Sunday, January 10, 2016

A reality to which we must respond

Sunday after Theophany

Christ is born! Christ is baptized! Christ is risen! Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today we are at a great convergence. It is the Sunday after Theophany, and so we are still remembering Christ’s baptism. And yet, according to one reckoning, it is also still the season of Christmas until the feast of the Encounter on February the 2nd, forty days after his birth. Meanwhile, today would be the first day leading into the Triodion – the Sunday of Zacchaeus – were it not for certain liturgical peculiarities due to Pascha being so early this year. There is no Sunday of Zacchaeus this year, but I think it’s still worth noting that the Great Fast is already right around the corner.

Time, the order of things, chronology, chronos is muddled, it seems. Simultaneous. Converged. It is as if all salvation history is happening at once. The first forty days of Christ’s newborn life is converged today with the forty days he fasted in the desert just after his baptism by John – which is a forty days that inspires our forthcoming Great Fast in preparation for Holy Week and Pascha, our commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus – the point of it all, the cause of our joy, our only hope.

Today’s gospel occurs immediately after Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism by John in the Jordan. Jesus hears of John’s arrest and withdraws to Galilee, not out of fear, but to fulfill prophecy – and to there call forth the men that would be his apostles.

It is at this time that Jesus begins to preach. “Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These are the first words of his preaching and with them, he pays homage to John, his baptizer, the greatest of the prophets, his forerunner, who made straight his way. Jesus’ first kerygmatic words directly quote the preaching of John, who went before him to prepare his way.

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." These words are especially suitable today – on this day of convergence. What’s going on in the church calendar today reflects the timelessness of deeper reality. As does the imminence of the coming kingdom of heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Jesus says this, as did John before him. But didn’t these preachers live and preach about 2000 years ago? How could the coming kingdom have been imminent then? Aren’t we still waiting for the kingdom? Don’t we pray, with every Our Father, “Thy kingdom come”?  We do, and our King is coming. But he has also already come. He is both already and not yet come. It is as if time is muddled. Simultaneous. Converged. It is as if all salvation history happens at once. God’s time is not like our time.

When John preaches that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, he preaches as one waiting for the coming king. When Jesus preaches the same thing, it is the very king who is preaching. The kingdom is indeed at hand when Jesus says that it is at hand – for he is the king and the kingdom is in his hands.

He is already come. He is in our midst whenever we gather in his name. He is now reigning in the hearts of those of us who believe.

We must not become like some of the fundamentalist prophecy enthusiasts of our era, obsessed with doomsday calculations and bible codes and what not. That, I think, is to miss the point.

In the Gospel of Luke, “the Pharisees [ask Jesus] when the kingdom of God [is] coming – [and] he answer[s] them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" – or – it is “within you all” (Luke 17: 20-21).

God is to reign in our hearts. And we must make our hearts a suitable palace for our king. Origen observes that “The kingdom of heaven is not in a place but in disposition. For it is within us. John preaches the coming of that kingdom of heaven, which Christ the King will deliver up to God, even the Father” (Fragment 74). 

This is the reality to which Christ calls our attention with this – his first sermon – one sentence in length, but infinite in meaning. The kingdom of heaven is reality – not mere perception. Our perception, in fact, often misses it. We often fail to see that “The LORD is king for ever and ever; [and that] the nations shall perish from his land.” (Psalm 10:16). We often think that it is our worldly kingdoms or republics that are of primary importance and that deserve our most devoted attention.

But no, the truth is that the Lord is king and his kingship is over all the earth (cf. Psalm 22:28). In 2007, there was an effort in Poland to declare Jesus the king of Poland. Well, Jesus is king, but it is not by our fiat. He does not rule by the consent of the governed. Rather, the governed have being by the word of God, who is Christ, our king. The king of kings and lord of lords.

The kingdom of heaven is the world we are actually living in. It is the world that God so loved. It is the world we often cannot see because our vision is so clouded by sin. The kingdom of heaven is among us. It is imminent. The reign of God is in our hearts.

And this is a reality to which we must respond with repentance. If we do not repent, we cannot know the truth of God’s sovereign presence in our lives. He is present whether we know it or not. Repentance is how we come to know it. He is with us, and we must understand this and submit to him, for he is with us. Repentance – metanoia – is a turning toward the Lord and away from our consuming passions.

Away from gluttony and toward self-control.
Away from lust and toward desire for God.
Away from greed and the love of money and toward compassion for the poor.
Away from anger and toward goodwill and love for all. 
Away from dejection and toward joy.
Away from sloth and despondency and toward patience, perseverance, and thanksgiving
Away from vainglory and toward doing good in secret and contrite prayer
Away from pride and toward judging no one and regarding no one as beneath us.

These are the eight passions outlined by St. John Cassian, (whose leap day feast we incidentally get to celebrate this year on Feb. 29th) and their opposite virtues, which St. John of Damascus describes (On Virtues and Vices). Studying these can help us make a beginning of repentance. 

The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Therefore, let us repent.

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