In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m struck every year at how different Theophany is from the feast of Nativity. These two feasts used to be one, and the services for both share many structural similarities, yet for all that, the spiritual character, the flavor, the personality of each is completely different. In short, Theophany is harder than Nativity. We might wonder why that is, given that the Church prepares us for Nativity with a forty-day fast, whereas Theophany is preceded by a week and a half of festivity punctuated only by a day of moderate fasting on the eve of the feast. We might attribute the difficulty to the lengthy services, to the extra effort of doing the Great Blessing of Water two days in a row, or the struggle of blessing all of the monastery buildings in the cold, and snow, and ice, when you would rather be taking a nap or reading a good book. But true as that may be, there is a deeper, spiritual difference that sets these two feasts apart.
Unlike Great Lent, which is a time of conscious, focused, and disciplined striving, an active ascetic journey towards the Lord’s Passion, the Nativity Fast—Advent—is a time of stillness, waiting, and quiet expectation. The days grow shorter, and the long nights remind us of the spiritual darkness that enshrouded fallen humanity before the coming of Christ. The Church calls us to prepare for His coming, to enter into the spirit of patient waiting and joyful anticipation that the Mother of God must have felt as she carried the Messiah in her immaculate womb. We fast in preparation to receive Him, but not with the same intensity of Lent. We are not yet following Him to the Cross; no, He is coming to us.
The dark and cold of winter is warmed and cheered by the birth of this long-awaited child. Even the birth of an ordinary child is a cause for rejoicing, but how much more so with this Child? What sight is there that so readily softens the hearts of men as that of a newborn babe? What other joy is so close to the heart of every person? Everyone understands it, everyone can easily embrace it. And to this joy is added the comforting news that, in the person of this mild and harmless babe, the mighty God is with us, the Savior of the world is born.
Many popular Christmas traditions and carols may simply be relics of the Victorian era, but they suitably adorn the celebration of the feast, making it a time of childlike merriment and wonder. The exchange of gifts is a fitting reminder that God has given us the greatest gift in sending us His only-begotten Son to be our Redeemer. In the world, the spiritual dimension of the feast may be drowned out by frivolous entertainments and consumerism, but even in our increasingly post-Christian world, Christmas still has cultural purchase. The angels’ joyous tidings to the shepherds still resonate, however dimly, in the hearts of people today, even if they don’t fully understand it, even if they refuse to acknowledge it.
But what is dimly perceived is also soon forgotten. The world moves quickly from Christmas to New Year to Valentine’s Day. It has no concern or time for the Lord’s baptism, for John’s preaching repentance in the wilderness, for the manifestation of the pre-eternal, consubstantial, life-giving Trinity. There’s not any money to be made off of these things. They don’t make very cute greeting cards. There is no cause here for mirth and worldly celebration. But for the Church, for the faithful, there are the bracing waters of baptism, the purifying, sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, the call to a new life of repentance borne out by our works, the revelation of the mysteries of the Godhead. God came to us in secret, at night, in a cave, at the darkest time of the year. For thirty years, he live the ordinary life of a Palestinian peasant, hidden among his fellow men. Now he goes out to the desert to be baptized, to begin His public ministry, to reveal His messianic glory, to begin His journey towards Golgotha.
Of course, there were indications of His Passion from the very beginning—the poverty of the cave, the humiliation of the manger, the swaddling-bands instead of grave-clothes, the myrrh that perfumes both kings and corpses, the ire of king Herod, the exile in Egypt. Even the birth of a child is not unalloyed joy. Jesus, like all children, was born to die. From the very first, His life was bound up with His ultimate destiny, the purpose for which He came into this world. The Church’s typicon reflects this in the Nativity services, which anticipate all of the characteristic services of Great Lent—Great Compline, Vesperal Liturgy, the Liturgy of St. Basil. But the approach of Great Lent can be felt even more strongly at Theophany. With His baptism in the Jordan, the inexorable movement toward His life-giving death begins in earnest. With His Nativity, He came to us; but now, He calls us to follow Him.
We hear in today’s Gospel that, when he had fasted for forty days in the desert after His baptism, and been thoroughly tested by Satan, Jesus came to Capernaum and reprised the preaching of John the Baptist—Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Mt. 4:17). The Greek word for ‘repent’ has a slightly different connotation than what may typically come to mind when we hear the word ‘repent’. The verb metanoeô means literally to change one’s mind, one’s own nous. The Lord then calls us to a dramatic change of mind, to a transformation of our nous.
