When Thou was baptised in the Jordan, O Lord,
The worship of the Trinity was made manifest
For the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee,
When He called You His beloved Son.
And the Spirit, in the form of a dove
Confirmed the truth of the Word,
O Christ, our God!
Who has appeared and has enlightened the world, Glory to Thee!
(Troparion hymn of the feast)
Sermon from Sunday, January 16, 2022.
Forefeast of Theophany Mark 1: 1-8
by Fr Nicholas Karipoff
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The beginning of the Gospel of Mark, that we just heard, opens to us a picture bigger than life itself. In thinking about these verses in preparation for Theophany, I remembered the painting of a Russian 19th century artist, Alexander Ivanov. He lived from 1806 to 1858. Ivanov spent twenty years doing research for this painting by reading the New and Old Testaments and making about 600 sketches and full-size paintings in preparation. The painting is called The Appearance of Christ to the People and is a colossal oil painting 7.5 m wide and almost 5.5 metres tall. It’s now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. It’s a contemplation of Theophany and it shows two central figures; the one closer to the viewer is St John the Baptist while the main figure of Christ Himself is approaching from a distance. There’s a group of people around and every single face on this painting shows all the nuances, all the different ways that people reacted to the Baptist and to his words about the coming Christ, the Lamb of God.
One of the greatest dangers of spiritual life is desensitization, as I’ve said many times in the past. This desensitization, as the psychologists call it, leads to a jaded state, a state of insensitivity to spiritual reality. You can have all the ingredients of church and of a spiritual life, but you also need a freshness of perception, a child-like spontaneity. This was the spiritual state of Israel which had not had prophets for literally hundreds of years before the coming of St John the Baptist at the time of Theophany. Yet the ancient Israelites were better than us. They were very receptive to the call of St John the Baptist to repentance. Let me just re-read to you a passage from the Gospel we’ve just heard, Then all the land of Judea and those from Jerusalem went out to him and were all baptised by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:5) Now this might be an exaggeration or a generalisation but nevertheless there must have been a majority of people who reacted like that. They came with contrite hearts to the River Jordan. This is not what we see in the spiritual reality of our own Church life.
We may not have John the Baptist preaching to us with a booming voice in the power and spirit of Elijah, but we have world events. Just in the last twelve hours the State Emergency Services were getting people off the beach in Bondi because they were afraid that a tsunami from Tonga might hit the beaches. And we’ve been two years under attack from the virus and everything else that goes along with it. But still that’s not enough for us! Shouldn’t that be booming to us as much the sermon of the Baptist two thousand years ago? We have just received the lessons from the Nativity; Christ taught us to put aside all that baggage of our so-called accomplishments and to invigorate the child inside in each one of us. Then we can heed the call for transformation, for repentance, on an adult level. Only then we can come to the Feast of Theophany to contemplate what it means to die and to rise with Christ in our life after baptism.
Sermon from January 19, 2022,
The Feast of Theophany Matthew 3: 31 – 17
By Fr Nicholas Karipoff
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Theophany is one of the most ancient of the Church feast days. It appeared in the earliest centuries after Pascha and Pentecost. Originally this feast day celebrated not only the coming of Jesus from Nazareth to the River Jordan to be baptized, but it also celebrated the birth of Christ. Even now these feasts are still connected liturgically. You know the carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas? It shows the connection, how one feast flows into the other. Theophany celebrates the manifestation of God at the Jordan, whereas the Nativity is the celebration of His birth in Bethlehem. As we hear from the prophet, Isaiah, God is with us, God is Emmanuel.
For centuries the Church has fought very hard to preserve its faith in Jesus Christ, Who is true God and true man. If any of you ever read the history of the Church you will see how much blood, sweat and tears went into that. Because if there is no incarnation, or if the reality of the incarnation is somehow undermined; if God is not Emmanuel, if He’s not with us, if He’s distant, then Christianity is no different from Judaism or from Islam or from a host of other religions. And you know what? This is the reason why the faith of the Church in the manifestation of God as true God and true man in the flesh has been attacked so much over the centuries. Humanity wants to bring religion down to a comfortable level because deep down inside simple mankind really wants God to be distant. Don’t call me, I’ll call you! That’s our attitude! When I need you, I’ll let you know, but otherwise let me carry on with my earthly life as it is. That’s the comfortable level for human beings.
