Baptism with Fire

January 17, 2009 Length: 41:22

There are radical differences in John's baptism, the baptism that Jesus' disciples were doing before Jesus was crucified, and the baptism that came afterward. Fr. Tom helps us understand how our baptism is a baptism with fire.





In the gospels, when we have the narration of the baptism of Jesus on the Jordan, we have this contrast made between John’s baptism and the baptism that Jesus is bringing to the world. It’s put very simply and very clearly: John claims that his baptism is a baptism of repentance, of moral change, of preparation for the coming of Jesus. You find John saying that; you find that also in the book of Acts, when the apostles go and they discover that there are people who have only been baptized into John’s baptism. When asked if they have heard about the [baptism] with the Holy Spirit, they said, “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So then they’re baptized in the name of Christ and they receive the Holy Spirit.

So John’s baptism, and generally baptisms around the world—because baptisms are not particularly Jewish or Christian phenomena; they are certainly Jewish phenomena; the Essenes we knew baptized—but this ritual of being dipped into the water—going into the water that symbolizes a washing, that symbolizes a new birth, symbolizes a new start, symbolizes that the old life is over, the new life is here—you find that in many cultures. The Hindus go into the Ganges river or something. There are libations in the Egyptian religions of old. Baptism is a kind of universal phenomenon among people: washing in water, ritual washings. It’s not peculiarly biblical or peculiarly Hebraic or peculiarly Christian.

You have John the Baptist doing this particular ritual activity that seems to be pretty well-known to people, when he calls them to be baptized for repentance, to be baptized in preparation for the coming of the kingdom. So we have this baptismal practice. Then, of course, we know and we already thought about, we’ve meditated on the fact that Jesus comes to be baptized. And this is a radically amazing act, because the Son of God, the Messiah himself, identifies with the sinners. He goes into the water with the sinners. He takes upon himself the sin of the world as the Lamb to be slain, the Suffering Servant. But he doesn’t need to be baptized himself. It says clearly in the Scripture: “You have no need of baptism. We are baptizing in the face of the coming of the kingdom of God that you yourself are bringing and that your very presence is,” because the kingdom of God is in the midst of us when Christ is here, when Christ is with us.

But Jesus is baptized and the Spirit descends upon him and the voice of the Father is heard, and then his disciples continue to baptize—but the very new thing, the absolutely new thing that you have very clearly stated in Matthew and in Mark and in Luke is that when John says, “I baptize you with water for repentance”—I’m reading from Matthew now—“but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” With the Holy Spirit and with fire. And it says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So you have John saying, “I’m baptizing you with water for repentance, but he who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

The exact same thing is said in St. Luke’s gospel. This is how it’s put in Luke:

As the people were in expectation and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all: I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. (Little difference there from Matthew.) He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Probably Matthew and Luke have this from a common source.

Now in Mark’s gospel… It’s much shorter, much briefer, the story, and Mark’s gospel begins directly with John the [Baptist] and the baptism of Jesus. But in Mark there is no mention of fire.

John preached, saying: After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

So we have this distinction, radical distinction already made in the narratives of the baptism of Jesus, that the baptism that Jesus brings is radically different from what John does. It’s a baptism not just with water for repentance; it’s a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

In the gospel of St. Luke, in the center of the gospel, you have a very important saying of Jesus that has to do with fire and with baptism. It’s found in the twelfth chapter of the gospel according to St. Luke, where Jesus is telling the people: Let your loins be girded, your lamps burning. Be like men who are waiting. The marriage-feast is coming. The Lord is coming. Be ready.” And then Jesus says these words:

I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled, would that it were already burning. I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!

Then he continues:

Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, rather, division. And henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two, two against three. They will be divided, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

So there’s a fire that’s coming that Jesus [brings]. It’s very important to note, he says: “I have come—I came—to cast fire upon the earth, and I wish that it were already burning—would that it were already burning.” Then he says, “I have a baptism to be baptized with.” Now he says this after he has already been baptized by John in the Jordan. He’s already been baptized. He’s already gone into the Jordan stream. He’s already come up out of the water. The voice of the Father, the One who begets him, is already heard calling him his beloved Son. The Spirit comes upon him, anointing him with the messianic unction. The Spirit of God is upon him. That’s what the messiah means: the anointed of God. That has already taken place, so why does he say here, “I have a baptism to be baptized with?”

