Sunday before the Feast of Theophany

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Taking seriously our Baptism in Christ
Sunday before the Feast of Theophany
3 January, 2010
2 Timothy 4:5-8 ; Mark 1:1-8


[This audio file has been edited since audio and written styles are not the same but very different ways of communication.]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Christ is born.

This “Winter Paschal” feast that is fulfilled in the Baptism of the Lord is all one. There was a time in the early Church when both feasts were celebrated together as one. We cannot have one (the Baptism of the Lord) without the other (the Incarnation of the Lord). In fact, the work of salvation is dependant upon the Incarnation. I think that it is very good for us to keep greeting each other with the Greeting of the Nativity of Christ right up until the Baptism of the Saviour (which is coming right away).

Today, we see the Baptiser, Saint John the Forerunner, standing in the River Jordan and baptising people. He is baptising people unto repentance (see Matthew 3:11). The baptism with which we were baptised also was a baptism of repentance. What does this “repentance” mean ? Repentance is not being emotionally weepy about things that we have done wrong. It is not perpetually beating ourselves up and accusing ourselves endlessly about past wrongs. That is not repentance : that is being morose. Repentance is recognising that we have fallen short of what God has directed us to do and to be. By our waywardness, we have distorted what He has created. We have agreed to turn around, or to “turn about” which is a better expression. (We say “to turn around” because we are Americanised in our speech, but “to turn about” is the real way.) When we say “to turn around” we could be doing a pirouette (as one of our previous prime ministers has done). We are not talking about doing pirouettes ; we are talking about turning about. What we clearly mean is the making of a 180-degree turn, not a turn of 360 degrees or more.

We see this actualised in the process of our own baptism. If we were baptised as adults, then we can remember the experience very well. If we were baptised as children, then we may only remember something when we see other children being baptised later on in our life. If we were baptised at about forty days of age, then what could we remember (unless we are one of those gifted children with amazing memories) ? Most of us do not remember our fortieth day (I certainly do not). When we are baptised, we stand at the entrance of the Temple (or at the entrance of the place of baptism) ; we face the west, and we reject the devil and all his ways. We breathe and spit on him to make sure that we are rejecting the devil : his ways, his darkness, his delusions and his illusions – we are rejecting it all. We have to breathe and spit on the devil because throughout our whole lives, we have to remember, ourselves, that we have done this. This rejection is a physical thing. It is not just some sort of political or philosophical principle. We are rejecting evil. We are rejecting darkness. Having done this, then we turn about, and face the east. We face Christ. We face the Light. We affirm Christ. We affirm the Light. We affirm the Life. We have rejected fear, and we affirm Love. This is what we have done in our own baptism.

This baptism is precisely the continuation of what the Forerunner has been doing. The Forerunner has said today that our baptism into Christ has something more about it than what he has been doing. He has been giving the baptism of repentance. However, he says to us, as it were : “Look, here comes the Person whose sandals I am not worthy to untie, and He will baptise you in the Holy Spirit”. It is this Gift of the Holy Spirit that we have been given in our baptism into Christ. It is more than simple repentance. We, when we have been baptised, have also died, and we have risen again. When we have been immersed in the waters of baptism, that has been our death to sin, our death to the devil, our death to darkness, and our death to separation from God. When we have been raised up out of those waters, that is our resurrection with Christ, in Christ. We have been raised up into life. Already, in this participation in Christ, we have received the Gift of the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is not separate from Christ. However, to emphasise it completely, it is necessary for us to receive the oil of chrism in which we are concretely, sacramentally, given the Grace of the Holy Spirit. The Grace of the Holy Spirit is applied to all our senses and to all our extremities. The Grace of the Holy Spirit will continue to guide us and lead us during the rest of our lives in Christ. This is true not only for the rest of our earthly lives, but also for the rest of our eternal life in Christ, in whom we have died in our baptism (as the Apostle Paul reminds us in many places), and in whom we have risen. For you and for me, everything is in Christ.

We are Orthodox Christians. We are lovers of Jesus Christ. We are followers of Jesus Christ. We are bearers of Jesus Christ. We sing at our baptism : “As many as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ” (see Galatians 3:27). In putting on Christ, we have access to His love at all times. We have access to Him at all times. We do not have to look outside us for Him because Christ is not “out there”, somewhere. He is in our hearts, right in the centre of our being. It is true that after our baptism we still slip and fall sometimes, but this means that we have to get up again, and turn about. If we have difficulty in getting up, we have to ask the Lord to help us get up and turn about to face Him. This is the way of monks, who are supposed to be living an exemplary Christian life not necessarily by being perfect, but by being repentant. Once upon a time, there was a person who asked a certain monk : “What are you doing in that monastery every day ?” The answer was : “We fall, and we get up ; we fall, and we get up, and we fall, and we get up”. That is what we all are doing, too. Our whole lives are about slipping, falling, and calling to the Saviour : “Help me. Save me”. We get up in Him. Our lives are continual repentance. Luther did have one thing right (he had a few other things right, too, but this is one thing in particular that was right) : we have to get up every day, and we have to repent every day. There cannot be a day passing without our repentance.