But Christians are supposed to be different. If God is not with us, if we keep Him at a distance, then our religion is based on a personal moralism, of “becoming a better person”. And yet just this morning I quoted to someone the words of St Ephraim the Syrian, that the Church is not a choir of the righteous, it’s a choir of repentant sinners. We Christians have to repent, rather than think “I’m going to become a better person”. That’s rubbish! That’s moralism. This moralism has seen many fake saints over the centuries, people who have taken on ascetic practices but without real repentance. There are plenty of real saints, of course, but there are even more fake saints, people who play at being a saint, because it’s much easier to do.
Today’s feast, like Nativity, is about our connection within the life of the Church, an organic connection with the body of Christ, the God-Man. That’s what it’s about. This connection is made in baptism, and today’s feast of course, is an opportunity for us to contemplate each year what our own baptism means. What is this organic connection all about? When people come to baptisms, they hear these words of St Paul to the Romans, that baptism is about participation in the death and resurrection with Christ. But what does this mean? We need to be dying to sin and having a life with God on a daily basis. That is the essence of Christian life and it’s a painful but joyous event at the same time because Christ is with us. If we allow him to be in our lives, if we don’t tell Him, Look, just stay away until I call you!, then I’ll tell you your life is going to change. It’s going to change and be a very different life. When we repent, we truly believe what Christ said when he was baptised and when he began to preach Himself saying Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. This life in Christ is close to us, God wants to be in our life. We just have to allow Him.
Sermon from Sunday, January 23, 2022
Afterfeast of Theophany Matthew 4: 12 – 17
by Fr Nicholas Karipoff
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
The life of Christians is about following Christ. At this time each year in the liturgical year our spiritual gaze turns from the baptism of Christ to the desert where He went to fight the devil. We just heard in the Gospel reading His message to us after those forty days in the desert: Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. We have to come into the desert to die to “Egypt”, our comfortable worldly life, and then to rise to the Promised Land. Too often our understanding of repentance is too comfortable and shallow. It’s a bit like going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, while flying first class and staying in 5-star hotels!
I’ve told some of you already the story of the grandmother of one of our prominent parishioners who died about twenty years ago, Professor Nina Christesen. Her grandmother lived in Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century. After she was widowed, she gave away all her property to her children and took off on a foot journey from Archangelsk in the very north of Russia all the way to the Holy Land. She went as a beggar. She took no money. This is the classical pilgrimage. She begged all the way to the Holy Land, and then came back and lived the rest of her life piously in prayer and good works. This is what the pilgrimage of repentance is about.
St John of the Ladder, one of the greatest of the ascetic fathers, wrote in his book, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” about repentance. In Step Five he wrote: “Repentance is the renewal of baptism. It is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Repentance goes shopping for humility and is ever distrustful of bodily comfort”… 5-star hotels on a pilgrimage! … “Repentance is critical awareness and a sure watch over oneself. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal to despair. The penitent stands guilty but undisgraced. Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the performance of good deeds which are the opposite of the sins. It is the purification of the conscience and the voluntary endurance of affliction. The penitent deals out his own punishment for repentance with the fierce persecution of the stomach and the flogging of the soul into intense awareness.” Beautiful!
On this Sunday after Theophany, Christ begins to ring the bell, 'Ding Dong'. This is the bell of repentance. The bell has just sounded from the Gospel today, and it’s an annual call to repentance. This year we still have about six weeks until the start of Great Lent; Easter is not so early this year. And yet the Holy Fathers teach us that Lent is, or rather should be, an image of our whole life, of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to the Promised Land. That’s what our life is about.
The great ascetics lived an incredible lifestyle. They were true sportsmen and sportswomen in a spiritual sense. But for us, like for the ancient Israelites, the message of repentance is quite simple. It is in the words that St John the Baptist said to the Israelites, basically: Don’t be greedy, don’t be selfish and don’t hurt other people. It sounds pretty simple. But it still requires effort and blood, sweat and tears, because we have to fight ourselves. We are selfish and greedy, and we do hurt our neighbour, all the time. So, this is the deal, the mission, should we choose to accept it. No first-class journey, no five-star comforts! Let’s take and accept what God sends us. And especially during the last couple of years, He’s been sending us quite a lot of stuff to help us in our journey of repentance!