It’s interesting that in the gospels also, when James and John come and ask to sit on his thrones in the kingdom with him, or in one of the gospels it’s actually James and John’s mother who comes and asks, he said, “Can you drink the cup that I drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Now, Jesus did not mean his baptism by John in the Jordan. What did he mean? He meant his death. He meant his crucifixion and death, of which his baptism in Jordan was a prefiguration. Jesus casts fire upon the earth by being crucified, by entering into Hades, into the realm of the dead, by destroying death by his own death, by raising up all the dead, by being raised up into the splendid, radiant, fiery glory of God who is a consuming fire, Jesus himself, being his splendor. So this baptism that Christians are baptized into is the baptism into his death.

The Christian baptism, the baptism in the name of Jesus or in the formula that became the liturgical traditional formula from St. Matthew’s gospel, the baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—because that is the command of Jesus at the end of the gospel according to St. Matthew… When Jesus is raised from the dead and he appears to the disciples before he is taken up into the heavens and glorified in the very realm and presence of God, becoming the Lord of the living and the dead and revealed as the Messiah over all creation, he says to his disciples:

All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, ye, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

So the Christian baptism, the baptism of Christians, the baptism with fire and the Holy Spirit, is the baptism into Christ’s death in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This was prefigured on the Jordan. You have the voice of the Father, you have the beloved Son in the water, you have the Holy Spirit descending and anointing and dwelling on him in the form of a dove. It’s all there prefiguratively, but it is all fulfilled, it is all accomplished on the Cross.

It’s interesting that in Luke he says, “And I am constrained until all this is accomplished.” And in St. John’s gospel, the last word of Jesus on the Cross is the word, “It is accomplished. Tetelestai.” It is perfected. It is fulfilled. It is now all done. The ultimate baptism, so to speak, has taken place, the baptism into death itself to destroy death.

That is the baptism into which Christians are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And at baptismal services in the Orthodox Church, until this very day, the epistle reading is the epistle that’s read on Great and Holy Saturday. It’s read on the Great Pascha of the Lord. It’s read when the people are being baptized and will have holy Communion in the broken Body and shed Blood of Christ for the very first time. This is what is read. It’s from St. Paul to the Romans:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death so that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we, too, might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old man (our old self, our old anthrōpos) was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin.

But if we have died with Christ (of course, he means in baptism), we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again. Death has no longer any dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin once and for all, but the life he lives he lives to God, so you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Therefore, do not sin reign in your mortal bodies to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members as sin to instruments of wickedness. Yield yourself to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin has no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Because, we can add, you have been baptized into Christ, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and with divine fire.

And this is—Christians believe and Christians confess, and it’s in the Nicene Creed—that baptism into Christ, baptism with Christ in death, dying together with Christ and being raised together with him, which is the real baptism. And that’s the gift that’s given to us when we are baptized in church, when we are baptized into the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and when we receive the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, it’s that fire that’s given to us that has to be kept alive. It has to be kept burning in our life, our whole life, like a conflagration, like a holocaust offered to God. That’s what our life has to be, a sacrificial burnt-offering. We are the burnt-offering, offered to God, burned with a divine fire.

That’s what our life has to be, and the great saints, like, for example, Gregory the Theologian of Nazianzus and St. Nicholas Cabasilas in his writing called The Life in Christ, they make the point very clearly that baptism into water in the name of the Trinity is a sign—well, it’s a gift of grace of God of a real death and a real resurrection in Christ, but they say that real death and real resurrection has to really happen in us. We have to really die with him and really live with him and really be anointed by the Holy Spirit and really live by the Holy Spirit and by fire or—they teach this very clearly—the baptism is unto condemnation and judgment; it destroys us.