That means that we affirm Christ every moment of our lives. When we get up in the morning, we determine again to follow Christ. We make the sign of the Cross on ourselves, and on the day that is coming. We offer the day that is coming to the Lord. Even if we do not have time for long prayers, we still offer the day that is coming to the Lord. During the course of the day, we try to refer everything to the Lord, blessing everything in the course of the day. This is the Orthodox way. When we come to the end of the day, we recall the whole of the day, and we ask the Lord to forgive our shortcomings, to forgive us for the times when we have been overcome with fear, and did not do or say what we should have done or said. We ask Him to forgive us for the times when we have actually, deliberately, strayed from His way, listening to the powers of darkness instead of to the Lord. We apologise at the end of the day to the Lord, and ask Him to protect us during the night so that we may have hope the next day of serving Him better. Every day is a day of repentance for us. In fact, if we are going to be truly honest as Orthodox Christians, every moment is a moment of repentance, because in the course of our day we have to choose constantly between : Will I follow Christ, or will I follow “me” (or some other sort of direction). We know that when we follow any direction other than Christ, we get into trouble, and distortions occur. Every day is a day of repentance.

We have been given the Grace of the Holy Spirit sacramentally. In the course of our lives, we have experience of the Grace of the Holy Spirit periodically, sometimes to a greater or lesser extent. We experience the Grace of the Holy Spirit, who moves us in our hearts always to follow the path, the way of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who is the Way. The Grace of the Holy Spirit, with which we have been baptised, enables us to find Christ in our hearts. When we are every day nurturing the life and the light of Christ in our hearts like this, then our lives grow in peace. They grow in joy. They grow in stability and confidence in the love of Jesus Christ. Our lives become characterised by Him.

Orthodox Christians should be different from everyone else. We get into trouble with other people sometimes because we are different. However, we are supposed to be different, because the way of the world is not the way of Christ. The people in the world who have fallen and are broken, are suffering because they do not have this light and this love. However, they are looking for it. It is our responsibility to be different so that when they need to find Christ, they can find Him in us. They can see our joy. They can see our peace. They can ask us : “Why do you have such joy and peace in this terrible, dark world where everything is such a mess, and where there is such turmoil ? There is always war, and people are always dying inexplicably. Why do you have joy and peace in this context ?”

We can tell them. We can tell them that it is because of the love of Jesus Christ, who raises us up over all these terrible things that happen in this world. He helps us to pass through these terrible things, turning pain into joy, turning brokenness into hope. This is what our Saviour means when He asks us to be yeast and salt (see Matthew 5:13, 13:33). He asks us to be different, so that when people who are in need come to us, approach us and ask us : “What is the meaning of this joy ?” We can respond : “Jesus Christ, who is ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8) is the only reason that I can have joy, hope, peace, confidence, and stability in the middle of all these trials and difficulties. It is because He is here, and He is nurturing me. I know Him personally.”

Protestants very often are talking about the importance of having a personal experience of the Saviour. Indeed, we Orthodox Christians have (and always have had) this personal experience and encounter with the Saviour. This experience, this encounter, this relationship begins with our baptism. The relationship might even begin before that, but this personal encounter and communion with our Saviour Jesus Christ, is really rooted in us in our baptism. He is with us every day, and we do have experiences of Him : sacramentally in the Divine Liturgy, when we are receiving His Body and Blood, and when we are venerating icons (especially this icon of the Mother of God of Pochaiv). Because He is with us, we have experience of Him when we are talking to each other. This is one of the reasons that we say to each other very often : “Christ is in our midst”. He is always amongst us and in us. He is involved in everything that we are doing.

Brothers and sisters, let us take seriously our baptism in Christ. Let us take seriously the relationship of love that has been firmly established and rooted in us when we were baptised. Let us take seriously the declaration of the Apostle John that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and that “we love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Right until this very day, the experience of all the apostles and the saints of Jesus Christ is that He loves us all together (and personally and particularly, as well). He knows each one of us, despite the fact that we number more than six billion on this planet already. Whether we accept Him or not, He knows each one of us particularly and personally. He loves each one of us particularly, personally, and uniquely. He says to each one of us : “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He means it when He says that because He loves us.

Let us take seriously His invitation always to follow Him, always to have confidence in Him, always to seek Him in our hearts. Finding Him there, let us glorify Him, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.