Once again, thank you to all who read and prepared questions. I cannot emphasize enough how helpful and inspiring this is. This week’s study can be heard here.
The reading for next week: John 1:43-51
Again, this week was short and sweet given the time of year and the number of people traveling. For the first time in weeks, however, we did not spend the majority of our time on the Epistle (2 Tim 4:5-8).
We focused primarily on the verse “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed” (4:6). This was probably the last letter St. Paul wrote before his martyrdom. He was in prison and awaiting his death. Of interest is the word “sacrifice,” because in some translations in is rendered “poured out as a libation.” The sacrifice St. Paul is referring to is the drink sacrifice in the Temple where the priest would pour wine, water or oil over the burnt sacrifice at the end of the service in order to put out the fire. This Sunday is the Sunday before Theophany. It is thus a preparation for the Baptism of Christ and the revelation of God as Trinity. This image of St. Paul himself being poured out as a drink sacrifice brought us to mind of Baptism where we die to the world and are created anew in Christ.
The Gospel Reading is the first eight verses of Mark. We noted that the quote from Isaiah is not entirely from Isaiah: “A voice cries out from the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (40:3). The other half of the quote comes from Malachi, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way” (3:1).
Baptism was not a new practice in Judaism. It was used for purification purposes and even as a means for proselytes to enter Judaism. So, what John was doing out in the wilderness was not something strange and new; however, what he was saying was: “I have baptized you in water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The question was asked: When did Christ first baptize humanity in the Holy Spirit? He certainly sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He also breathed the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles (John 20:22). Was He not baptized in the Holy Spirit at Theophany? Were not we, whose humanity Christ took on to Himself, baptized in the Holy Spirit with Him? Did not God say He was well pleased by this reality (Matt. 3:17)? This reality was then made accessible to all of us through the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. Now we all may be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit Himself.
It was here that we found how these two readings spoke to each other. St. Paul writes:
Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. — 2 Tim 4:8.
At the Theophany, God reveals Himself as Trinity and Christ as God and Man. Those who love this appearing — we who accept God as Trinity and Christ as perfect God and perfect man — have a crown of righteousness prepared for us by the Lord.
On this, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, we see his father Zacharias punished for asking a question of Gabriel that sounds very similar to the question the Virgin Mary asks the Archangel when he visits her to announce that she will give birth to the Christ.
Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (Luke 1:18)
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34 )
Yet, Mary is told she is full of grace, while St.John’s father is made mute. It is helpful to look at Zacharias’ question in Greek:
Κατὰ τί γνώσομαι τοῦτο;
A more literal translation would be:
According to what will I know this? or By what will I know this?
Zacharias is testing God by asking for a sign, despite the fact that the Archangel Gabriel is standing before him inside the Temple. Note Gabriel’s reaction:
The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:19-20)
Mary, on the other hand, does not ask for a proof or a sign, rather she accepts the reality of what God will do. Her question is a clarification. She knows that all of the other miraculous births throughout Scripture (Sarah in Gn 16:1, Rebekah in Gn 25:21, Rachel in Gn 29:31 and Hannah in 1Sam/1Ki 1:2) and even her own birth came about from barren women who had relationships with their husbands. She is a virgin. Note Gabriel’s response:
The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:35)
His answer is one of clarification — the Holy Spirit is the mechanism by which this miracle will happen. Mary never once questions whether or not that miracle can or will happen, as does Zacharias.
Thus, in our own lives, when we ask things of God we should strive to be like Mary and not like Zacharias. We should not test God by asking for proofs and signs. We should have Mary’s faith that God will do exactly what is needed for our salvation, knowing that God is willing to even overturn the laws of nature in order to save us:
You were known to be a Mother passing nature, O Theotokos, and still remained a Virgin in a way passing speech and thought. And no language is capable of explaining the wonder of your childbirth. O pure Maid, your conception was paradoxical, hence the manner of your pregnancy is also incomprehensible. For whenever God so wills, nature’s order is overridden. Therefore, acknowledging you as the Mother of God, to you we all intently pray: Intercede for the salvation of our souls. — Doxastikon in Grave Mode from Saturday night Vespers