The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (4:12-17)
In today’s reading which is prescribed for us on the Sunday after the Feast of Theophany/ Epiphany we hear that when the Lord Jesus heard that John the baptist was arrested, He withdrew and dwelt in Capernaum in the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali. The evangelist St. Matthew reminds us that this was in fulfillment of one of the prophecies of Isaiah who wrote “The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
It is quite a striking passage, one that we’ve probably heard many times, but what does it actually mean? Well, first we are told that the people sat in darkness. Most of the Church fathers such as Cyril of Alexandria tell us that this is because the region that Our Lord Jesus Christ entered was not a Jewish territory but a Gentile territory. It means that the people did not have access to the law given through Moses. If you don’t have anything of God, you are by definition in darkness. Gentiles were religious people, but they did not worship the One God, they were generally speaking, pagans and idol worshippers. They also had no concept of Jewish morality. So it is not hyperbole when Matthew says that the people were in darkness. They didn’t know better. They were in ignorance of the truth.
But he goes on to say something even more striking. He tells us that they were in “the shadow of death.” We might say that all of humanity sits or rather, sat in the shadow of death. Death is the one problem for which humanity has come up with no good answers. It looms large over us. In fact, most of the fathers say that we are oppressed by death, our final enemy. St. Paul writes “12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned”— Romans 5
I’ve often quoted from Fr. John Romanides during our first Intro to Orthodoxy class and it seems fitting to do so here as we start the new year and we’ve clebrated the Lord’s baptism and the beginning of the Lord’s preaching. One of the striking things that Fr. John says is “If man was created for a life of complete selfless love, whereby his actions would always be directed outward, toward God and neighbor, and never toward himself–whereby he would be the perfect image and likeness of God–then it is obvious that the power of death and corruption has now made it impossible to live such a life of perfection. The power of death in the universe has brought with it the will for self-preservation, fear, and anxiety, which in turn are the root causes of self-assertion, egoism, hatred, envy and the like.”
He goes further saying “Underlying every movement of what the world has come to regard as normal man, is the quest for security and happiness. But such desires are not normal. They are the consequences of perversion by death and corruption, through which the devil pervades all of creation, dividing and destroying. This power is so great that even if man wishes to live according to his original destiny it is impossible because of the sin which is dwelling in the flesh –(quoting St. Paul)”Who will deliver me from the body of this death?”
How did God cure this seemingly hopeless situation? This looming and overpowering dark shadow of death? He did it by entering into our hopeless situation. When He became man, He literally infused humanity with overpowering hope, because He infused humanity with Himself. He took human form and offered us a way out of the death of sin. One of the ways He did this was by inviting us to enter into a life of repentance. All of this was first introduced to these people in this region when they met and saw and heard the Lord Jesus Christ. And what were the Lord’s first words when He began to preach to the people? “Repent!” “Turn around, change your way of thinking and acting. Change your orientation and focus it not on yourselves and your life but on God who is life, and created the whole world and all that is contained in the world.”
Not surprisingly, repentance is the start of life for those who honestly want to know and live for God. Repentance is the acknowledgement that there is actually problem, a sickness that requires the attention of a physician and will need medicine and healing. If we come to church and we claim to be perfectly healthy and we say that we have no need of changing our minds or thoughts or behaviors. If we say that we have no need of a physician, we are not being honest with ourselves or our neighbors or our loved ones or with our Creator.
But just as sin has the power to destroy our lives and separate us from God and our neighbors and marry us to death. Likewise, when we repent and choose to love God, and His ways, we are healed and brought back to life. We are resuscitated! New life is breathed into us. So when do we repent? Does it happen only once in a Christian’s life? Absolutely not! Repentance is a daily way of life. A daily acknowledgement of our fallenness and our need for the savior’s touch. One of the main ways that we receive the healing touch of Christ is through His body, the Church.
Fr. John Romanides says “Let us imagine that the Church ever since its foundation has been a clinic, a hospital, which people enter to be treated….The Church, if left to itself, does its work. And what is its work? To cure people of the state they are in, to bring them through purification to illumination. This is the task of the Church: to bring light to the world.” So there we have it. The task of the Church is to do what the Lord did when He entered into Galilee of the Gentiles. To bring the light of Christ into the world by offering us healing through His teaching and divine grace as we experience it through prayer and worship and partaking of the sacraments.
And what should our response be? To open ourselves to the Lord, to become pliable and moldable through His teachings. Our response should also be to worship the Holy Trinity, and to partake of the life-giving sacraments. Through such a joyful response, we cast aside the shadow of death because we enter more fully into the image and likeness of the One who conquered death and lives again. And if we love Him, nothing shall overcome that love. As St. Paul writes “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” AMEN. Romans 8:37-39