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Sunday 3 January 2021

Welcoming The Word, Breathing The Spirit

Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:10-18

 

By Sergius Halvorsen

Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric; Director, Doctor of Ministry Program, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary

Context: a homily for Christ the Savior Church, a small parish in rural Connecticut, USA. It was closed for three months in the spring of 2020 because of the pandemic and, at the time of writing, the parish is only allowed to have small numbers of people present at services

Aim: to inspire and enliven the faith of people who have been through a very difficult year.

Happy new year!

Goodbye 2020 … goodbye and good riddance. I am ready to return to normal life! I feel like a deep-sea diver that has been trapped on the bottom of the ocean, fighting to return to the surface, to feel the sun on my face, and take a breath. Last year, when we had to start wearing facemasks in public, there were times that I would go to the market and find myself unconsciously holding my breath as I tried to keep my glasses from fogging up. After about ten minutes of shopping, I’d feel short of breath and tightness in my chest. It was frightening! Fortunately, it was nothing serious, but since every exhale into the mask would fog up my glasses, I unconsciously exhaled less often, and after ten or fifteen minutes of shallow breathing, you start to feel rather strange.

I feel like I’ve been partially holding my breath, spiritually and emotionally, for most of the past year: waiting for danger to pass, waiting for life to get back to normal. It is not a good feeling; it is an unnatural restriction of the soul; it leads to low level panic and desperation. In this state, every moment can feel like a crisis; everyone starts to look like an enemy; and I’m constantly on edge. Anyone who has ever been trained as a lifeguard knows that trying to save a drowning person can be extremely dangerous. Not being able to breathe, a drowning person panics and in that state, they can unintentionally injure people nearby, even those who come to help.

Today John the Evangelist reminds us that the Word of God comes into the world, yet the world does not recognize him. He comes to his own people and his people did not receive him. Yes, we just celebrated Jesus’ Nativity, but have I received the Word of God into my heart, into my life, into the depths of my soul? To be brutally honest, I have not. My soul is hard and bitter and dark, constricted from months of holding my breath. I have not allowed the grace of the Spirit to fill me with life. Today I am one of God’s people who has not received Christ, even though I desperately need God’s grace and hope and love. If you feel the same way today, fall down before Christ, and pray that most honest prayer, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:23-5)

No matter how unloving and unfaithful we may have been, our God is the God who loves us, and is faithful to us. No matter how many times we reject our Lord, no matter how long we might hold our breath, cutting ourselves off from the life-giving Holy Spirit, the Crucified Messiah endures our rejection with divine patience and mercy. And today, Christ calls us to renewed life in his loving embrace. Today St. Paul tells us that God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. This is not a blessing that is hiding somewhere around the corner of a future time or unknown place, this is God’s blessing that shines brightly into the inky depths of the sea of sin. Today God allows us to breathe divine grace under pressure.

When I was little, I thought I had figured out an easy way to be a deep-sea diver. I took a long clean hose and placed one end up on a chair next to the swimming pool, and I took the other end with me into the water. On land, I could breathe through the hose just fine, but once I went under water, I couldn’t get any air. No matter how hard I tried, I could not breathe in air through the hose. If you know about scuba diving, you know exactly why my experiment failed: in order to breathe underwater, you need pressurized air to counteract the water pressure in order to fill your lungs. Breathing underwater with scuba gear is an amazing feeling: your lungs fill effortlessly as the equipment gives you just the right amount of pressure—not too much, not too little—exactly what you need to breathe. This is how the grace of the Holy Spirit works when we are under pressure. There is nothing we can do to force the Spirit to fill the lungs of our soul, but by totally surrendering to God’s mercy, by admitting our complete powerlessness, God is able to breathe into us the grace of the Spirit no matter what is pressing in around us. This is what it means to be a child of God in Christ: we breathe easily, calmly, faithfully, in the loving embrace of our Heavenly Father, in the midst of every earthly trial and tribulation.

Whatever this coming year holds for us, today we are renewed in our faith, renewed in our relationship with God in Christ Jesus, and breathing deeply of the Grace of the Spirit, we set out once again to do God’s will and glorify His Holy Name.

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