Sunday, 10 January 2016

Homily for the Sunday after Nativity (& Baptism of the Lord), Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 9 January, 2016

If you are fortunate enough to find yourself, whether in person or on line, in St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna for the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord - the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, as it is also known in England - you will witness a lovely custom. At the great High Mass, the Canons of St Stephen, the array of deacons and then the Cardinal Archbishop follow into church an acolyte bearing a staff surmounted by a golden star, and three young people dressed as the Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I think the ceremony of the Leading of the Star is familiar across Catholic German lands, because there it is believed that at Cologne Cathedral the Three Wise Men are enshrined close to the High Altar having spent their lives wandering far and wide and bearing witness to the Light they had seen, once the Star had led them to Bethlehem.

One of the differences between the Latin Roman Catholic tradition and that of the great Byzantine Church, of which our Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches are part, is that we do not have a separate celebration of Epiphany and the Magi from Christmas.  We commemorate the Nativity of Our Lord and God and Saviour according to the Flesh, with the singing of the angels, the adoration of the shepherds, the ox and the ass, and the discovery, gifts and veneration of the Three Wise Men, all together on the same day. For us, the Epiphany Feast is not about the revealing of the King of the Jews to visitors from outside, but the moment at Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan River - on the boundary that conjoins the Promised Land with the rest of creation and all humanity - when the Father intervenes from heaven to reveal Jesus as Son of God one earth. This is why we call Epiphany not just the revelation of Christ, but “Theophany”, the appearance of God Himself.

When we get to 6th January in our Julian Calendar (which will be on 19th January in the Gregorian calendar), we will commemorate this remarkable moment with a dramatic re-enactment of the moment when the Holy Trinity articulated itself to human sight and hearing, leaving an indelible impression on those who would then follow the Lord and become His own household of faith, the Church. In our own day, therefore, we will see our Bishop Hlib and the priests interact with the waters three times.

First, they will bless the water by making the sign of the Cross in it with a lighted candle and their hand, indicating the Father Who has sent His Son from heaven, the Light of Light, to accomplish His purposes in the world yet never leaves His side, even knowing that it will involve His Son’s death on the Cross. Secondly, they will breathing over the water as the Holy Spirit once swept over the foundations of the Creation, bringing it to birth; this recalls the Holy Spirit Who came to rest on Christ at His Baptism, noticed by the disciples looking like a dove, like the dove who found firm and fertile new ground after Noah’s flood; but also the spirit with which Jesus would breathe His last at the moment when our redemption reached its climactic completion, and the Spirit Who raised Him from the dead and that He would then send to lead us into all truth and be our constant life, advocate, and very Strength. Third, Bishop Hlib and the priests will bless the water with the Cross, which in his hands will descend into its depths only to surge upwards again in a great act of bursting forth, recalling Christ going down into the river and coming up again, He Who descended into the end of life, cleared out the realms of death and rose to stand on the firm and fertile new ground of resurrection, the Kingdom for which we pray to come on earth as it is in heaven. Here we see Father, Son and Holy Spirit, indivisible in action and intent, bringing Christ to appearance before us as God, born as one of us and in our midst, One Who has led the whole world to follow and stand in His light, One Who will reveal the entire meaning of God when the Lord is lifted on the Cross, One in Whom the entire action and sovereignty of God re-works its way through the physical creation, to make it new and abounding in blessing and the living now of God’s own eternity. If you come on the 19th January, or to Compline the evening before, you will see the people themselves crowding forward to be blessed by Bishop Hlib with the new waters of life.

By an accident of history, and also the providence of God in permitting to the Church two calendars, we in our part of the Byzantine Church find ourselves celebrating Christmas on the weekend after the Latin Church has commemorated the Visit of the Magi and during the one on which it celebrates the Baptism of Christ. To add to the richness of the coincidence of so many themes and feasts, in our Gospel today (Matthew 2. 13-23), we pick up the story of Christ’s Nativity when it is not a star in the created universe this time, but a direct messenger from the Father’s side. It has come, first, to warn the Magi to escape imminent danger by taking a different road home and, secondly, to impress upon Saint Joseph the urgent need to flee to Egypt (like Joseph son of Jacob before him), in the hope of one day restoring to God’s people a time of plenty and liberty in the Promised Land. This Sunday each year we hear of the first to shed their blood for the sake of Christ, the Holy Innocents. We not only recall the vocation and service of Saint Joseph, but also the Apostle St James, who would likewise offer the whole of his life in loyalty to his Brother in the Flesh, and David the King, whose psalms foretelling the Lord’s work of salvation we have sung, the ancestor of the Joseph and thus the founder of the House to which Our Lord, belonged, the Holy Family to which this Temple is dedicated.

