the meaning of life.

Homily 483 – 29th APE
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
January 9, 2022
Epistle: (224-ctr) – Ephesians 4:7-13
Gospel: (8) – Matthew 4:12-17

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

We have reached the conclusion of the holiday season, having celebrated the Nativity of our Lord and His Baptism in the Jordan.

I find myself more and more thinking about the holidays – the holy days – in the context of our daily lives.

Certainly, Theophany has lost any of the meaning it once held in society at large. In medieval days, the time before Christmas, much as we remember today as Orthodox Christians, was a time where not a lot changed.

No celebrations, no parties. Rather, things were a bit more austere than even “normal” life for that day. On Christmas eve, however, things began to change.

Decorations began to appear. Work was stopped, except for caring for the livestock. Christmas itself, Christ’s Mass, was the immediate focus, and after that, there was a time of feasting for the next 12 days – until Theophany (better known in the West as Epiphany).

Even then, there were church feasts to be attended, like the feast of St. Stephen. We probably know of that more from the Christmas song “Good King Wenceslas” rather than the actual feast.

It continued to what was called 12th night – the night before Theophany or Epiphany. Again, a day known more for the Shakespeare play of that title than the actual church day itself.

It is a struggle we acutely feel today. The time preceding Christmas, the Nativity of our Lord, is in the Church at least, a time of preparation and fasting. It might be said of our brothers and sisters who do not have an ascetical regimen that they maybe peak too early?

By the time the Synaxis of the Theotokos arrives, the Day after Christmas, the world is done and looking forward to the debauchery of New Year’s Celebrations.

Our celebrations, in the Orthodox Church, are just getting started. And for wildly different reasons than the society at large.

This Sunday, the Sunday after the Theophany of our Lord, provides some insight into the significance for us of the Church calendar and our spiritual growth.

We celebrate the joy and amazement of the incarnation of Christ, and the sanctification of the world at the Theophany. But today the message changes. Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.

That sanctification of the world bit we sometimes acknowledge but pass over rather quickly and without much thought. In the Anaphora prayer of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, there is a phrase – that after humanity fell, they were cast out of paradise into this world.

Into this world. A world where we had to work for the food, the literal fruit of our labors.

Beloved, God created everything with us in mind. He created us with a singular purpose – to love God and to receive God’s love. Theologians argue that there may have been other tasks given to humanity by God – but that is for them to discuss.

The fact remains that the primary purpose we had before the fall was to love and commune with God, and to receive His love for us in return.

The world was communion – the world was for us. But. But. One of the elements necessary for love is free will. Without free will, love cannot exist. Love cannot be compelled or coerced.

That goes both ways, by the way. God does not compel our love for Him, and although generations upon generations of humans have tried, we cannot compel or coerce God.

The gods of the ancients were basically all fertility gods. They needed to be appeased in order to compel them to bring fertility, be it in land, or livestock, or sons and daughters.

But our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One God without cause, was different. He actively wants to love us and seeks to reunite with us. But we refuse to love Him.

Instead, like the first humans, we are deceived and prefer to trust our own judgment, and we get the same result as they did – remaining cast out of paradise, unwilling to set aside our pride and arrogance to receive God’s love.

And so, God Himself joins us today. The Son is with us, and redeems the fallen creation through his Baptism, and redeems us through his death on the cross and resurrection on the Third Day.

His message is clear – repent. Change. Don’t continue to do things the old way, not because He desires us to be moribund and without joy. Quite the opposite in fact!

Change, follow this new path because what you call joy now is not joy. What you call happiness now is not happiness.

Change, follow this new path, to find the real joy, the real happiness, which can only be found in receiving God’s love.

We can experience, or perhaps more accurately said, learn how to experience, our Lord’s love differently in this foretaste, this appetizer, of the Kingdom. The return to paradise that begins in this life and is fulfilled and completed in the life to come – the resurrection.

That, dear ones, is the message of Christ, and the purpose of our existence. We can begin to live that purpose here and now.

Everything else, literally everything else, is simply a futile attempt to achieve within ourselves what cannot be achieved without God.

Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.