|Homily Sunday Before Epiphany/Theophany|
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen. Glory to Jesus Christ Glory Forever!
“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; 2 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. 3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins.”
Today’s Gospel teaches us about the path to salvation….the form that it must take. It begins with repentance and ends with the remission of sins. Today we celebrate the forefeast of Theophany….in other words we are, as John did, preparing the way for our Lord to free us from our sins and the consequences thereof. That may not be immediately evident from the first few lines of this reading, though. It sounds as if the baptism of John brought about the remission of sins. Blessed Theophylact explains, though, that the preaching of John and his baptism is for repentance which leads to the remission of sins which comes with Jesus’ baptism. In fact an ancient commentary on Blessed Theophylact’s study adds, “For before the Savior, nowhere does it appear that remission of sins was given, but Christ was the first Who bestowed this gift through Himself and through His own baptism. Therefore it is clear that the baptism of John was a preparation for the remission of sins.” This is true. According to the Law, only unintentional sins could be cleansed, and that is by sacrifice. Saint Paul notes, though, that for sins committed knowingly “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.” (Heb. 10:3) The conscience of a man cannot be cleansed for him…that is not until Christ came and brought with Him the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the baptism that all members of the Church, the body of Christ receive.
St. John the Forerunner knew this. He knew Who Christ was, indeed he had leapt in his mother’s womb when the Theotokos approached Elizabeth, his mother. His whole life’s purpose was to prepare the way for the Lord. He said, “There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. 8 I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Blessed Theophylact has an interesting understanding of the forerunner’s words concerning the latchet, or thongs, of Christ’s shoes. “All those who came and were baptized by John, by their repentance were loosed from the bond of their sins when they later believed in Christ. Of all these John loosed the thongs and the bonds of their sins. but he was not able to loose the thong of Jesus, because he found no thong, that is, no sin in Him.”
This is, of course, all a long way of saying that to “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” is to repent. In the Gospel of Matthew we hear John say, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” And Christ Himself utters these same words to announce the commencement of His own ministry. Repentance is the beginning of our salvation….and it is the means of hanging onto it.
Repent, metanoia (meh TAH nya), literally means to change one’s mind or thinking. That almost makes it sound trivial, though, as if one were changing one’s mind about where to eat for dinner. People change their mind all the time. In the ancient mind, though, this meant much more than we think today. For our ancestors there was more than one faculty of thinking. There were the rational thought processes that go on in the brain and there were the spiritual processes which properly belong to the heart.
The spiritual mind resides in the heart…or it is supposed to. One of the tragedies of fallen man is that his heart thinking has become “scattered” and distracted and gets confused with his rational thinking. Fallen man, and modern man more than any other, has thought that his intellect belongs in his head. It does not.
The spiritual intellect is called the nous. This is the part of man that speaks with God in prayer and just as importantly hears the answers. We can look at the Greek word for repentance and hear a form of that word there: Meta-Noia. The word Meta means change and noia is a form of nous. I’m not going to confuse you or myself with a discussion of the grammar of that word, but that is what it means. In Orthodox vocabulary a deep reverant bow or prostration is often called a metanoia. People may say I did 50 metanoias at Forgiveness Vespers.
So what we’re looking at when we speak of repentance is not changing our minds, but changing our hearts. This is a bit more difficult to do. By heart thinking, we’re not talking about emotion either. We’re speaking of something that is very difficult to discuss in words. Needless to say, it is more difficult to do than simply changing one’s mind about something. Even St. Paul said that when he wanted to do something, he found himself unable at times to do what he knew was right. Often he found himself sinning when he consciously did not want to. This is the mystery of the heart. St. Paul, though persevered and overcame because he continued to repent. He found that Christ within him could help him to gain a true repentance, a true change of heart.
Repentance is not an instant thing, though, as with Paul at Damascus, the initial experience of repentance can be life changing. Matthew the tax collector listened to his heart and immediately followed Christ. This was the beginning of his salvation. He with the other disciples fled when Christ was arrested. He was not sinless immediately. It was a process. Peter immediately after proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God is praised and then almost immediately he is rebuked for a foolish statement and called Satan. He later denied Christ three times, repented, wept bitterly, and finished his course full of the Holy Spirit. Paul, the persecutor of the Church started by accepting his calling and later could call himself the Chief of sinners. Yet in today’s Epistle we can hear him say without pride or guile, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day….”
Metanoia is a way of life. St. John Climacus and many Fathers teach, none of us keeps our baptismal purity, because we all sin, repentance then is the means of “re-baptism.” Our tears of repentance can wash us clean. Indeed, the sacrament of confession, or more properly called the Mystery of Repentance, is also called a second baptism. The life of asceticism is also a means of repentance. Fasting, long vigils, and other ascetic practices are not an end by themselves, but rather a tool. Fasting for fasting sake is meaningless. It’s just a diet. The purpose of the ascetic life is to bring about true repentance, a change in heart. It clears the path for the Lord to come to us. It does not cause the Lord to come to us though, and it is not an algebra of salvation: if I do x God will do y. If it were, that would mean it was a duty that God had to perform. It would be something mechanical on our part. True repentance comes from a longing for and love of God. This love is what the Lord desires and it is what the Lord responds to.
Love is exchanged between persons. The Trinity of Persons in God responds to our love. When we love someone we want to give them the best that we have. We would not serve someone we love moldy bread. We would not give them water in a dirty glass. We would give our beloved fresh bread and a clean glass of water. This is what our repentance is, this is what our fasting is supposed to do. We are to rid ourselves bit by bit of the passions that make the path from God to us full of rocks and ruts and weeds.
In the Beatitudes we hear, “Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The Fathers tell us that this mourning is the mourning for our sins. This mourning is the means of our repentance. This mourning is the spur toward ascetic endeavor (whether physical or mental and mental endeavor, struggling through prayer, struggling not to become agitated or angry or proud are ascetic endeavors….great ones). Mourning for our sins is the means of our joy. St. John Climacus who wrote the Ladder of Divine Ascent called the sorrow of repentance which leads to joy, joyful sorrow. In a beautiful description of this life of mourning for one’s sins he writes, “As I ponder the true nature of compunction, I find myself amazed by the way in which inward joy and gladness mingle with what we call mourning and grief, like honey in a comb.” He also likens the garment of mourning as the wedding garment which leads to spiritual laughter of the soul. Again it bears hearing again, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The mourning for our sins should never be confused with or mixed with despair, however. Despair is a grave sin. Despair is the lack of hope which is the most effective means of cutting oneself off from God. Without hope one says that God is powerless and one turns his back on God. The words of despair are the poisons that the demons pour into our ears to try to quench our joyful repentance. Repent with the knowledge that God is love and will forgive. If you ever feel that God will not forgive you, then know that these are the whisperings of devils in your ear. Do not listen to that but take courage and continue on. Again, St. Paul rightly said of himself, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day:” But he also added, “and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” May we all find ourselves in the ranks of those who love His appearing. Let us all heed the cry of both St. John and our Lord when they said, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Can there be any better start to a new year?
2009 Fr. Philip Kontos