Baptized into Christ

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And baptism into Christ means incorporated into the diverse community of fellow baptized, co-crucified, co-resurrected, justified inhabitants of Christ”  (Gal 3:28).

. . . justification is an experience of both death and resurrection, and both must be stressed. But the resurrection to new life it incorporates is a resurrection to an ongoing state of crucifixion: I “have been” crucified means I “still am” crucified. Therefore, justification by faith must be understood first and foremost as a participatory crucifixion that is, paradoxically, life-giving (cf. 2 Cor 4:7-15). The one who exercises faith, and is there by crucified with Christ, is systauroo in Gal 2:19 – as in Rom 6:6), because he or she is animated by the resurrected Christ, who always remains for Paul (and the New Testament more generally) the crucified Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 2:2; cf. John 20:20, 27; Rev. 5:6). As Miroslav Volf says in commenting on this text, the self “is both ‘de-centered’ and ‘re-centered’ by one and the same process, by participating in the death and resurrection of Christ through faith and baptism…” Volf continutes:

By being ‘crucified with Christ,’ the self has received a new center – the Christ who lives in it and with whom it lives…The center of the self – a center that is both inside and outside – is the story of Jesus Christ, who has become the story of the self. More precisely, the center is Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected who has become part and parcel of the very structure of the self.

This understanding of faith as crucifixion is reinforced by Paul’s insistence that the believer’s experience (narrated representatively by Paul in first-person texts) is not only a death with Christ but also a death to the Law (Gal 2:19), to the world (Gal 6:14), and of the flesh (Gal 5:24). The mention of death of the flesh and to the world also demonstrates that Gal 2:15-21 should not be read only as a Jewish experience of liberation from the Law. Rather, every believer begins and continues his or her existence in Christ by co-crucifixion. Gal 2:19-21 suggests that co-crucifixion is both the way in and the way to stay in the convent.

Once again, we must stress that it is the resurrected crucified Christ with whom believers are initially and continually crucified. This is important, both christologically and soteriologically, in two ways. First, as an experience of the risen or resurrected Christ, co-crucifixion is not merely a metaphor but an apt description of an encounter with a living person whose presence transforms and animates believers: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I live, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me by giving himself for me.” As Douglas Campbell says, this is no mere imitatio Christi! For “God is not asking [believers]…to imitate Christ – perhaps an impossible task – so much as to inhabit or to indwell him,” such that “the Spirit of God is actively reshaping the Christian into the likeness of Christ.”

(Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, pp. 70-71)

Everything Jesus Does Is a Sacrament

“…each thing that Jesus accomplished, no matter how apparently insignificant, had salvific effects.

‘Everything that Jesus does,’ writes Jerome in his explanation of why the Gospel of Mark found it necessary to record the detail that Jesus rode on an ass when he entered Jerusalem, ‘is a sacrament. He is our salvation For if the Apostle tells us, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever else you do, do all things in the name of the Lord” [1 Corinthians 10:31], are not these much more our sacraments, when the Savior walks or eats or sleeps?’ As the Gospels themselves indicate, the dynamism or radiant energy possessed by Christ extended also to his clothing, which Hilary comments on apropos of the story of the healing of the woman with the flow of blood in Matthew 9:20-22: “The power abiding in his body added a health-giving quality to perishable things, and a divine efficacy even when as far as the fringes of his garments. For God was not divisible and able to be contained, as if he could be shut up in a body.”

A striking instance of the energy that radiated from Christ, finally, is associated with his baptism in the Jordan River. Jesus’ mere physical contact with the Jordan was enough to cleanse it and, along with it, all the waters of the earth, so as to make them suitable in turn for cleaning those who would be baptized. We find this idea as early as the beginning of the second century in Ignatius of Antioch and frequently thereafter.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 83-84)

Blessing Water

At Theophany we Orthodox bless water, a practice for Christians that can be traced to the early church.   We also bless water before every baptism reciting many of the same prayers and ideas at both services.  The Apostolic Constitutions, a Christian document from the 4th Century, mentions the blessing of water before a baptism:

“… let the priest even now call upon in baptism, and let him say:

Look down from heaven, and sanctify this water, and give it grace and power, that so he that is to be baptized, according to the command of Your Christ, may be crucified with Him, and may die with Him, and may be buried with Him, and may rise with Him to the adoption which is in Him, that he may be dead to sin and live to righteousness.