This word nous is so prevalent in Orthodox ascetic discourse, it is fundamental. And yet it can be the occasion for needless obscurity and confusion for English-speakers. ‘Intellect’ or simply ‘mind’ are just as good translations as any, but in either case, or especially if the word is left untranslated, we may be no nearer to forming a clear idea of what the Saints and Fathers are talking about when they speak of the nous. It is not some special faculty that only Greek-speakers are privileged to possess. It is not some hazy mystical concept; rather it is quite practical and easily discernible in our everyday lives. The simplest way I have ever heard it expressed is that the nous is synonymous with our conscious mind or, in a word, with attention; whereas our discursive, rational mind—in Greek, dianoia—is what processes information and interacts with the external world, the realm of the senses and the imagination. This is a familiar experience—we engage in one task almost mindlessly, without any thought or attention, while inwardly, our mind is utterly preoccupied with something else. Whatever it is that holds our rapt attention, that is the content of the nous.
And what do we fill our minds with? All too often, with the things of this world, the needs of the body, the lusts of the flesh, the cares of life, the stuff of earth. We stand in church, or pray in our cells, but our minds are elsewhere. We become so immersed in our mundane, daily tasks that we lose the thread of prayer which is supposed to run through each day of our monastic life. Our minds are so broken and distracted that we cannot lift them unhindered to heaven, we cannot lay aside all earthly care in the image of the Cherubim and Seraphim.
Repentance does indeed entail contrition over our sins, sincere self-condemnation, remorse for our wicked deeds, and a firm resolve not to repeat them but rather to uproot the very passions and vices that give rise to them. But it is clear from the Greek metanoeô that another movement has to precede the saving fruits of repentance; namely, we must turn our mind to spiritual things, we must consider the invisible realities that will abide forever—the torments of hell and the bliss of heaven. We must fix our mind on the fleeting nature of our life in this world, and on death, the moment of our passage to the realm of eternity. We must look to the coming of our Lord, place ourselves mentally, noetically before His judgment seat, and prepare a good answer for ourselves. These things are the foundation of sincere, genuine, and sustained repentance.
If we don’t mind these things, then where is the need, the urgency to change our life? Where is the source of mourning and contrition? Where is the sense in our ascetic striving and all of the sacrifices necessary to lead a monastic life? Mere human motivations cannot sustain us on this path—a striving for excellence on our own strength, a pursuit of lofty and noble ideals out of subtle vainglory and self-esteem, a fastidious keeping of all the rules in order to feel justified before God and men, an escape from the pressures and burdens of family life or of life in the world. If we live for these things, we will exhaust ourselves, and sooner or later, we will burn out having accomplished nothing. Rather, we must lay the foundation of true repentance—a radical reorientation of our conscious mind—and from there, it will be abundantly clear how to build the edifice of our spiritual life, how we ought to conduct ourselves in this world.
St. Paul tells us as much in the epistle reading for Theophany itself. Writing to the apostle Titus, he says,
The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world, looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing (epiphany) of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works (Titus 2:11-14).
With the feast of Theophany, we witness and celebrate the appearance, the public manifestation of God’s saving grace. Encouraged by the grace that has been manifested already, we look with confidence to the one ultimate manifestation of grace that has yet to appear, the Second Coming of Christ. With confidence, provided we live soberly, righteously, and godly in this world. To the extent that we cling to our sins and passions, the prospect of the Lord’s return holds out dread and torment—for every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved (Jn. 3:20). But to the extent that we heed the Lord’s call to repentance, we will look to Christ’s appearing with eager anticipation and joy—for he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God (Jn. 3:21). Then we will say with St. John, Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus (Rev. 22:20). This is the right frame of mind. This is sound-mindedness. Then our whole life will bear witness to the unseen realities that preoccupy us inwardly, noetically.
We see this first and foremost in the lives of the martyrs. St. Stephen beheld Christ sitting on the right hand of the Father, and the men around him saw his face as it were that of an angel. His physical appearance was transfigured by noetic light. How many other countless martyrs do we hear of, who went joyfully and eagerly to their deaths, unmindful of bodily sufferings or any tie of flesh and blood, of kith and kin? What about the ascetics and monastics? How many times do we hear of young men and women so eager for a life of renunciation and virginity that they rejected the most handsome marriage offers, fled their parental homes and abandoned themselves to divine providence? What would prompt someone to persuade their spouse on the night of their wedding to abide with them in chastity? How do we make sense of the lengths to which the saints were willing to go in order to mortify their flesh and mount spiritually to heaven? Why would anyone neglect all of the most basic needs of their body, allowing their beauty to fade, their skin to wither, their flesh to fester, their hair to fall out?
If we hear of all these things and feel perplexed and uncomfortable, or find them irksome, or strange, or insane, or irrational, or extreme, then we can be sure that our mind still cleaves to the earth. The Apostles, the Martyrs, the Ascetics, the Righteous—all of the saints were of a truly sound mind. They sincerely repented—they changed their minds wholly, completely, and then they acted accordingly. They saw things clearly as they are, they perceived reality and did what was truly reasonable in light of it. It is we who are insane, who are irrational and mad, because, benighted by ephemeral concerns, we deprive ourselves of eternal blessings.
Even should Jesus delay His coming for another thousand years, the words He preaches in today’s Gospel are just as urgent as ever—the kingdom of heaven is at hand. We need only repent to enter it. Amen.