Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily 33rd Week after Pentecost: Sunday after Theophany

Gospel: Matt. 4:12-17

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Father, brothers and sisters, I congratulate and greet you on this blessed continuation of the celebration of the feast of our Lord’s Theophany:

Happy Feast! S Praznecom!

In our Gospel reading today we are back in St Matthew’s Gospel – in chapter four – in the period after Jesus’ return from the 40 days in the Wilderness which occurred in the immediate aftermath of His Baptism by the hand of St John the Baptist. This short reading of just four verses is appointed to be read on the Sunday after Theophany. At first glance there is little in the Gospel passage that appears particularly relevant or related to our present feast. There is no direct mention of St John’s Baptism of Christ or of this miraculous revealing of the Holy Trinity. However, if we read more closely we will see that this short Gospel helps us to understand more about the Feast of the Theophany which we are celebrating and returns us back to the celebration of the Feast in the Ancient Church. To assist us in our reading, we will turn to a new Father that we have not mentioned before- a 4th Century Western Orthodox Father, Chromatius Bishop of Aquila.

Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee;

So, the first thing that we learn that no-sooner had St John the Forerunner preached a message of repentance and spiritual renewal culminating in the awesome Mystery of Baptising the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, that he is then arrested and cut out of the Gospel narrative. It is not until some ten chapters later that we learn the reason why St John had been arrested and cast into prison by Herod, due to his righteous condemnation of his incestuous relationship with Herodias. But it is exactly here at this sudden disappearance of St John the Baptist right at the very start of Jesus’ official ministry, that we also see something of his profound and Mysterious identity as the Forerunner. No sooner has the One arrived than the other departs. Like the Sun and the Moon, there is something synched and symbiotic in this beautiful relationship between our Lord and St John. St John’s purpose is entirely preparatory. It is to prepare the Way for the Lord. Necessarily, once that sacred task is fulfilled, and the Lord, the Lamb of God, the only-sinless One comes forth in public to be Baptized – his purpose – in this world at least – and in the Mystery of the divine economy of salvation – is complete. St John was to lead the people to Christ and then to withdraw, as he himself prophesises ‘He must increase but I must decrease’. We see in this the profound and radiant humility of the Forerunner and his supreme love for Christ, a pure love without hint of envy or ambition.

And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim:

Our Lord’s departure from Nazareth marked the ending of the first chapter of His early life. As we will recall after His birth in Bethlehem, the fury of Herod’s anger at the betrayal of the Wise Men to reveal our Lord’s presence, led to the Angel leading the Holy Family to Egypt in order to avoid the butchery of the Holy Innocents. After the death of Herod, Joseph then settled our Lady and the young Christ-child in Nazareth and it was here that our Lord grew up in Wisdom and also some obscurity. Particularly in St Matthew’s Gospel, with its largely Jewish-convert target audience, we see repeated appeals to how each movement and activity of our Lord corresponded and fulfilled prophesies from the Old Testament. Thus, as St Matthew points out, His birth in Bethlehem directly fulfilled a prophesy from the Prophet Micah 5:2 –

And you, O Bethlehem, House of Ephrathah, though you are fewest in number among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to me the One to be ruler of Israel. His goings forth were from the beginning, even from everlasting.

The Flight into Egypt St Matthew points out fulfilled the verse, in the Hebrew, not the Septuagint manuscript of the Book of Hosea 11:1 –

Out of Egypt I have called my son

The settling in Nazareth fulfilled the verse from the Book of Judges 13: 5 –

‘for the child shall be a Nazarite to God from the womb’

Likewise, our Lord’s move from his childhood home of Nazareth to the village of Capernaum, to the north-east directly next to the Sea of Galilee also directly fulfilled a further prophesy, this time from the Prophet Isaiah –  

The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.

Although Capernaum itself may not be directly referenced in Isaiah, St Matthew sees in this verse a fulfilment of this prophesy since Nazareth – the place of Jesus’ youth – belonged to the region of Zebulon in what is Lower Galilee and Capernaum to the region of Naphtali in Upper Galilee. Capernaum would in fact become the home town of our Lord for the remaining years of His sacred ministry. Thus, in Mt 9:1 we hear of Capernaum spoken of as ‘his own city’. But what is the significance of this reference to Light and Darkness and how does this connect to our present Feast of the Theophany?

These specific territories of Zebulon and Napthali to the west of the Sea of Galilee were more vulnerable to attack and foreign invasion and the inhabitants of this area had a largely unhappy history of capture, conquest and domination by external foreign powers. Thus, as the Prophet Isaiah warned, it was the Assyrians who first invaded and particularly ravaged and ransacked the lands of Zebulon and Napthali in the eighth century as recorded in ?. Later still in the first century before Christ, it would be the Romans, through the instigation of Herod the so-called Great, who would next subject the peoples of this region to brutal repression and persecution to force them to accept foreign Gentile rule from Rome. Those who resisted Roman rule thought they would be safe in the caves of the Valley of the Pigeons near Arbela. However, Herod had the Roman soldiers lowered down over the edge of the cliffs in baskets who then slaughtered the resistance fighters along with their families and children.

