Today we are between the two great feasts of the Lord – the Nativity of Christ and His Baptism. This is why today’s Gospel reading is devoted to the events that preceded the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, the events that revealed its Saviour to the world.
The Lord sent John the Baptist to the Jews so that the people of Israel would be cleansed by repentance. The whole life of John the Baptist was a feat: he lived in the desert, dressed in clothes made of camel hair to permanently sting his body, observed a strict fast – he ate only wild honey and locusts, never drank wine or any strong drinks, and his feats won him the dignity of holiness. John the Baptist was a prophet, that is, he proclaimed the will of God by the grace of the Holy Spirit, called people who came to him to a new saving life. With his word he purified human souls, as if breaking through the crust of sins surrounding the human heart, so that the grace of God could enter there and people turned to Christ.
«Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand» (Matt. 3:2) – this is the beginning of the preaching of the Forerunner. He preached the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Many of the Pharisees came to John, who considered themselves righteous, but their righteousness was only external, ostentatious. John said to them: «Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?» (Matt. 3:7) If you have repented, then show the fruits worthy of repentance, that is, bring your repentance not only in words, but also in deeds, do not be hypocritical. John was asked: «What should we do when we repent?» He answered: «He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.» To the tax collectors he said: «Collect no more than is appointed you.» Soldiers also came to John, he told them: «Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages» (Luke 3:11-14).
The life and teachings of John the Baptist should serve as a model for imitation for us. We see that he withdrew from the temptations of the world into the wilderness. Today few people retire to the desert, but it is necessary to avoid many temptations and passions in the world as well, such as love of money, sinful pleasures, arrogance, glory and so on. We see that the holy prophet wore simple clothes that hardly covered his body. Nowadays, many people have become accustomed to luxury, unnecessary outfits, expensive amusements, on which they sometimes spend a lot of money, teaching their children to do the same. John the Baptist ate simple food, and now many are satiated with food, break fasts, declaring that the weakness of the body does not allow them to oppress their sinful flesh, although we know, that our Lord commanded to cast out sins and temptations by prayer and fasting.
The Kingdom of God is now much closer to us than to the Jews in the time of John the Baptist. The grace of the Holy Spirit descended on the Church and all who participate in her sacraments. The apostles received the grace on the day of Holy Pentecost; grace descends on us in the holy Baptism. In the Sacrament of Baptism, we enter into a new eternal covenant with God, and the grace of Baptism directs our souls to good, we promise to die to sin and to live with God. The Saviour, being sinless and therefore not having the need for Baptism, received it in order to sanctify the water of Baptism, in which we are now immersed, by the Holy Spirit.
Looking at Christ, humbled to the image of a slave, who came to the Earth as a Child in an animal manger, and then, in fulfillment of «all righteousness», that is, all the commandments, was circumcised, kept the Sabbath, observed Jewish holidays, received Baptism from the prophet, we see that in His baptism He, sinless, fulfilled the entire law, and in order that everyone could see this, the Holy Spirit descended on Him in the form of a dove as a symbol of reconciliation of all mankind with God. At one time, the dove was sent by God to Noah’s ark with an olive branch as a sign of God’s love for man and the end of the flood. On the Jordan, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove announced the mercy of God and showed that “a spiritual man should be gentle, simple and innocent,” as st. John Chrysostom writes in his sermon on Baptism.
But how did we profit by the blessed gift of Baptism, do we preserve the purity of that priceless garment of the soul, of which we are told at Baptism by these words: «As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ» (Gal. 3:27)? St. Gregory Palamas, in his discourse on Baptism, writes: “In Baptism, an account is required from us, because on our part it is a contract and an obligation to lead a godly life.” During Baptism, the priest commands the baptized person to spit on the devil, that is, to renounce Satan, and, answering the priest’s question, the baptized person rejects sinful deeds three times. But how often do we break our Baptismal promise to die to sin and live only to God!
How often do we postpone repentance and regeneration, saying to ourselves: yes, we are sinners, but not worse than others. In assessing ourselves, we often weigh our sins on a false scale of self-justification. Sometimes the vanity of the world does not allow us to see the extent of our fall. To throw off the veil from our eyes, we should constantly cry to God, asking him to bring the soul out of the prison of sinful captivity, to indicate the extent of our sinfulness, to help us get rid of sins.
The saints who performed miracles and even raised the dead with their prayers, nevertheless shed tears for their sins. What did they cry about? The fact is that the more a person approaches God, the clearer he sees his sins, his unworthiness before God, his alienation from Him, and, consequently, his soul grieves. And if there is no such sorrow, if a person does not feel guilty before God, then this indicates that our soul has plunged into destructive shamelessness. Only repentance can free us from this terrible state. And if a baptized person is not saved, but perishes and goes into eternal torment, then only he himself will be guilty of this. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt. 3:10). If a person strives not for Christ through repentance, but for something else, even, in his opinion, very important and sublime, then this all is a deception, an empty dream and, as a result, a life wasted in vain.
The purpose of the Church’s existence on earth is to purify, to sanctify people, to bring them to God, and everything in the Church is arranged in such a way as to help this, but this requires an everyday feat of our will in order to try to crush our proud heart, to hate the darkness of our soul, by all forces to strive to God, hoping to find the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the Sacrament of Baptism we are called to be Christ’s, that is, the dear sons of the Lord. And our life should be worthy of this high title, this great responsibility. Our actions should be an example of only the holy and the good, since people judge about Christ looking at us. Let us respond to this – let us be worthy of the name of a Christian and of the Heavenly Kingdom, opened by our Lord Jesus Christ according to His good will and immeasurable love for mankind.