And after this, when he has baptized him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, he shall anoint him with ointment…”     (Kindle Loc. 3817-21)

In the prayer, baptism is clearly our dying with Christ – we are identifying ourselves with Christ, to be crucified with Him and die with Him and be buried with Him so that we can rise with Him to eternal life.  The prayer asks God to grant this sanctifying power to the baptismal waters, not just to the rite of baptism.  The incarnation is our salvation – we are saved in, with and by creation itself.  The spiritual life is not separating ourselves from the physical world but rather transfiguring the physical world to be the spiritual reality which God created.  Theophany is revealing God to us, but also revealing that creation itself is meant to be for our salvation.  Faith is not just a noetic exercise: it is the transformation of our bodies, the formation of our hearts and souls , not just the informing of our minds.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.    (Romans 6:3-11)

Theophany: Reveals God and Creation

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him.


When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  (Matthew 3:13-17)

It is the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus (the Theophany) which help us understand why the birth of Jesus is significant to us.  For it is only after His baptism that Christ begins His public ministry.  Only after His baptism does Jesus begin proclaiming the Gospel and doing the miracles which we know about and which we proclaim in our Sunday lectionary.

The importance of Theophany is also shown to us in that while only two of the four evangelists tell us anything about the birth of Jesus, all 4 evangelists tell us about the baptism of Christ.  In modern popular thinking, Christmas is the big event and feast, whereas in the Church it is the Theophany of Christ which reveals the importance of Christ’s birth.  Popular piety does not always mirror theology and sometimes popular piety looms larger than life itself.

As has already been stated, Theophany is significant because it marks the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.   Mark’s Gospel in fact begins with the appearance of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan.  This is the beginning of the Gospel for Mark, not Christ’s Nativity.

At Christ’s baptism, God is beginning to unveil His mysterious plan for the world.  In Jesus encountering God in the flesh – divining and humanity united, Creator and creation sharing a common life.   When Jesus steps into the River Jordan, this is God’s son entering into the waters, but it is also the incarnate God entering into the water which God created at the beginning of the world as described in Genesis 1.

God creates the world and the waters of the world, and then God enters into these same waters and is immersed in them.  This is the great mystery of Theophany.  Jesus Christ reveals God to us.  He reveals God’s plan for the world.

The river waters of the Jordan are not only washing God in the flesh, they encompass God as Jesus is immersed in the waters.  He who created the waters allows Himself to be submersed beneath the waters.  There is no such place in the entire cosmos where God cannot enter, including Hades, the place of the dead.  In the River Jordan Jesus shows that God can disappear beneath the waters, be buried in the waters and yet still be both alive and be God.  He is preparing us for what will happen to Him in his burial.

His very presence in the world reveals to us that God is doing the unexpected.  God is uniting Himself to us humans.  God is making it possible for us to share in the divine life, to experience holiness.  God is showing that the physical world which He created is capable of containing God and revealing God to us.  In the waters of the River Jordan we learn who Jesus really is.

And we learn that the physical things can be sanctified and made holy.  The physical world is revealed as being capable of being spiritualized, as being the very means for us to encounter God.  Christ steps into the Jordan River and in touching the water, Christ makes the water a means for us to experience holiness, to experience God.  How is this possible?  Because God made water in the beginning to be a means to reveal Himself to us.  God is showing us what creation is capable of being.  And God is showing us we can encounter Him in and through the creation God made as a gift for us.  God shows us that even the watery depths of the earth are a place where God abides and where humans can still be united to God.

Matter, elements, the physical world are not merely physical.  The physical without the spiritual is dead, inert, void of meaning.  Christ reveals that all the physical world belongs to God is capable of life because it is spiritual as well.  Indeed when science wants to study the world as if there is no God, then the world of matter is devoid of God, it is lifeless.  In the Gospel we learn that matter, the physical world has as spiritual dimension if we care to find it.

And so we see the physical world, God’s creation becomes life giving in Christ.  Not only life giving, but giving eternal life.  And we see in Christ that not only the physical world is capable to being touched by God and made holy, but we ourselves as humans are able to be holy – to be united to God.

When we baptize people into Christ, we use the physical tools given to us by God – water and holy oil – to convey life to them, to show that we humans are not merely physical, material beings  – we are fully capable of bearing life and even giving life, we are made to be united to God.  The nature of water to give a new birth was revealed in baptism.