Here it’s very important… We Orthodox Christians, ancient Christians, believe that when a baptism has taken place something really happens. You can’t say, “Well, if you don’t believe and are baptized, nothing happens. It’s just in vain.” Ahh, we would not… We would say, “No, no! It’s not that nothing happens. It’s not that it’s in vain. It’s worse! It’s a blasphemy!” If we are baptized in church and are not really dying and rising with Christ, then there’s no hope with us, because that very baptismal act, that very coming upon us of the Holy Spirit and fire, it crushes us. It destroys us. And this would definitely be the teaching of the holy Scripture. This would definitely be the teaching of the Church.

For example, in the letter to the Hebrews, you have the Apostle writing in the letter to the Hebrews that we could have ablutions and laying-on of hands and all these kind of things, he said, “but it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, have been illumined”—in other words, who have been baptized by the Holy Spirit and fire, and illumination means baptism—“who have tasted the heavenly gift”—that means the Body and Blood of Christ—“and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit”—as we sing at the Divine Liturgy, “We have found the true faith, we have received the Spirit”—“who have tasted the goodness of the word of God”—as we sing at the Liturgy the line of the psalm, “O taste and see that the Lord is good”—“and have participated with the powers of the age to come”—all the angels who are glorifying God—”(it says:) it’s impossible to restore such a person if they then commit apostasy, if they turn their back on God, if they reject what has happened to them in their baptism, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up into contempt.”

And the author here, St. Paul or the disciple who writes in Paul’s name, says exactly the very same thing in the tenth chapter, where he says: “If we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth”—that’s a technical term in the Scripture for baptism: God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth—”tēn epignōsin tēs alētheias”—the superknowledge of the truth—“there no longer remains a sacrifice for their sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment.” And then it says:

And a fury of fire will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the law of Moses is without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the person who has spurned the Son of God and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified and outraged the spirit of grace by which he was baptized with the divine fire?

And then he continues:

For we know him who said: Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord. And again: The Lord will judge his people. And again: It is an awesome, terrifying, fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

And then he will say, later, as he continues:

In the Church, we don’t come like Moses to a mountain that’s blazing with clouds and darkness and gloom and tempests. No, no, we don’t come to that which even if a beast touches it, they die. In the Church, we come to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. Innumerable angels in festal gathering!

This is the twelfth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews. the Church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven—The first-born are those who are baptized into Christ and are dying with him—and to a Judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of the righteous people made perfect, and to Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled Blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.

Then he continues:

If we refuse him who is speaking… Let’s not refuse him who is speaking. For if the people of old did not escape when they refused him who warned on earth, how much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven? His voice then shook the earth, but now he has promised: Yet once more will I shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.

Then he says:

Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving the kingdom that cannot be shaken. Thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and fear, with awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

So we Christians have been fired by the very fire of God who is this consuming fire, by the Holy Spirit, when we were baptized. And we participate in that fire at all times. Participating in the holy Eucharist is like participating in fire. We say that in our Church’s prayers, that the bread and the wine on the altar, consecrated by the Holy Spirit, is more fiery, more divine, than even the burning bush that was burning with fire, not consumed, that Moses saw. Isaiah in the temple saw the Lord sitting on the throne, saying, “Holy, holy, Lord Almighty!” It was filled with fire and clouds and a seraph takes that burning coal in a tong and touches Isaiah’s lips, and he says the words that we say in our Orthodox church every time we go to holy Communion.

In fact, the spoon in the Orthodox Church’s service is the same word in Greek for the tong that the angel held the burning coal in in Isaiah. It’s the same word in Greek; can’t think of what it is now—lapis, I think, something. [Lavidi.] But in any case, we say those words when we have holy Communion: “Behold, this has touched our lips! This has washed away our iniquities.” Behold, this has touched your lips, purges your iniquities, washes away your sin. This is the fire of God that’s given to us in Christ and that’s given in the baptism in Jesus, which is the baptism into his death and into his resurrection and into his glory.

