Zealous of Good Works - A Homily for the Feast of Theophany (2021)
The feast we celebrate today is the culmination and the fulfillment of the feast of Nativity. Both feasts share many liturgical similarities, and in the ancient Church, they were observed as one great feast that commemorated God’s appearing in the world. But despite this inner connection and all they share in common liturgically, there is a great difference between the two feasts, and it is only fitting that we observe them separately.
The season of Advent is a time of patient expectation, as we await the birth of the Christ-child. It differs from Great Lent, when we give a tithe of the year and undertake special ascetic exertions, that we might enter more fully into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. During Advent, we wait and quietly prepare a place in ourselves to receive the promised Messiah; during Lent, we labor zealously to crucify the lusts of our flesh, so that we can follow Christ to His Passion on Holy Friday, and taste the joy of His Resurrection on Pascha. But the joy that marks the end of Advent is different. It is somehow closer to us, for God has come down to be with us, to enter in to our earthly existence and to endure Himself all of its joys and sorrows, together with us. On Nativity, we witness the total, loving self-abasement of God, when He was born a helpless infant, to a poor and unknown girl, in a small village of an unimportant backwater, in a cave in the dead of night, unbeknownst to any save a few shepherds and three Wisemen. With them, we wonder at the kindness and love God our Saviour toward man (Tit. 2:4), which appeared that night, and moved by God’s unspeakable gift, our hearts are kindled with the warmth of gratitude and brotherly love. We forget the labors of the fast for the joy that a child is born into the world—no ordinary child, but the pre-eternal God and Savior of our souls. In the interval between Nativity and Theophany, this joy sustains us spiritually, and we dispense with the customary disciplines of fasting and prostrations.
But today, the hidden God who was born hidden in a cave appears openly to the whole world; he enters the waters of the Jordan to sanctify them, so that the whole nature of water might become capable of imparting sanctification; the Spirit rests on Him visibly, showing the divinity that has been His from eternity; the Father’s voice sounds from heaven, attesting to His divine sonship; and John the Baptist bears witness on earth that this is the very Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Now the Light of the world manifestly shines out upon all men, the Sun of righteousness is risen with healing in His wings; and to all who desire it, He freely bestows the grace of sanctification that restores our human nature, wounded of old by sin.
These are all causes for rejoicing, as was the Lord’s birth from the Virgin; but the joy of this day is still quite different. Now, there can be no doubt that Christ came into the world, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy (Tit. 3:5); His salvation is completely gratuitous, and this spurs our hardened and ungrateful hearts to love Him. On this feast, though, we are called to take up an active part in the process of our own salvation, to make our voluntary assent to the grace that God has come to bring, that we might receive this grace worthily unto our sanctification.
Christ appears to us now, no longer a little babe in a manger, but a full-grown man, the Son of God, come in the power of the Spirit, with His fan in His hand, ready to thresh His floor, to baptize His people with fire. The dazzling light of Christ’s appearing hurts the eyes of those who always train their gaze on the darkness of this world; for those used to the comfortable shade of vain pleasures, His fire is scorching heat. But the grace of God that bringeth salvation to all men hath appeared (Tit. 2:11). So let us brave the harshness of the Judean desert; let us go down to Jordan confessing our sins, and receive this purification; for our God is a consuming fire, and His baptism will burn up our sins and passions.
We all received this grace once, when we were baptized and were given the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5); so let us make this yearly renewal of the vows we took in baptism, to walk in newness of life and to live in a manner worthy of the grace which God has given us. For He did not shed His Spirit upon us so abundantly to no purpose, but rather that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works (Tit. 2:14).
We know how far we fall short of God’s saving purpose for us on a daily basis, but we also know the way back to Him when we fall. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts (Mal. 3:7). If we have been dulled spiritually by bodily pleasures during the festive season, then now is a day for repentance. Christ has appeared; the kingdom is at hand; let us heed St. John’s warning that we bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. Let us not suppose that we have done enough simply by being baptized; let us not be complacent and think, “I am Orthodox,” or, “I am a monk.” The grace of baptism and the grace of the tonsure is given us to labor with and to bear fruit. When the Spirit rested on Christ after His baptism, immediately, it led Him into the wilderness, to fast forty days and forty nights, and to do battle with the devil. The great Forty Day Fast may not be upon us yet, but we can still take our leave of the festive holy days of Nativity and Theophany with a renewed spiritual vigor, zealous of good works as Christ would have us. May it be so, unto our purification and sanctification, and to the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Tit. 2:13). Amen.
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