As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. (Mark 1:2-3)
Today is called the week before Illumination, i.e., the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and therefore the Gospel reading speaks of the beginning of the preaching ministry of St. John the Baptist, whose task it was to prepare the way for the Lord. In the same way, when rulers of nations set out for some city or colony, they send their messengers on ahead to prepare for them all that is necessary.
From a spiritual-ethical standpoint, Judea at that time presented a very sorry picture. Having lost their political independence and become subject to Roman rule---something the Hebrews, as the chosen people of God, found especially onerous-they distorted the very conception of the Messiah as a spiritual king, a redeemer from sin, condemnation and death. People became divided into opposing religious factions, and they were burdened by the "traditions of men," which came to be more highly esteemed than the Holy Scriptures. On Moses' seat, as Jesus Christ figuratively expressed it, sat the scribes and pharisees, who not only neglected to draw the people close to God, but, on the contrary, they led them away and made them sons of Gehenna (Matt. 23:2, 13, 15).
In view of all this it was necessary to cleanse the spiritual soil, to soften the people's hearts and warm them by means of good deeds, so that they would be able to greet and accept Christ.
St. John himself, in preparing for his high calling, passed through the harsh school of a desert-dweller and, like his prototype the Prophet Elijah, he led a strict life, abstaining from the most elementary comforts. It had been a long time since any prophets had been in Judea, and as soon as there sounded on the banks of the River Jordan the voice of this "angel in the flesh" crying in the wilderness, people immediately came flocking from all directions to see him. "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand," exhorted St. John, and those who wished to cleanse their conscience from all iniquity he baptised in the waters of the Jordan in token of the remission of sins.
In view of the general expectation of the Messiah, some thought: is this not Christ who has appeared? But John said: There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am unworthy to stoop down and unloose, i.e., to fulfill the lowest duties of a servant. I indeed have bap tised you with water: but He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:7)
The water baptism of St. John is thereby understood to be not a Mystery but simply a preparation, more closely resembling our Confession. Jesus Christ Himself first established the Mystery of Holy Baptism, in which the grace-filled power of the Holy Spirit, as though through a door, leads a man into the spiritual house of Christ's Church. We Christians now have the supreme happiness of being members of that Kingdom, whose coming was announced by St. John the Baptist. And now each of us can receive--not only as a token of cleansing but in actual fact--the forgiveness of sins and all that is necessary for salvation in the seven Mysteries established by God. Each person who is concerned about the salvation of his soul can throw off his filthy and decayed garment, receive a new garment, and become a partaker of the Lord's banquet in the Heavenly Kingdom. In order to do this, now as then, repentance is necessary. May the cry of the Forerunner sound in our ears: "Repent!" And like the crowd which pressed towards St. John on the banks of the Jordan, let us hasten into the church of God where we hear not only the words of St. John but also those of the Saviour Himself. Christian, do not postpone your spiritual renewal. Hurry before it is too late, hurry just as those who came to St. John and who did not go home before they were baptized by him, confessing their sins.
Among us it has become accepted to reserve the work of repentance for Great Lent....But the year is long and some may not live to see Great Lent. Furthermore, it is difficult to cure long-standing diseases. In any case, to confess and receive the Holy Mysteries once a year is a tradition made by man, not by the Church, which recommends that one approach these Mysteries as often as possible.
Jesus Christ Himself, in entering upon His public ministry, began by calling to repentance (Matt. 4:17), without which it is impossible to be saved. And today the Church calls us to this same thing: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! Amen.
Archpriest Leonid Kolchev Copenhagen
The Saviour, who is grace and truth, has appeared in the streams of the Jordan, and enlightened those that sleep in darkness and shadow. For the Light that no man can approach has come and is made manifest. (Exapostilarion, Feast of Theophany)
As the lover of the Spirit, the swallow that brings divine tidings of grace, O forerunner, thou hast clearly made known to mankind the dispensation of the King, Who shone forth in brightness from a pure Virgin unto the restoration of men. Thou dost banish the dominion of dark and evil ways, and guidest towards eternal life the hearts of those baptized in repentance, O blessed Prophet inspired by God. (Aposticha, Synaxis of St. John the Baptist
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