Homily: On Repentance and Facing Death (and Suffering) Well

Theophany comes up this week: today’s readings help us prepare.

Gospel:  the ministry of St. John the Baptist (St. Mark 1:1-8)

  • Son of Zachariah and Elizabeth; a miracle child
  • Gabriel announced: “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, ’and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:13-17)
  • And then, at the naming, Zachariah prophesied; ““And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest, For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
  • We are the Jews: we need this message!  WE sit in darkness and the in the shadow of death!  We need the Dayspring from on High to visit us and guide us into the way of peace.
  • The primary message of John the forerunner is not just try to live a good life: it is “REPENT!!!” and then meet the Lord.
    • Must be done in this order: without emptying ourselves of our anger, grudges, and self-indulgence – how can we give our lives to the Truth?
  • Why is repentance so difficult?  And I know it is difficult because Christ gave us the sacrament of confession and so few of us take advantage of it.
    • I wonder if this is because we get hung up on the role of the priest in it.  If so, we really shouldn’t – he’s just a witness for the people of God and the one through whom God offers absolution. 
    • It is true that your priest is the first among sinners, and it is true that the odds of my offering anything in the way of useful advice is quite small… but this misses the point entirely.  The priest is a tiny – but necessary – part of the process.  To make sure of this, he takes an oath of secrecy and is (at least in my case) granted the gift of a sort of compartmentalized forgetfulness.  Regardless, I generally stay out of the way of God and you when you come to confession.
    • Let me give you a comparison that shows that, as long as you have a trustworthy priest, his personal wisdom has little to do with the process:  You do not come to Holy Communion because you like the way the bread the priest makes tastes or because you like the taste of the wine he uses; nor would you refrain from partaking if the communion wine was too sweet/dry or you didn’t like the prosphora.
    • One final word on repentance: it is true that God hears our repentance outside of confession (daily prayers include this!), but as a disease can become resistant to a single medicine, so too can our sin – through the psychology of self-justification – become immune to our individual repentance.  We occasionally need different – and stronger – medicine.
    • The rule of our UOC-USA is that people who want to be members of the Body of Christ through membership in the UOC-USA must take confession at least once a year.  The same is true for Communion.  This is the minimum standard; Christians who are interested in doing more than preserving their spiritual status quo and the spiritual status quo of their parish do not sit on the minimum standard.  If we are going to make once a year our ritual then we need to recognize that we have to push ourselves in other areas (which is fine).

Let me conclude by commenting on the Epistle (2 Timothy 4:5-8)

St. Paul is demonstrating how to face death.

“For I am now ready to be poured out, and the time of my departure is at hand. “

I want you notice what he does next.  This same man who taught us about humility, saying that we should not boast of anything we do (except perhaps to boldly proclaim our own sinfulness and our need for Christ) says about his own death;

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

Why does he boast?  Because he was a pastor.  This important for us because we are all called to “do the work of an evangelist, [and] fulfill [our] ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5). 

  • We are called to pastor one another, and the way we pastor our families and friends as we suffer and die is among the most important works we can do for them.
  • Part of that is witnessing, through our joy and contentedness in our very real affliction, how real Christ’s promise of salvation is to us.
  • But part of it – and this really is the main part – is to show them that THEY need not fear death!

“Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8)

As St. John Chrystostom puts it;

St. Paul says that he has finished “the course.” For it behooves us both to contend and to run; to contend, by enduring afflictions firmly, and to run, not vainly, but to some good end. It is truly a good fight, not only delighting, but benefiting the spectator: and the race does not end in nothing. It is not a mere display of strength and of rivalry. It draws all up to heaven.