The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (1:1-8)
Today’s reading is given to us on the Sunday before we celebrate the Feast of Theophany which falls on January 6th. This feast is also called Epiphany in the Western Christian traditions. On this day we commemorate the baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ and His manifestation with the rest of the Holy Trinity together at the river Jordan. We will come together on Tuesday evening to celebrate that feast with a Liturgy as well as the Great Blessing of Water. We will also have an outdoor blessing of water on Wednesday morning.
As we turn to the gospel reading we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah who wrote “prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” We are told that these words are a clear prophecy of the coming of John the baptist who went out and preached a baptism of repentance to all of the people of Judea and Jerusalem. He was preparing the people to meet God in the flesh! As we begin the new year, I want to tell you that every day of every year of your life is full of unlimited potential. It is true. Our potential is unlimited because our God has no limits. He is infinite and He desires to share of His gifts, to give them to us without measure, until they are overflowing in abundance. Don’t be surprised when I tell you that God desires to pour out His gifts upon us. Did this same God not pour out His own life for His children upon the Holy Cross? He has done this to offer us amazing potential not merely to be called children of God but to become sons and daughters who are refashioned in His image and likeness. Men and women who are truly alive, who see and understand the truth, who do the works of the Lord and share life and salvation with our brothers and sisters.
How do we unlock this potential in our lives? What is the way to grow and progress in the spiritual life? It is through repentance. For an Orthodox Christian repentance isn’t just the start of the spiritual life, it is at the heart of the spiritual life. We desire to make Jesus Christ the center and the heart of our lives, and repentance awakens this possibility. Repentance is a change of heart and mind. Repentance is also a change of life. We acknowledge our many faults and failings and we examine how we have fallen short of the teachings and commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we go deeper we allow the light of the Holy Spirit to shine a light on our hearts and to expose more of our sinfulness, so we go even deeper in our repentance. As we dig deeper we see more of our fallen reality and we see with clarity, our profound need for a Savior.
Repentance is not pleasant. True repentance is painful. It is a burning away of our sinfulness and passions through exposure to the light of Christ. As we repent and beseech God we encounter great pain and tribulation because our sins cling so closely to us. As we try to push them away, we feel that we can never separate ourselves from them, and that we will always be separated from our Lord Jesus Christ because of them. It begins in private, in our prayer closet on a daily basis, and it continues when we come to the church and confess our sins before the priest who stands on behalf of Christ and the people. Confession is not easy but it is worthwhile. It is not convenient but it is necessary for our spiritual growth, for the layman and the clergy alike. We must repent and confess because we are in the middle of a war for our souls. This war rages every day through the temptations and trials that are brought to us. Listen to the words of St. John Karpathos,
“God raises up all who are bowed down’ (Ps. 145:14) and produces grief and consternation among our enemies, as soon as we repent. When you are being tested by trials and temptations, you cannot avoid feeling dejected. But those who till the earth of hardship and tribulation in their hearts are afterwards filled with great joy, tears of consolation and holy thoughts.”
So when we hear these words we are reminded that trials and temptations are normal and they can feel constant and never ending. What is our response? Steadfast and constant prayer and repentance. Many of the fathers speak of the Jesus prayer as the chief means of constant prayer and repentance. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” There is power in the name of our Lord and through this name, we soften the hard rocky soil of our hearts and make it possible for God to refashion this clay and mold our souls into something beautiful and pleasing to Him, into a masterpiece.
Repentance is a daily struggle against the passions and the temptations. But it is full of potential for the one who undertakes the struggle with faith. Listen again to the words of St. John Karpathos, he writes,
“The demons try to undermine your inward resolution by buffeting your souls with an untold variety of
temptations. Yet out of these many tribulations a garland is woven for you; Christ’s power comes to its fullness in us in our weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9). It is usually when our situation is most gloomy that the grace of the Spirit flowers within us. ‘ Light has shone in darkness for the righteous’ (Ps. 11 2:4. LXX) – if, that is, ‘ we hold fast to our confidence and the rejoicing of our hope firmly to the end’ (Heb. 3: 6).”
So this is our task as we begin the new year and as we prepare for the feast of Theophany and the blessing of the waters. In this feast we remember the baptism of Christ and we recall our own baptism into Christ. It is through our repentance that we renew our baptism and that we are recharged with the grace of God! So don’t fear to take a look in the mirror of your soul. It is possible that what we may not be able to stand our own reflection and the reflection of our sins, but let us try and God will work a wonder in us and wipe away the disfigured image caused by our sins and replace it with His own image that is radiant, beautiful and wonderful in every way.
May we run this Christian race, deeply rooted in repentance, with joy as we consider the potential that God has given us and the hope that is ours through His grace and love for mankind AMEN.