Now that imagery of fire, it’s pervasive in the Bible. It’s everywhere. I just mentioned the bush that Moses saw, that was burning but not consumed, and he fell in front of it. Then we know how Moses went on the mountaintop, and it was fiery. It was a fury, a tempest, with cloud and darkness. He enters. Then we know when Moses was leading the people, they were led by a pillar of fire, and a fiery cloud by night and a pillar of fire by day. We just mentioned Isaiah who saw that fiery presence of God on his throne. We know how Ezekiel spoke about those wheels that were fiery glory, and we know about the fiery chariot that took Elijah up into heaven. And we know how Elijah called down the fire of God on that sacrifice that he had doused with water, and the fire lapped up all the water. And then we certainly know that on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon Christ’s disciples, 120 of them in the upper room in the form of the fiery tongues. And we know that the Apostle Paul said in the letter to the Corinthians that our judgment at the end will be by fire, that we stand the fire of the mercy and the love of God upon us, and if we endure that fire, we become all fire, but if we do not endure it, that fire then destroys us.

Here’s what the Apostle says in the Corinthian letter. He said:

According to the grace of God given to me like a skilled master-builder, I have laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it, for no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

Then he says:

Now, if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become manifest for the day (meaning the day of [the] Lord, the day of the judgment, the parousia of Christ) will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire. And the fire will test what sort of work each person has done. If the work which any person has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself may be saved (even will be saved), but if he is, it is only as through fire.

And we know that there is that conflagration at the end. We have those apocalyptic images in the holy Scripture: the apocalyptic passages in the synoptic gospels, in Jude, in Peter, in the apocalypse itself, the revelation of John, we have this imagery of fire.

So what we must remember is that there is this radical difference between John’s baptism and even the baptism that Jesus’ disciples were doing before Jesus was crucified, and the baptism that comes afterward. The baptism that comes afterward in the name of Christ, with the liturgical formula from the very beginning, taken from Mark’s gospel, being baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And so when we are baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and are put down into that water and come up out of that water and the Holy Spirit comes upon us and we are anointed on our head, our eyes, our ears, our nose, our mouth, our throat, our chest, our hands, our feet with the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are then baptized with fire, and that fire has to be our entire life until the Lord comes in glory. And then when the Lord comes in glory, according to the Bible, the Scripture, we will be all taken up into that fire. We will become all fire with God. We will be deified with the very fire that God himself is, speaking symbolically, of course, mystically, the consuming fire of God—or else that fire will destroy us; that will be the fire of hell.

And here it’s important to know that, according to ancient Christianity, there is no material hellfire. The great Church Father, Mark of Ephesus, refused to sign union with Rome at the Council of Florence because they wanted him to agree that there was purgatorial and infernal hellfire, physical fire that actually burns up. And Mark of Ephesus with the whole Church Tradition, he says: No, no, no, we don’t know anything like that. There’s the fire of divine love, the fire of divine truth, the fire of divine glory, the fire of splendor and majesty, the fire of God himself, the fire that God isthat’s the consuming fire. And if we are consumed in that fire, then we become that fire and we are deified forever with God, becoming, you might dare even to say, more fiery forever and ever and ever—or we resist that fire and then that becomes what we would call the fire of hell.

God is not like some divine Nebuchadnezzar, stoking up a furnace to burn people in. That’s not our God. It’s the mercy, the love, the truth, the wisdom, the glory of God that is the fire. And that’s the only fire that there is. That’s the fire that Christ came to cast upon the earth, when he said, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and I wish that it were already burning. I have a baptism to be baptized with, and I am constrained until it is accomplished.” And it is accomplished on the cross, and then we enter into that cross in our baptism. We enter into that fire, and, hopefully, we burn with that fire every day of our life. We keep that fire burning in our hearts, burning in our life, our entire lifetime. We never let it go out.

Here I can’t help but remember the very interesting and pertinent teaching of a wonderful Anglican woman writer named Evelyn Underhill. She’s a great scholar. She was actually a scholar of mysticism first, hardly a believer, and then by reading the great mystics who were all speaking about fire and flame and glory and joy, like Blaise Pascal when he had his night of conversion. He said, “Fire, fire, the joy of God!” Well, she studied all of that, and then as she herself said, she became the most regular, normal Christian. She joined a church; she went to holy communion in the Church of England. I don’t know what she knew or didn’t know about Orthodoxy. I do know, however, that her big, thick, major work called Mysticism, the introduction to it in 1934 was written by a man who was my professor in the seminary, Dr. Nicholas Arseniev, who also spoke so much about the fire of God and the mystical life.

