With the feast! This is one of the most ancient feasts celebrated by the Church, Theophany, the revealing of God, the dawning anew of the light of Christ and the opening of heaven.
How was Christ revealed? In humility. He who was proclaimed by all the prophets, He whom all of creation has been awaiting while groaning under the weight of our willful sin and corruption; arrives as a little child, in a manger, in a cave. He now begins His work of restoring the image of man, the original image hopelessly damaged by our sinful pride The Creator and king of all, comes to us, not being revealed in a great coronation ceremony or royal coming out event, but quietly coming to His forerunner John, be baptized with the crowds. He, the only sinless one, who had no need to be baptized, willingly goes into the waters and in entering the water, renews all waters and all of creation, trampling on the heads of the serpents, those who hate and seek to destroy us. The mighty John the Baptist, that prophet who is more honoured than any prophet before or since, protests to Christ (Matt. 3:14,15) “…I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me” and He answers, “…Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
What a contrast. He whom created all that is, and sustains all of life, God Himself, comes in complete humility. (Phil. 2:7) “He made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” Compare this to our first ancestors Adam and Eve, created from the soil, the humus of the world, from nothingness, yet having the flickering baby flame of divinity breathed within their souls as an unfathomable gift. This flame, contained in every human soul, contains the potential of being capable of growing into such glory, such all consuming flame that we humans can unite, through thankfulness and obedience, in communion with God. Yet at the first opportunity, rather than trusting in God our creator, we pridefully disobeyed the only instruction God had given us, lured by the false promise and lie of our enemy Satan, who appealed to our pride that (Gen.3.5) “…you will be like gods.”
I am purposely saying “we” rather than “they,” as we don’t accept the doctrine known as “original sin” where somehow because of Adam and Eve’s sin we are also considered to be sinful. By our willful disobedience and pride we have all created an environment where death and sin thrive, but the Orthodox perspective is that we are personally responsible for our own sin. We all have managed to do plenty of our own sinning without needing to blame Adam and Eve. Sin simply means “missing the mark.” When we like our forefathers choose to pridefully go our own way and not rely upon God, we are missing the mark. Collectively we have each contributed to the horrible mess that we presently see all around us in the world through our selfishness and prideful stubborn ways. This mess is our doing, not God’s. Recognizing this and repenting of it is our life’s work, through the grace of God. Humility is the road which brings us back into God’s realm and pride is the path that leads us ever further away. This is shown today by Christ’s great humility at His Theophany.
We see today in the reading from the gospel of Matthew, the manifestation of the Trinity, “Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” So we have Christ the Father speaking to His Son Jesus Christ and sending the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This revealing of Christ as God, and God as the Holy Trinity is the beginning of Christ’s work in the flesh to bring us all into His kingdom. Immediately Christ was then driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to contend for 40 days with Satan – 40 always signifies the completion of something, before moving on to the next stage. He then begins His 3-year public ministry saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.”
In the gospel of John, the ever-existing pre-incarnate Christ is revealed to us in the first 5 verses: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made by Him and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Then already in verse 6, John the Evangelist introduces John the Baptist as the key figure in revealing the incarnate Christ – the “Word made flesh.” (John 1:33) “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light.” (capital L) And now John the evangelist tells us that John the Baptist is looking to find out himself who God will reveal to him, and all the world as the Messiah – the Son of God. He says; “I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me: ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” John is baptizing in the wilderness – to prepare us to receive and to reveal to Israel and all of us, the Messiah. The dawning of a new age. That which was hidden even to angels, now is revealed!
Interestingly, John the Baptist certainly knew that this was the Christ when he was still in the womb of his mother (Luke 1:41) “…And it happened when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe (John the Baptist) leaped in her womb (for joy); and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” This is an indication that as infants and little children we can comprehend and connect with God much easier and more fully than once we increase in “knowledge” as adults. (Matt. 18:3) “…unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Faith and trust connect us far more to God than the knowledge of good and evil and intellectual knowledge. How do we best grow in faith and trust? We really hear and absorb the fullness of the Church by attending Liturgy, Vespers and Feast day services. Here are a few gems from the 116 pages in the Festal Menaion for Theophany:
– “Make ready, O river Jordan: for behold, Christ our God draws near to be baptized by John, that He may crush with His divinity the invisible heads of the dragons in your waters. Rejoice O wilderness of Jordan; dance with gladness, O ye mountains. For the eternal life has come to call back Adam.”
