Sunday, January 19 (OS January 6), 2020: The Holy Theophany. The Baptism of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Epistle: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Something interesting happens in the conversation between John and his younger cousin. John is hesitant to baptize Jesus. “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” Can you not hear an older cousin or sibling say just these words to his junior?
But rather than arguing with him, Jesus responds gently. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
By His answer to John, Jesus transforms a moment of doubt into an occasion of faith. And not only this. John’s willingness, weak as it is, to do what Jesus asks becomes a revelation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. As we hear in the troparion for today, “When You were baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, worship of the Trinity was revealed.”
Through the gentle touch of grace, doubt becomes faith and an experience of the overwhelming and all-encompassing love of God.
Living as we do in an age when we confuse faith in God with what we believe about God, it is easy to also confuse doubt with a lack of intellectual understanding or certitude. And yet, doubt is different.
In the Reform Orthodox Jewish prayer book, there is a lovely prayer. “I thank You O Lord for doubt, for by doubt You reveal to me the limits of my faith.” To doubt is not only an experience of the limits of my faith but, as we see in the Gospel, an invitation to grow in faith.
I think it is more helpful to think doubt not as the lack of certitude (intellectual or emotional) but as a distraction. I doubt not because I don’t understand God or because I don’t love God but because at the moment I take my eyes off of God.
The fact is, God is always more than my understanding of Him. And however much I love Him, because He is Infinite there is always more of Him to love if I can speak that way. Doubt is symptomatic of my shifting my attention from God but on the things of this world.
For St John the Baptist, the cause of his distraction was his fixation on his own limited understanding of righteousness and his own role in the coming of the Messiah. St Paul warns St Titus of doing something similar telling him that “ the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy.”
Paul goes on to say that we are saved through Holy Baptism–that is, “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior”–and for this reason, have become “heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
What we have received, we have received from above, from the Hand of God. And what we are to become, is beyond our ability to conceive because it too comes to us from above.
Given this, it isn’t surprising that at times I lose my way because I have lost my focus on Jesus Christ and the Kingdom. As I struggle to be faithful, to live in hope, and to accept in thanksgiving the gift that I and you and all of us who are in Christ have been given, it is little wonder that now and then we fall short and are distracted.
We are distracted precisely because the gift is more than we can imagine. The gift is beyond what we can receive. And so, inevitably, I run up against the limits of my faith, hope and love of the God Who, as St Gregory Palamas says, “is not only beyond our knowing but our unknowing as well.”
Whether in ourselves or others, we should judge doubt gently.
The reason why is that one of the great tricks of the Enemy is to confuse us. He whispers in our ear that questions and struggles are signs of our sinfulness. They might be. And at times, to speak only for myself, they are.
But even when they are, God uses our doubts as occasions for repentance, for growth in holiness and for a deepening of our love for Him and an awareness of His love for us.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! When we doubt, when we encounter the doubts of others, let us at that moment fix our eyes every more firmly on Jesus Christ.
Let us, by all means, confess with John that we do not understand. And if we do, we will hear that same gentle word of encouragement that John hears today from Jesus. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
It is in saying this, that God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit transforms our doubt into a deeper faith by revealing not things about Himself but revealing more fully Himself.