Of one of our contemporary saints, a man who prayed unceasingly would sometimes do prostrations in the Jesus prayer for seven hours at a time. He was one who had such an overabundance of grace that it has said that he would write a letter of consolation to someone who is suffering and merely by writing the letter it comforted the person before they even received it. His fasting was in our modern age perhaps beyond compare. He would take a little food once every three days and the grace sustained him. One day some pilgrims came to him on the Holy Mountain and they asked him, Geronda (holy elder) of all the works that you do, of all the things from which have you received the most grace? The prayer without ceasing, the services of the church, the hymns the fasting? What work has given me the most grace?
St. Ephraim was asked the same question. He was given a vision and, in that vision, he was led to a small country chapel and he walked in and as he walked in, he realized that this was the church of his home village where he was born and he was raised. He walks in and he sees glowing with a light the baptismal font and the voice said it is from here that you received the grace.
How often do we think of our baptisms? We are baptized as infants and we go to baptisms but other than this time of year (Theophany) our Baptism is something very far from our minds. And yet this gospel reading reminds us of the importance and the significance not just of that event that took place in our early childhood but of an event that affects each and every day of our life. The gospel reading links together repentance the coming of Christ his Kingdom and the Holy Spirit all in to the Baptism.
The baptism as perhaps you are all aware begins in the narthex. There is a very profound moment where we are turned and facing the west and then we turn to the East. Our Church doesn't merely explain things to us or try to define things for us but our Church takes our hand and shows us shows us what it means to repent to turn from the west, to turn from that direction which we came and to face the East the direction from which Christ will come again with his Kingdom.
This has such profound implications for our day-to-day living because it reminds us and we should always remember that we as Christians are not defined by our past but by the future. Whatever sins we have committed, whatever mistakes we may have made whatever relationships we have had that have come to ruin that is not who we are or who we will be. And so with our Baptisms we were given a freedom not to be defined by the past but to be remade by the future.
This is as far as the baptism of John the Baptist could lead us. He could preach repentance, preach confession of sins, preach the coming of Christ and yet my friends this is a message I believe that we in the west have often forgotten that salvation cannot merely be a forgiveness of sins. No matter how good we are, no matter how righteous we are, no matter how far we've turned from that west to the East we still die. We still suffer and no goodness can save us from this. And yet Christ has come, Christ has died for us giving us His life. He was buried for us like that seed that is placed in the ground but brings forth a multitude rising from the dead. Baptism is also a repentance. It is a dying to this old life this life of death and sin. We the child are raised from the waters to new life a life that will no longer end in death. Death will not have the final word but the final word the last word is the word of God - Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who has promised us life.
After we are raised from the water, we receive Holy Chrismation the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. This too is something we should remember. Every time we hear of the Holy Spirit the Fathers of the Church understood that it was closely and intimately linked to the Kingdom of God. In fact one of the early renditions of Matthew's Lord's Prayer, we hear not thy kingdom come but thy Holy Spirit come. The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit places a stamp on us telling us that we do not belong to this world and it's fallen and broken kingdoms but rather we are citizens of a Kingdom that is yet to come. And though we are reminded by Saint Paul that we are to follow the rules of the nations in which we find ourselves more importantly we must conduct ourselves as citizens of this Kingdom to come. The very form in which this citizenship is given to us tells us what it means again. Our Church doesn't just explain to us or tell us but takes us by the hand and leads us and shows us its life. The kings of old were anointed and so by this receiving the ointment of Holy Chrismation we learn that we are to be kings and queens. We are to not betray the nobility of the soul that has been pressed by the Holy Spirit itself. We are to rule over ourselves. If we are hungry rule over ourselves by saying, wait let us fast. We are to not allow our bodies our flesh to rule over us but even perhaps more difficultly not our minds. When our mind wonders, as a king or a queen, we are to gather it in and direct it towards Our Lord. The prophets were anointed and they did not only preach but more importantly demonstrated in their lives the Wisdom of God. We too are to live this prophetic calling that we were given at our Chrismation.
And finally, the priests and the temples were anointed. We have our sacramental priesthood, but we also have the royal priesthood of which all who have been Chrismated have become members. What the priest does every Sunday we are to do in your lives as we take the gifts that God has given us and put our seal our stamp, our life into them and offer them to God. He receives our gifts and returns it to us so our life becomes this mystical dance with God. The receiving and giving gifts a dance of gratitude. If God has given you a gift of a shoulder to cry on, offer to Christ in his image the one who is in need. We are to take our gifts and refer them to God. Turn to the kingdom having died been buried and raised with Christ and having received the Holy Spirit. How does this beautiful rite of initiation end or conclude? The Holy Spirit makes present to us the King of Glory. The One that John the Baptist in the gospel reading says I am not worthy to reach out and untie his sandal comes to us not just on Sundays but at each and every Divine Liturgy. And He does not just deign to allow us to touch His foot or the hem of His garment but He says, this is My Body broken for you take eat this is My Blood shed for you drink. And here we realize that this Banquet that is so often spoken of by Christ in the parables is a Banquet that is not just provided for us by Christ Himself. Christ is not just the One who feeds us but the One who is itself or is Himself the nourishment. May Christ Our God through the descent of the Holy Spirit ever remind us of the path that we walk, though it may have begun with Baptism and Chrismation it will conclude as we enter into the Kingdom of God. May we perhaps with God's Grace preserve that which has been given to us, that He too may say to us well done my good and faithful servant! Amen