– “Being Himself the Bestower of light, Jesus needs not to be baptized, but in the flesh, He descends into the streams of Jordan, wishing to give light to those in darkness.
– He who weighed the mountains in scales and the wooded valleys in a balance, who fills all things as God, is baptized by a servant. He who bestows rich gifts has now become poor. Eve was once told. ‘In sorrow shall you bring forth children’, but now the Virgin hears: “Hail you who are full of grace, the Lord who has great mercy is with you.”
At Vespers last night we head the 13 Old Testament readings related to Theophany, starting with the 1st verse of Genesis, where before the 1st day, before even light is given, the Spirit of God moved upon the waters. They hadn’t yet been separated between the firmament of heaven and the earth and the dry land, the earth and plants had not yet been created. Water was everything in the creation. When Christ comes to John to be baptized, His divinity flows from Him into the water and sanctifies it – makes it holy. In the same way that when He touches a leper His holiness flows out of Him and heals, or the women with the issue of blood feels His power flow into her and she is healed, the power of Christ flows into the Jordan and reverberates throughout all eternity into the entire created world, sanctifying and healing all; through the waters of the Jordan. These are our life giving baptism waters.
So what is it that is being revealed to us through this blessed feast? Christ:
- crushed the enemy “crushing the invisible heads of the dragons in the waters”
- sanctified the nature of water giving it the power for us to be re-born in baptism.
- revealed the mystery of the Holy Trinity and enlightened the world.
- Fulfilled all that was pre-ordained regarding Christ in the law and the prophets.
- Revealed Christ’s 1st Theophany; the 2nd will be with glory at the end of the age!
How many of you were baptized as an infant? How many of you have been at a baptism service since your Godparents’ spoke on your behalf? It would be a good exercise to go through the baptismal service book once in awhile and see what you signed up for! Many of the baptism prayers are also found in the Theophany prayers for the blessing of water as the regenerating power of the baptismal waters was begun here. “Great are You O Lord, and marvellous are Your works and there is no word which suffices to hymn Your wonders.” “Wherefore O King who love mankind, come now and sanctify this water, by the indwelling of Your Holy Spirit” and many other prayers are repeated.
We come out of the baptismal waters completely cleansed and clothed in a robe of light, our garment of salvation, which remains with us. All is renewed! However, living in this sinful and fallen world, it is inevitable that our wonderful robe of light, shining with the glory of Christ Himself, will start to collect some stains as we travel through life. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So we all, to varying degrees, have through our carelessness and foolishness and lack of understanding, stained our most precious treasure, the robe of salvation, that immaterial garment we have been clothed in at our baptism. Each of these stains block a little of the ineffable light, radiating from our baptismal robe. If we allow these stains to accumulate, and never stop to have them washed off – through the cleansing action of our tears of repentance and confession, and the grace of God’s forgiveness – it can almost seem as if the gentle glowing illumination of our baptismal gown has been extinguished by the layers of stains we have allowed to accumulate. I have good news! The robe is still in place, glowing with the indistinguishable light of Christ. But we need to come to Christ, who clothed us at our baptism, and allow Him to wash away the stains. Then once again the wonderful splendour and light from our garment of salvation, will begin to noticeably shine forth. This is an ongoing process, as once the larger darker stains begin to be washed away, and we start to be more careful about not adding more of these ugly stains, the light starts to more visibly shine through once again. Once we have better light, we will start to notice smaller, lighter stains that need to be cleansed. Even these smaller stains, which we never really noticed before, start to look very bad under brighter illumination. And so it goes, as we come to desire anything interfering with the pure light of our Lord be quickly cleansed. This is Theosis, uniting with Christ!
Let us entreat our Saviour and Creator; the most merciful Christ our God, that we may have our baptismal gowns cleansed and renewed, as well as our houses cleansed and blessed during this wonderful season of Theophany. Let us ask Him to renew in us, our desire to follow Him in all things, and to keep unspotted that precious robe of light we were given, when we first put on Christ at our baptism. With the feast!