Monday, January 08, 2007

A Great Light has Shone

Today we are extending the theme of light [Mt. 4:12-17, for the Sunday after Theophany] as we continue celebrating the feast of Theophany, and we are going more into the theme of repentance that we hinted at last time.

On the feast itself, which is rich in theological significance, we realized that the light of God is communicated in the sacrament of baptism—thus we become spiritually illuminated—and it was manifested as well in the extraordinary revelation of the Persons of the Holy Trinity at the River Jordan. Today’s Gospel looks at the mystery of God as Light in a somewhat different but complementary way.

Christ is revealed as the Light of the nations, the Fulfillment of the prophecies about the enlightenment of the Gentiles. Those who remain in the ignorance or even God-rejecting malice of unbelief are considered to be living in darkness and the shadow of death. Therefore Christ, after having been revealed as the Light-bearing Son of God in the Jordan, by the Father’s word and the Spirit’s anointing, is sent on his mission to enlighten and save the unbelievers and sinners, all those whose works are done in darkness, as St John says, and who fear to come to the Light.

Today’s Gospel opens with the arrest of St John the Forerunner, who now must decrease so that the Master can increase. But Jesus picks up where John left off by beginning his preaching just like John did: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Why did Jesus begin by preaching repentance? Wouldn’t He have attracted more people by beginning with the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, or with the promised blessings of the coming Kingdom? Jesus knew—as many people do not wish to hear today—that neither blessings nor birds nor lilies will be granted to anyone if they don’t change their direction and turn toward the One who is the Source of the blessings. If someone is about to step off a cliff you must first—and urgently!—get him to turn around and walk in another direction before you are at leisure to describe to him the lush gardens on the other side of the mountain.

It may seem inappropriate, or at least unwelcome, to bring up repentance while we still have our Christmas cheesecake between our teeth, but in the present context there are two reasons for it. The most obvious is that it is the subject matter of the Gospel, and the other is that in a very short time we will begin our series of preparatory Sundays before Lent.

But viewed in the context of the present feast, repentance does not have to be understood in a purely negative way: “Repent, or go to Hell!” I don’t hesitate to say that is the bottom line of it all, but that compact exhortation doesn’t even begin to exhaust the meaning of the mystery. Jesus did make it very clear what are the consequences of refusing to repent, but He didn’t always preach repentance in the same way. For example, today He says, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” and perhaps the message of Theophany could be something like, “Repent, so that you can become children of God.”

This is what Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis was trying to get at in his commentary on Theophany. Christ’s ineffable humbling of Himself to become man and to bow his head before the Baptizer was not only an expression of his own divine self-sacrificing love, but it was an invitation for us to follow Him, to do likewise, as He said after He washed the feet of his disciples: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do… If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.” “Blessed are you if you do it” seems like an understatement in the face of the glory and grace given to those who embrace the mystery of God’s will. Let Erasmo explain further:

“Could John have foreseen that his life of asceticism and preaching in the desert, and in particular his obedience in baptizing one whom he knew to be his Lord, would culminate in this awesome revelation of the interior life of God before the world? Now the ‘axis of love,’ the divinely instituted ladder of God’s descent to man and man’s consequent ascent to God, has been firmly established… This thoroughfare to God is, as it were, the essential feature of the architecture of the new creation. And everything points us, draws us, to the Father…”

Once we see what God is doing in the mystery of his self-revelation, we see that the Father invites us, through the Son, to share in it, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the first word of this invitation is: Repent! Erasmo continues:

“[Jesus’] present task is to show what human repentance in the presence of God is to be, and it surely comes to Him as no surprise that the gift of the Spirit is the result of such repentance and turning to God… The glory of the Father is to show forth his goodness by begetting his only Son, and the glory of the Son is to do the will of the Father, thus making his Heart rejoice. By living out this essential relationship, no longer now only in the eternal bosom of the Trinity, but before the eyes of repentant mankind, the Son and the Father are representing on the stage of the world the origin, the means, and the final goal of salvation… By coming into our midst, the Son, the living tabernacle of the Father’s glory, has brought the burning presence of the Lord of Hosts into our world, into our flesh, our minds, our hearts.”

As Jesus rose up from the waters of the Jordan, the Father was well pleased to glorify Him as his Son. Thus in our turning away from sin, and toward the Great Light that shines on those who sit in darkness, the Son unites us to Himself—for He has already borne all our sins in Himself—and brings us, through the power of his Spirit, into a filial relationship with the Father. Through sharing in the mysteries of Christ through his Church we become beloved sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. The first step toward this spiritual and divine life is always repentance. Therefore the first word of Jesus’ preaching was: Repent!

We are now perhaps in a better position to understand the grief of God when He views the world today—a world similar to the world of millennia past that sat in darkness, with this crucial difference: the world of the past was in darkness because the Light had not yet come, but today’s world is in a culpable darkness, a chosen darkness, because, as St John said, “the light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light.” We sing in our Theophany liturgy: “You, the Light, have come, You have revealed Yourself…” All that the Lord wants to do for us, taking us into the intimacy of the Divine Trinity, making us children of God and preparing for us innumerable glories and joys in his eternal Kingdom—all this many people routinely toss aside in their blind search for trinkets and pleasures and all manner of passing satisfaction or rebellious self-assertion.

So Jesus has to say again, and perhaps a bit more forcefully: Repent, the Kingdom is at hand! It will not be spurned forever. There is still time, but eventually time will run out. Believe in the Gospel; it is Good News; it is an invitation to such a joy that your present cheap thrills will seem like sorrow and pain and filth in comparison. That's all you will be left with, if you don't repent, and you can have them—but you will no longer want them!

The hardest darkness to penetrate with the Light is the self-chosen darkness, for this Light is personal, respecting human freedom. It will not enter where it is refused. But Christ the Light still calls, and will call until the Last Day, urging us to repent and to ascend with Him to the Father. As we reflect on the mysteries of the Christmas-Theophany season, and turn our eyes toward the coming paschal season, let us follow the Light and…repent!