A final point, sometimes we Orthodox major on the minor in so many ways surrounding feasts.  The prayer of the blessing of water says:

And grant unto all them that touch it, and partake of it, and anoint themselves with it, sanctification, health, cleansing and blessing.

It doesn’t say that we should take it home and venerate it as if it is some holy object worthy of veneration.  We are not to treat it as if it is imbued with nuclear power.  We are to use it to bless ourselves and encounter God.  It’s purpose is to give us an experience of God.  The holiness of this water is that it means God is present with us.  So use it to bless yourselves and your homes and your gardens, so that the God who showed us the nature of water in baptism will be present with you in your person and in your home.  God enters our life not to give us “sacred objects” to venerate, but to transfigure us into beings who are united to Him.

The Jordan River: Giving Birth to Christ

Thoughts about the Feast of Theophany from St. Ephrem the Syrian:

Ephrem’s second standpoint shows a more specific concern to associate Christ’s baptism with Christian baptism. In a remarkable hymn on Christ in the river Jordan and in the womb of Mary Ephrem links these two aspects: Christ’s baptism in ‘the womb’ of the Jordan looks back in time to His conception in Mary’s womb. Both wombs, Mary’s and the Jordan’s, by bearing Christ the Light, are clothed with light from His presence within them; Mary’s womb thus becomes the source of her own baptism, the Jordan’s womb becomes the fountainhead of Christian baptism:

The river in which Christ was baptized

conceived Him again symbolically;

the moist womb of the water

conceived Him in purity,

bore him in chastity,

made Him go up in glory.

In the pure womb of the river

you should recognize Mary, the daughter of humanity,

who conceived having known no man,

who gave birth without intercourse,

who brought up, through a gift,

The Lord of that gift.

 

As the Daystar in the river,

the Bright One in the tomb,

He shone forth on the mountain top

and gave brightness too in the womb;

He dazzled as He went up from the river,

gave illumination at His ascent.

The brightness which Moses put on

was wrapped on him from without.

whereas the river in which Christ was baptized

was clothed in light from within;

so too did Mary’s body, in which he resided,

gleam from within.

(Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 91-92)

The Son and the Sons of God

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.  (Galatians 4:4-7)

When St. Paul wrote his epistles, he refers to Jesus as God’s son, and also refers to us Christians as “sons.”  For our modern sensitivities and for the sake of political correctness, we might prefer to refer to Jesus as God’s child and to believers as God’s children so that women and daughters do not feel left out of the Church by the patriarchal language Paul uses.   Yet the differences in our modern understanding and that of St. Paul about sons and daughters can also help us better understand the exact point Paul is trying to make.

St Paul is not making a point that women/daughters are less valued that males/sons, for it is this same St Paul who stresses in this same letter that in Christ “there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).   And our Lord Jesus Himself said,  “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).  Angels have no gender, and Christ seems to imply that in heaven, in the resurrection, gender no longer matters – an ideal which monasticism tried to live out in its celibacy, its desire to live the angelic life in the flesh, and in the stories of the women saints who strove to live as men.

What St Paul is doing with his emphasis on sonship is to take the assumed values of his time to show that the rights and privileges of the son are being extended to all believers.  Sons, in the world that he knew, “sons” had special rights and privileges when it came to inheritance, that daughters did not have.  He is saying the values of the Kingdom of God are different from the values of the world, because in the Kingdom, all those who believe are adopted with the same rights as a son has – all will receive their full inheritance in the Kingdom.

So though our cultural understanding of inheritance is different than his, and we think of sons and daughters both having rights of inheritance, in Paul’s world this was not the case.   He knows what the rights and privileges of a son are in his world and he is making the clear connect that Jesus is the first-born son of the Father with all the rights and privileges that comes with that position, and we each and all, male and female, have been adopted by God with the full rights of sons of the Father.

In the ancient world, there were clear differences regarding inheritance for sons, daughters and slaves.  St. Paul’s exact point is that within that understanding of inheritance, we are being adopted as sons with all the rights of inheritance of sons.  We are not being adopted either as daughters or as slaves with the diminished rights they would have had in Paul’s world.