The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up

This region of Zebulon and Napthali was very much seen by the people of Israel, as a place of Gentile darkness and oppression. As St Chromatius says in his homily on this passage, ‘In what darkness? Certainly in the profound error of ignorance’. Through the subjugation to foreign Gentile powers, many of the former Jewish people had lapsed into paganism. The flicker of light given through the Law and the Prophets had been extinguished. To the religious elite in the Temple and Synagogues of Judea, the area was thus looked down upon due to its Gentile influence.

However, it is exactly out of this darkness and despair that the Light comes forth from. Our Lord could have chosen anywhere to formally begin and inaugurate His ministry, but He deliberately comes to this despised region. As St Chromatius says –

What great light did they see? The light concerning which it is written, ‘He was the true light that illumines everyone who comes into the world’.

The Light of Christ that was revealed through His Baptism in the Jordan was also a revelation of the Light of the Holy Trinity. Thus St Chromatius interprets the Psalm of David, ‘In your light shall we see light,’ and says – ‘for the Father is seen in the Son, as the Lord tells us in the Gospel: ‘Who sees me, sees the Father’. From the true light, indeed, the true light proceeded, and from the invisible the visible.

The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up

If the people of the oppressed Gentile dominated regions of Zebulon and Nepthali, the Lower and Upper regions of Galilee respectively, are to be associated with the people sitting in darkness, who exactly, St Chromatius goes on to ask, are the people ‘which sat in the region and shadow of death’? For the holy bishop of Aquila, this refers to those –

in the region of the infernal abode … He who after his venerable and life-giving passion and death went down into the region of the infernal abode suddenly introduced the light of his majesty upon those shrouded in death, so that He might free those who were being held amond the dead in expectation of His arrival, as the Lord Himself say in the person of the Wisdom of Solomon: ‘I will go down into the depths of the earth and gaze upon all those who are asleep, and I shall enlighten those who hope in God’.     

And indeed, going ahead of the Light Himself was the Forerunner, who just as he preached to the people on the earth about the coming of the Light, after his martyric death, went down into Hades and continued to preach to the people in the land of darkness about the imminent coming of the Light.

These reflections leads us back to the question we posed at the beginning – what connection does this have to the Feast of Theophany, the Baptism of Christ? In the Ancient Church, the Feast of Theophany was known as the ‘Festival of Lights’. It was one of the major feasts on which it was traditional for catechumen to be baptized and Spiritually illumined. The connection between Light, illumination and our Lord’s Theopany is also explicitly recalled in the Kontakion & Ikos for the feast. Listen again –

Kontakion: Thou hast appeared today to the whole world, and Thy light, O Lord, hath been signed upon us who hymn Thee with understanding. Thou hast come, Thou hast appeared, the Light unapproachable.

Ikos: Upon Galilee of the nations, upon the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphthali, as the prophet said, a great Light hath shone, even Christ. A radiant darkness hath dawned upon those who sat in darkness, shining forth from Bethlehem. The Lord born of Mary, the Sun of righteousness, shineth forth with splendor upon the whole world. Come, therefore, all ye naked children of Adam, and let us clothe ourselves in Him, that we may be warmed; for He Who covereth the naked and enlighteneth those in darkness, hath come. He hath appeared, the Light unapproachable!

The Light of Christ has dawned and appeared and been manifested to all the world. We can see here the difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. As St John said, his baptism was a baptism of water whereas our Lord’s baptism was not just a baptism of water and of repentance, but a baptism ‘with the Holy Spirit, and with fire’. A Baptism of Light. And when our Lord is baptized, we read that, ‘the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him’.

My dear Father, brothers and sisters: we here in Mettingham in the rural countryside and backwaters have some level of similarity to those benighted people of Zebulon and Nathalim. What good thing can come out of Nazareth, what good thing we might add can come out of Mettingham also? Perhaps people in the cultured cities look down upon us country bumkins. Yet even here in sleepy Mettingham the Light has shone forth and continues to shine. But in the same way that a shaft of light shining in a messy and dirty room, highlights and makes distinct the piles of refuse and filth, so too does the Light of Christ reveal all that which is opposed to it. And it is for this reason that the first word which our Saviour preaches is the first, the middle and the end of our whole Christian life: Repent.

From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

In this time of the Festival of Lights, let us allow this Light to radiate within us and reveal the depths of our own spiritual darkness:

Thou hast come, Thou hast appeared, the Light unapproachable.