January 6, 2017: The Holy Theophany of Our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Epistle: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17
The ascetical character of Orthodox spirituality is hard to miss. Talk to an Orthodox Christian about his or her spiritual life and you’ll hear about fasting and long services.
Sometimes, though, it does seem as if we miss the point of the ascetical life. For many of us, it does seem as if the ascetical struggle is the point of the Christian life and not, as we hear in the epistle, a means to an end.
We are the Apostle Paul tells us called to turn away from “ungodliness and worldly lust” so that we can, in turn, live “soberly, righteously, and godly” lives. The fruit of ascetical struggle isn’t simply moral improvement but faith in our “great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” and “blessed hope” in divine “kindness and love.” Asceticism, in other words, is meant to transform us into disciples and apostles of Christ.
Important as ascetical struggle is, it is not the source of our life in Christ. No, the source, the beginning of our transformation is found in Holy Baptism. St Paul means when he says that we who have been baptized in Christ share in His burial resurrection (see Romans 6:3-4, Galatians 3:27). Or, as he says in today’s epistle, we are saved “by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour” in Holy Baptism. And it is through this great gift of baptism that we are “justified by his grace” and made “heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
Without prejudice to the other sacraments—above all the Eucharist—our life in Christ begins in baptism.
And how could it not? Look what happens in the Gospel when Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by John.
As Jesus comes up out of the water, “the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'” What the Father says to the Son, in the Son he says of each of us at our baptism. And the same Spirit that the Father sends to anoint His Son, He sends to us as well in our chrismation.
And because like Jesus, we are now beloved of the Father and because, again like Jesus, we are anointed with the Holy Spirit, how can we—how can I—fail to do the works that He did?
How easily, we—I—forget that all the Father gave the Son He has given me, given you, as well. All that the Father gives to the Son on the banks of Jordan, He gives to us as well at our baptism and chrismation. This is why we can be called “Christian.” We are, each of us, “other Christs” and His ministry is ours as well.
This is why we need to keep the ascetical life to the best of our abilities. We have been set aside, ordained if you will, by God for the same great work of His Son. Ascetical struggle is nothing more or less than the habit of receiving in gratitude the grace God has given us in Holy Baptism.
Ascetical struggle also helps, as Paul suggests in today’s reading, to cultivate the habits of sober, righteous and godly living. sobriety, righteousness, and godliness are the fruits of Christian discipleship; of lives shaped around the Person and teaching of Christ. And the fruit of discipleship is the good work of a daily, hourly, witness to Christ and the Gospel.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
Having been baptized in Christ, we have been clothed with divine glory! Let us commit ourselves to ascetical struggle not as an end in itself but as the means by which we remove from our lives anything that obscures the beauty of our calling. And let us do this not simply for our own sake but for the life of the world!