christ, who has destroyed the old order of things.
Baptism of Christ (mosaic, 10th c, St. Mark’s, Venice, Italy)
We are able to do this by virtue of another fundamental: baptism. We are preparing for the celebration of Theophany in a couple days, the feast of Christ’s baptism at the hands of John. But the feast has another name, less well known now, and for centuries was called “The Feast of the Lights.” What better time for the Feast of the Lights then at a time of year when the sun sets early and the night is long?
The lights refer to a couple things, no doubt. We have lights in the church, candles and such, but more importantly for our consideration today, the lights are the newly-illumined: Christ shining in, and through, those who have just been baptized. It is a light of the soul and it is a light which must be tended as a fire is tended. These days, artificial light allows us to have light without heat but remember that at that time, there was no light without the burning sun or a burning flame.
And those of us whose baptism is old, who may not even remember our baptism, we are not exempt from the joy of the coming Feast of the Lights. Even if we have neglected our Christian calling, or are burnt out from church life, if our energy is spent from keeping faith in a culture that sees us as strange and irrelevant, if our love for our neighbor has been quenched by conflict with friend and family, or if our devotion to God has been smothered by the thousand problems in our lives, even with all this, we are unable to completely extinguish this light which Christ keeps smoldering in our souls, waiting for us to return again to the high calling of our baptism.
To tend that light we are called to “prepare the way of the Lord” by preparing our hearts. The Apostle Paul gives us a few ways to do this in today’s epistle: “Be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5).
Be watchful for all the things which you know will cause you to stumble. If you know that work pulls you away from your family, carve some time in your schedule which is theirs and theirs alone. Be watchful if Facebook tends to make you annoyed, angry, or worst of all, prideful. Put some distance between you and your computer screen and, better yet, pray. Take what is a passion and allow Christ to be victorious in you.
Endure afflictions with patience. When our lives are grim and dark and yet we still manage to let the words of the Righteous Job fall from our lips: “Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21), then even evil is made good, by His goodness.
Do the work of an evangelist, declaring the news, the news that is truly ‘good,’ through your sacrificial love to family, friends, co-workers at the office, classmates at school, that homeless man you see everyday, love for the acquaintance who lobbies for the opposite political party, for the bully who won’t leave you alone, for the guy who annoys you on the train, love for all whom God puts in our path.
Fulfill your ministry to your husband, wife, children, parents, friends, to your church. Fulfill your ministry out of gratitude for the One who died for you.
Doing all these things, especially when we don’t feel like it, when wrestling with ourselves is the last thing we want to do, stirs up the coals of faith, so when the Holy Spirit gently breathes over those glowing embers, a flame of love erupts to life.
Apostle Paul (mosaic, 14th c, Church of the Chora, Istanbul, Turkey)
According to the Apostle today, doing these things shows that we are among those “who have loved his appearing,” (2 Tim. 4:8) that is his ‘epiphany’, yet another name used for the upcoming feast. Being a light in a dark world, the hands and feet of our Lord, is a great reward. But having beheld the resurrection of Christ, we know that there is more to our God’s goodness and St. Paul assures us that there is a greater reward still, a “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8) laid up for us who run the race and keep the faith. Crowns laid up for those who are part of the royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9).
As we, the Church, now prepare to call down the Holy Spirit upon us and upon the gifts which we will soon offer, we can do so in full expectation that the flame of love will be stirred in us, so that we may fulfill our baptismal calling, and start the year of the Lord two-thousand fifteen, with another new beginning, greeting the upcoming Theophany committed to the gospel through loving repentance, and becoming lights in a world which is in desperate need. Amen.
The Rev. Kyle Parrott (SVOTS ’13) received his M.Div. from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and is currently completing a Masters of Theology at St. Vladimir’s. Father Kyle spent his early years in the Anglican church before becoming active in several Evangelical churches. His interest in missions led him to participate in short–term outreach in Grenada (in the Caribbean) and in Uruguay. The Parrotts’ daughter Sophia was born in 2011 at the beginning of Fr. Kyle’s studies. Matushka Leanne is a gifted photographer and has chronicled many events for the St. Vladimir’s Website.