We can call to mind the parable Jesus tells of the Prodigal Son  (Luke 15:11-32) who wishes to return to his father’s house with nothing more than the status of a servant.  The Prodigal  knows he is not a son. He has not behaved like a son but disowned his father by claiming his inheritance before his father had died.   However in the parable, his father welcomes him as a son (my son who was dead is alive!).  The father treats the prodigal as a son, not a captured runaway slave.  And this is made even more notable by the reaction of the older brother who wants nothing to do with his prodigal brother.  The father claims the prodigal as a son, but the elder brother rejects him as a brother, though recognizing his brother is the son of his father [“this son of yours” (Luke 15:30)].  What the elder brother is not willing to accept is that his brother has any filial right of inheritance left.  Note the Prodigal son demanded his inheritance as if the father was dead, but the father welcomes the son back as if the son had been dead!  The Father shows how a son is treated and welcomed.  This is what it is to be called God’s sons, even if adopted.  This is Paul’s point in saying we are adopted as sons (and not as daughters of his day, who had few rights of inheritance).  I think St Paul is trying to make this point clearly, he is not commenting on whether treating daughters and sons differently is proper or correct, he is noting clearly that all believers have the same rights as the sons of his culture had.

As many of us as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” – this is quoted by Paul in Galatians 3:27, the same epistle that he speaks about us as being God’s “sons”.  As many as – all of us, females and males have put on the Son of God in order to receive all the rights and blessings of inheritance of sons as understood by Paul’s culture, and also to be treated every bit as good as the Prodigal son was treated by his loving and merciful father.  We sing those words at every baptism and at every feast which was a traditional baptismal feast (such as Christmas and Pascha).  We sing the same words for males and females because all put on Christ, all put on Christ’s sonship.    If we adopted the language of our modern times and said “children” instead of sons, we might miss the very point Paul is trying to make – we received our sonship from and through Christ the only-begotten son of the Father.  We will be received by God, all of us, male and female and even prodigals, with the full rights of sons.  The values of the Kingdom are not the values of this world.

Again we only have to think about the parable of the workers hired at various hours by the master of the house (Matthew 20:1-13).  In the Kingdom, the last are first and all get the same wages, all inherit the full blessings of God, no matter when in their lives they agreed to serve the master.  This is the Kingdom’s fairness.  This is the master’s hospitality and generosity.  This is what Paul wants to emphasize in his epistle.

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”   (John 14:1-3)

Christ prepares for us, male and female, all things which belong to the children of God.  Our inheritance is the eternal abundance of the Kingdom.  We don’t receive the blessedness of the Kingdom because we are sons (male), nor do we receive the blessings as sons (males).  Rather, whether male or female,  we each and all receive all the blessings the biblical culture sometimes limited to the son.  The Son’s blessings are ours as well.

 

The Incarnation: So We Can See Christ

For humility is the raiment of the Godhead. The Word Who became man clothed Himself in it, and therewith He spoke to us in our body. Every man who has been clothed with it has truly been made like unto Him Who came down from His own exaltedness, and hid the splendor of His majesty, and concealed His glory with humility, lest creation should be utterly consumed by the contemplation of Him. Creation could not look upon Him unless He took a part of it to Himself, and thus conversed with it, and neither could it hear the words of His mouth face to face.

The splendour of His glory appeared on Mount Sinai; and the mountain smoked and quaked in fear of the revelation that was in it, so that even the beasts that approached the lower parts of it died. The sons of Israel made ready and prepared themselves, keeping themselves chaste for three days according to the command of Moses that they might be made worthy of hearing the voice of God, and of vision of His revelation. And when the time was come, they could not receive the vision of His light and the fierceness of the voice of His thunders. But now, when He has poured out His grace upon the world through His own coming, He has descended not in an earthquake, not in a fire, not in a terrible and mighty sound, but ‘as the rain upon a fleece, and rain-drops that fall upon the earth’ softly, and He was seen conversing with us after another fashion.

This came to pass when, as though in a treasury, He concealed His majesty with the veil of His flesh, and among us spoke with us in that [body] which His own bidding wrought for Him out of the womb of the Virgin, even Mary the Theotokos. All this He did so that on beholding Him Who was of our race conversing with us, we should not be smitten with terror by the vision of Him.

Wherefore every man has put on Christ when he is clothed with the raiment wherein the Creator was seen through the body that He put on.

(St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Isaac the Syrian, pp. 381-382)

The Cross as the Garment of Salvation

One of the many images we find in the Scriptures are those of garments and their relationship to God and God’s salvation.