To think of all these things at the same time may feel at first confusing. But it all comes down to one thing: the single-mindedness of God in bringing about our world’s rescue, signified to us in the unerring, resolute and solid following of a rare but long calculated light in the night skies that took them to behold the Light coming into the world that no darkness could cover and no other light could show up better, or outshine.

Thus King David said, “I waited patiently for the Lord,” (Psalm 39.1) and “God is the Lord and has appeared to us in light.” (Psalm 117.27)

Thus the Magi pursued only the Star; they beheld the Light of Lights and saw its refraction when an Angel told them to go further on their way into life and the future Church’s story, as if to say, now “let your light so shine before people that they may see your good works and give the glory to God in heaven.” (Matthew 5.16)

Thus Joseph was enlightened by the Angel; he at once led his Family to safety and just as faithfully brought them back so that Jesus might prepare for the coming Kingdom.

Thus the Holy Innocents are not only the blameless and passive victims of a politician’s tyranny or paranoid control freakery, but also the loved and unfadingly luminous patrons of all the innocents that have suffered and ever thirsted after righteousness in a world made new. They are those whose unwilled sacrifice has been taken and transformed by God to serve the purposes of salvation in the hands of Christ His Son, the One Who would one day follow them into death, but remaining still the Undimmed Light that no dark can overwhelm.

Thus the Father, the Son and the Spirit, too, are seen pressing their way through into the creation. The Father presses in, to give His own voice to His Son, and to show His hand, as it were – never losing its clasp on the hand of Christ in all the miracles, all the overturning of tables, all the holding onto donkeys, all the breaking of Bread, all the endurance of nails, all the forcing aside of the sealed stone of the Tomb. It is the Father’s own light showing Christ to be none other than Son of God, Light from Light. The Spirit presses through, so that He may be seen resting on Christ, as once He brooded over the imminent creation and filled the Temple with the clouds of fire-and-light-glory that once led the People of the Hebrews through the desert and the dark. From within the Holy Trinity, the Son presses Himself into the water, so that the shape of the Cross - the sign of Who and What God’s Love Is - will indelibly mark the creation, such that immediately St John the Baptist recognises Him in the clear light of heaven’s day coming out of the waters as Lamb of God, come to take away the sin of the world.

And how about ourselves? How is it that we press on and through? What is to be our single-minded, unerring, and solid following of the Star that captured the minds, then the hearts, and then the souls of the Magi when they saw the Light come into the world?

Our baptism is the moment to which we all look back - even if we cannot remember it - as the moment when this single-minded, relentless Light from another Kingdom not only dawned on us, but lit us too. In the Troparion for today we sang:

Your Nativity, O Christ our God, made the Light of knowledge to dawn on the world. Through it those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to worship You, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know you, the Dawn from on high.

The Dawning of the Light of knowledge on the world was not, however, a single event in the past, for it must rise up on everyone in each new generation. It does so, because the light is no longer one to intrigue people from portents coming through the outer cosmos, but in the purity and determination - the love to the end - of those who follow Christ, who believe his promise, and shine with the glory of heaven that their very souls reflect all round them. The rulers of this world, such as those in Belgium who want a Catholic care home to perform euthanasia or be closed down, or those benighted, crazed false-followers of religion, who think they can stamp out Christ by destroying His faithful followers, will always resent the Dawn from on high, or they will force themselves to be blind to the Sun of Righteousness. But for us, it is simply the Truth about everything that Jesus is Lord of all, that he has “destroyed death …opened Paradise to the thief, [even to me,] changed lamentation … to joy … offering great mercy to the world.”(Troparion of the Resurrection, Tone 7)  In which other direction would we go?

So I am left with the moving image of the glories of the Epiphany at Vienna, with the Cardinal Archbishop and all the people, excited, happy, lit with God, and full of hope  going out of the great Liturgy into the world, taking all of Christ’s heaven with them, following the Star.

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