January 16, 2015 Length: 16:34
Theophany is a good time to recall our baptism and to ask ourselves whether or not we are living to the full the life of a baptised Christian. Are we repenting of our sins; are we being filled with the Holy Spirit?
This Sunday we prepare for the celebration of the baptism of Christ on the feast of the Theophany. This takes place of course on 6 January, Tuesday of this week. The gospel appointed for today is from Mark, right at the beginning of his account of the life and work of Christ. That he should make no reference to the birth of Christ or his childhood is interesting. St Mark wants to move us on straight away to the breaking in the kingdom of God which immediately follows the baptism. There is a sense of urgency in St Mark’s Gospel characterised by the use of the word immediately before many of the events described. Clearly St. Mark wanted his hearers to sit up and take note!
His account starts with the appearance of the Forerunner, St John the Baptist, in the desert, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies; preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight by a baptism of repentance. Such was the impact of his preaching, the Baptist drew many people into the desert confessing their sins and yet he made it clear that he was not worthy of the one that would follow, the Messiah. St John baptised with water for repentance; that Christ would baptise with the Holy Spirit.
In the baptism service of the Church, we have both of these. We are baptised in water for the forgiveness of sins; we are chrismated to receive the Holy Spirit ... and so it has always been. Theophany is a good time to recall our baptism and to ask ourselves whether or not we are living to the full the life of a baptised Christian. Are we repenting of our sins; are we being filled with the Holy Spirit?
Repentance fits us for the service of God. Without repentance we are simply pleasing ourselves and not the Lord. We repent in order to cleanse ourselves of the sins that continue to cling to our lives. By loosening their grip we can be freed from a heavy conscience, we can serve the Lord with a less divided heart. No less important is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit we lack the power, the illumination, the guidance and the wisdom to do God’s will without which no one can please God. With the Holy Spirit we can be spiritually fully alive, understanding through prayer what is God’s will and fully able to be his servants of the world, witnessing great acts of power, being agents in turn of the coming Kingdom.
Of course, we can only be baptised once; so how can we regain that baptismal purity, how can we be filled with the Holy Spirit of our chrismation? If we lose our way through sin we can find our way back through confession. Often I find that even Orthodox people don’t know how to prepare for confession properly. Preparation for confession involves prayer, asking God to enlighten us so that our darkness maybe illumined by his Light. Sometimes we are unmindful of sin, sometimes we think something is a sin when it isn’t, at other times we lose a sense of proportion; to quote Jesus, ’ straining gnats and swallowing camels.’ So, we also need the guidance of the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church in the witness of the saints. Perhaps we need a time before confession when we can make an appointment with the priest to discuss what might be troubling us, to sort out what our sins are and what they are not. This lies at the heart of the work of any priest and his ministry and yet many priests will testify that such vital work is patchy at best in their communities. Maybe there are issues here we all need to look at.
Secondly how can we be filled, or perhaps we should say refilled with the Holy Spirit first received at our chrismation? First we must insist that such a desire and expectation, namely to be filled with the Holy Spirit, is a proper one for Orthodox Christians. St. Seraphim of Sarov wrote that the whole purpose of the Christian life is to ’ acquire the Holy Spirit. ’ All the saints testify to this, that the Holy Spirit is for all Christians and that the gift of this Spirit is vital and not optional. We received the Holy Spirit by simply asking for him. Did not Jesus teach: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”? (Luke 11:13) So, there we have it ... ASK! It really is as simple as that! Nothing complicated, nothing to do with how good we are ... or are not, it is simply God’s good will as the lover of mankind to give his Spirit to those who ask. We should not think, however, that we only need to ask once. The Acts of the Apostles record that there were a number of times when the believers asked for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The same applies to us. We need to go back to the Lord, time after time after time, and ask that we might be filled afresh with the Holy Spirit. How many Christian lives would be transformed if that guidance was simply followed! God is not grudging with his gifts. He is liberal, generous, overflowing with gifts for his children. We must ask then.
When on Tuesday we celebrate the feast of Christ’s baptism we should do so with the intention that the Holy Theophany should be each one of us at time of deeper repentance and personal renewal in the life-giving Spirit. With not a long time to go before the beginning of the Great Fast this approach to the feast of the Theophany will set our minds our hearts and our lives right before God that we might take full advantage of this great and annual spring clean of the soul.