In the hymns of the Church and in the writings of many Patristic writers we note that Eve and Adam are stripped naked by their own sinfulness.  A nakedness which God in His love and mercy chooses to cover as God covers both our sin and shame:

In Paradise of old, the wood stripped me bare, for by giving its fruit to eat, the enemy brought in death.  But now the wood of the cross that clothes mankind with the garment of life has been set up in the midst of the earth, which is filled with boundless joy.  As we behold it exalted, people, in faith, let us cry out to God with one accord: Your house is full of glory!    (Matins hymn, Feast of the Elevation)

In Genesis 3:21, after Eve and Adam had sinned, it is God Himself who is said to cover their nakedness:

And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.

It is an act of mercy on God’s part for His human creatures who have through sin rebelled against Him.  But we are pitiable creatures in God’s eyes, and God provides for us so that we can survive in the world of the Fall.  The hymns of the Cross suggest it is through the Cross that we are clothed again with a garment of life.

In Exodus 19, the people of Israel are all told to wash their garments in preparation for the theophany that Moses was to experience on the mountain.  The people themselves are forbidden from even approaching the mountain, and yet they are commanded to wash their clothes in preparation for what Moses would receive from God on their behalf.  The washing of their clothes was a sacramental act as part of their cleansing themselves to meet the Holy God.  In Christianity, we take that all a step further in baptism when we wash not our clothes but ourselves in order to put on Christ.  We strip off our old garments belonging to the fallen world, and put on Christ as a garment as a sign of the new life we have embraced in Christ.

Garments play a significant part the sacramental life of Christians – through baptism we are given a special spiritual garment which we ask God in the petitions to help us “keep the garment undefiled”)  and for which we will have to give an account on Judgement Day (“and preserve the baptismal garment undefiled unto the day of Christ our God”).  This is symbolized in the white garment the newly baptized put on when they come up from the watery grave and rise to the new life.  As it says in Revelation 16:15 –  “Blessed is the one who keeps watch and preserves his garments in order not to walk naked and be shamefully exposed.

So we pray at the baptismal service:

Preserve pure and unpolluted the garment of incorruption with which You have clothed him (her), by Your grace, the seal of the Spirit, and showing mercy to him (her) and to us, through the multitude of Your mercies.

The priest declares immediately after baptizing the person that:

The servant of God, ______, is clothed in the robe of righteousness, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

And then everyone at the baptism sings:

Grant to me the robe of light, O Most Merciful Christ our God, Who clothe Yourself with light as with a garment.

And

As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)

The newly baptized is said to clothe himself/ herself in  Christ our God.  Which also resonates with the the Transfiguration account in which the very clothes of Christ are said to show forth a brilliant whiteness (Mark 9:3; Matthew 17:2; Luke 9:22).

Not only is each newly baptized Christian spiritually clothed with the garment of salvation at baptism, but also, the priests who serve God since the time of Aaron in the Book of Exodus, have been commanded by God to wear special garments.  When Aaron is chosen with his sons to serve as priests, one of the first things God commands is:  “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty”  (Exodus 28:2).

In Isaiah 61:10, we read these words which the priest prays as he vests himself with the priestly garments before the Liturgy:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

The garments as a sign of salvation are not just for this world but belong to the eternal life in God.   In 2 Esdras 2:39, we encounter this prophecy of what we will receive in the glorious age to come:

Those who have departed from the shadow of this age have received glorious garments from the Lord.

St Isaac of Nineveh writes:

For the Cross is Christ’s garment just as the humanity of Christ is the garment of the divinity.   (Contemplating the Cross)

We put on Christ, Christ puts on our humanity.  We are clothed in each other.  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil stripped us bare when we ate of its fruit.  Now the cross clothes Christ who is stripped naked and nailed to it.  The images of clothing and salvation are common throughout the scriptures.

Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  (2 Corinthians 5:2-4)

The Unexpected Gospel: To Unstop our Blocked Ears

Then the disciples came and said to Jesus, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”   (Matthew 13:10-11)

Luke 12:32

It can be hard for us to feel excitement about the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven, for we hear about it all the time in church, and it loses its newness and attraction to us.  Year after year we listen to the same Gospel lessons and they come to sound so familiar, so ordinary, that we forget how totally unexpected, how original, how startling and exciting was the message of St. John the Forerunner and Jesus Christ and His apostles : “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand, repent!

To get some sense of the newness of the Gospel, let us consider the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven.”

We’ve all heard that phrase in church and it seems like that is just common fare from the Bible.  And yet, the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” never occurs in the Old Testament.    Not even one time.  And how about the phrase “the Kingdom of God”?     That occurs one time in the  Old Testament, in the Wisdom of Solomon.     A book Protestants don’t even have in their English bibles.

So when the Evangelist Matthew has St. John the Forerunner and then Jesus proclaim, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:7), the people were hearing a newly worded message for the first time.    This Gospel belonged to the New Creation for it was new and renewing.  It is no wonder that the apostles didn’t always understand Jesus.  They would not have learned about the Kingdom of heaven growing up or  in any scripture classes they took at their local synagogues.  Jesus was proclaiming a new idea, something strange to their ears, to get their attention.  What is more surprising is that the people don’t ask more often, “What’s the kingdom of heaven?  We’ve never heard of it.  What are you talking about?

And do you think the phrase, “the kingdom of Heaven” permeates the New Testament?     The Evangelists John, Luke and Mark  and the Apostle Paul never use the phrase “the kingdom of Heaven”?    Not once.  None of them.

We hear the phrase Kingdom of Heaven and we think, O that’s what the bible is all about  or that is what the New Testament constantly talks about.  But no, there is only one author in the New Testament who uses the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” and that is St. Matthew.  He uses the phrase 31 times .   But He is the only writer in the entire Bible to use that phrase.  It seems as if he coined a phrase and an idea that he wanted us to hear.  He made the Kingdom of Heaven a central idea to the Gospel.  And he was quite the evangelist, for now we think that phrase occurs throughout the Bible from beginning to end.

However, for us already the newness of the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven has worn off.   We’ve heard about it so much that our senses are dulled.   We are at risk to become like the people of the Gospel who turned against Jesus, as St. Paul says in the Acts of the Apostles:

The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people, and say, You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’   (Acts 28:25-27)

We Christians today need constant spiritual renewal to restore in our hearing and in our hearts just how new, exciting and unexpected the Kingdom of Heaven really is.  It is light shining forth out of the darkness.

And in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus used many images to try to convey to His followers what the Kingdom of Heaven is.   He needed to do this because the constant was new, perhaps even foreign to those listening to Him who had heard the Torah taught as a book of Law.     We are not unlike them, for we Orthodox every summer read through Matthew’s Gospel, learning about the Kingdom of Heaven – repeated 31 times for as many years as we follow the Orthodox lectionary.  It becomes hard for us to hear it as new each year.

Jesus gives us parables to tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  He doesn’t explain to us how the Kingdom of Heaven is like these common experiences, nor if the parable speaks only about the beginning of the Kingdom being like these things, nor if the Kingdom will be like these things but not like any other things, nor if the Kingdom will never change.  Here are His images:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.

The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field;

“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. “

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad   (Matthew 13:24-52)

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents   (Matthew 18:23-35)

For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  (Matthew 20:1-16)

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come.  (Matthew 22:1-14)

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.   

“For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.    (Matthew 25:1-30)

When we realize that His disciples and followers never learned about the Kingdom of God from the Torah or the Tanakh, we realize why Jesus spent so much time explaining ideas about this coming Kingdom.

In the parable found in Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son, but the invited guests refuse to come to the feast.  Ultimately, the king commands his servants to bring in what amounts to the dregs of society to fill his banquet hall.  Yet, when the king comes into the banquet hall he sees one man who had no wedding garment.

While the parable is about this unexpected and surprising Kingdom of Heaven, it has one more surprise in the lesson itself – the wedding garment.

Many homilists  assume Jesus must have been referring to a practice that was known in his day so they assume it is true, but most scholars agree that there is absolutely  no known practice of a wedding garment in Israel.  Jesus was telling a parable and may have made up this detail about the wedding garment for the purpose of His parable.  It helps us understand Jesus is using story, not historical fact, to teach us about the Kingdom.  [Another clue that the parable is pure story and not presenting something factual – just think about the time frame it would have taken.  The food is all prepared and sitting on the banquet tables.  The king  sends out his servants initially to bring in the guests, they are rejected, he sends more servants, they are abused and killed.  Send the arm to burn down the city.  Then send more servants to gather all the undesireable – from the thoroughfares, yet the city was burned down! –  then the king finally gets to go to the banquet and the food is still hot on the tables.  All in a few hours apparently.  This could only happen in fiction.]

My “practical” thinking says it is not likely that people provided a wedding garment to everyone who came to a wedding.  The cost would be exorbitant!  Where would people store such garments?  The poor (most of the population) would not have money to purchase their own wedding garments, nor would anyone have had room to store such a garment to be worn only at weddings.

What is possible is that St. Matthew himself wanted us to experience what the disciples experienced when they first heard the parables from Jesus – the parables had details in them which are unexpected and which are not obvious at all and make us say, “What?!?!?”.  They require us to think about them, study them and interpret them.  Maybe St. Matthew wanted us to experience this newness of the Gospel, so that our ears wouldn’t be dull but rather we would hear about this Kingdom of Heaven, and not sure of what it is ,  would want – or more likely, need – to learn more and to seek it out.  The parables are inviting us to seek, not giving us pat answers.

So maybe Jesus or St. Matthew wanted us to think about these mythical or mystical wedding garments – to unstop our ears and to open our hearts and minds to the Gospel.

Maybe because the king had brought in the dregs of the earth to his banquet he provided a wedding garment – not customarily, but especially because everyone was poor and in need.  So the man without the special garment may have refused the special garment or for whatever reason intentionally bypassed accepting the garment and certainly that rejection of the king’s hospitality was noted by the king was already aggravated by his illustrious, invited guests who had jilted him and killed his servants.

In the early church we note how frequently and with great comfort and confidence the Fathers noted any biblical passage may have more than one meaning and the listeners had to decide for themselves which meaning applied to them.

During Holy Week when we pray the Bridegroom Matins, we sing these words:

Your bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.

There we make use of the wedding garment imagery.  We use it to remind ourselves that we are not worthy of this blessed Kingdom of Heaven – we can’t enter it by our own goodness.  We realize our own nakedness – even if we are splendidly clothed in posh frocks!  Our chosen clothes from this world, no matter how expensive and tailored, leave us completely undressed when we try to enter the banquet hall without the God-given festal garments.    We are in need of God’s mercy and grace.  And we ask Christ to “enlighten the vesture of my soul“.  We want Christ the Giver of Light to change the garment of our soul into light so that we can enter Paradise.  We are speaking of a spiritual garment here, not a physical one.    “Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”   (2 Corinthians 5:2)

Maybe Jesus in His parable reference to the wedding garment reminds us that when we are baptized, we put on a new garment, a white baptismal garment which has a particular symbolic meaning.  For it was the belief of many Jews and Christians in the ancient world that Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were given beautiful garments to wear by God.  Garments made of light. They all believed that when Adam and Eve sinned, these beautiful garments of light were taken away from them.  Some also believed that Satan then covered us with dark robes of sinful thinking to help prevent us from seeing the image of God in each other, so that we would forget about the Kingdom Heaven and live only for this world.  Something in which Satan seems to have succeeded quite well.  Satan’s garments blind us, while baptism gives us a new garment which enlightens and illumines us.

Perhaps the wedding garment parable reminds us of that special garment which God gives to us – which we receive at baptism.  A spiritual garment, not a physical one.   The white baptismal garment is but a symbol of the reality.  The prayers of baptismal service say we will have to give account to God for the baptismal garment we received, and how we treated it and what we did with it:

That he/she may preserve his/her baptismal garment and the earnest of the Spirit pure and undefiled unto the Day of Christ our God, let us pray to the Lord.

So if you don’t know where your baptismal garment is – I’m not talking about the physical clothes, but the spiritual garment, or if you don’t even remember this garment at all, maybe it is time to look for it so that you can enter the Kingdom of Heaven and remain there for all eternity as the King’s invited guest.   You have to start thinking about the garment that adorns your soul, not the garments you buy at the mall.   “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”   (1 Peter 3:3-4)   What St. Peter advised women in his day, becomes Christian advice for all in the modern age – don’t be so concerned with appearance, rather pay attention to the substance of your inner self.

 

 

 

Put on Christ

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  (Galatians 3:27)

Baptism

All things are possible with Christ. Where is the pain and effort for you to become good? Things are simple. You will invoke God and He will transform things into good. If you give your heart to Him, there will be no room for the other things. When you ‘put on’ Christ, you will not need any effort to attain virtue. He will give it to you. Are you engulfed by fear and disenchantment? Turn to Christ. Love Him simply and humbly, without any demand, and He himself will free you.

Turn to Christ and say with humility and hope like Saint Paul, Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?Turn towards Christ, therefore, and He will come immediately. His grace will act at once. (Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 135)