But this Evelyn Underhill, when she was speaking about the fire, she said this in one of her writings. She said: We must keep that fire burning. That fire must keep burning in us. And she said: And if we don’t tend it, if we don’t blow on it, so to speak, if we don’t keep it burning, it just goes out and we turn cold. We become cold; we become dead. But then she added: If, however, we keep stoking that fire and poking that fire and zeal with that fire and pushing that fire and bragging about that fire and casting fire at all the people around us, she said, then the fire goes out; the fire of God goes out. And then we’re left with nothing but human, psychic, emotional zeal that is not the fire of God at all. In fact, zeal is very often not the fire of God; it’s simply one’s own egocentrism. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, in his book, The Arena, called [it] animal passion, psychic zeal, demonic and not divine.

The fire must be kept burning slowly, firmly, powerfully, and we live by that fire. But we also know that in the Christian Church, there are very many saints who testified to this divine fire. If you read the Desert Fathers, for example, there are many stories about how the novice saw the old man praying in his cell, and he looked in and it was filled with flame. There’s the teaching of St. Sergius of Radonezh in Russia, how his disciples saw when he had the Liturgy how the flame came leaping up out of the chalice when he celebrated, and all the angels and the glory of God were there. We know how St. Seraphim of Sarov himself, when he was a young deacon, had that vision, serving the Liturgy, of the magnificent splendor of God like a dazzling sun beamed in radiance. And then we know how that very same fiery light shone from the face of Seraphim himself, and he showed it to Motovilov in that famous conversation in the snow. So we had that imagery of fire all through Christian faith, that fire that is the Christian life.

And here I would just like to share with you an old saying and a new saying on this point. Back in the time of the Desert Fathers, there was a monk by the name of Joseph—Joseph of Panephysis, and one of the sayings of Joseph in the Desert Fathers is this. It says:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph, and he said to him: Abba (that means Father, of course), as far as I can, I keep my modest rule. I fast a little, I pray, I meditate, I live in peace as far as I can. I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?

Then the old man (Joseph) stood up, and he stretched his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to Lot: If you will (if you want to), you can become all flame. If you will, you can become all flame. And then Abba Joseph says to Abba Lot: You cannot be a monk unless you become a consuming fire.

Now, that can be applied, I believe, to all baptized people who were baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire, which is all of us. The saints and the Scriptures say to us, and the Church services, they say to us: If you will, you can become all flame, all fire. And you cannot really be a Christian unless you become like a consuming fire.

Now in our time, closer to our time, there was a marvelous woman. She was a kind of a bohemian-type Russian aristocrat. She lived a very secular life, even rather immoral life. She was involved in the Communist revolution. She was a mayor of a town. And then, to make the story really short, she got out of Russia; she found faith. One of her children—Gaiana—died as a child, and she wrote beautiful poetry about her child’s death. And then in Western Europe, under Metropolitan Evlogy in Paris, she became a nun, but she was not your run-of-the-mill nun. She wasn’t the kind of desert-dwelling type of nun outside of society.

Her monastery in Lourmel was right at the streets of Paris, and she did not want to be a nun. She did not feel called to believe; it was not her vocation to be a kind of a classical nun in a monastery with the services. She felt that she was called by God, and her bishop blessed her to do this as a nun, to go out into the streets—she was kind of like a Mother Teresa, a Russian Mother Teresa—go out into the streets and pick up all the drunkards and the prostitutes and the crazy people and all the people who were disoriented, especially the Russians who had lost everything and were just in total disarray—even worse, diseased, decomposed human beings. She cared for them, and she had this monastic kind of Christian community called Orthodox Action at her church in Lourmel. She had a wonderful priest there with her. She had coworkers.

Her name in the world was Elizabeth Pilenko. When she became a nun, she was called Mother Maria, and she’s known as Mother Maria Skobtsova, because she had been married to a man named Skobtsov. In fact, she was married twice before becoming a nun, and this Mother Maria, she was a violent person, radical person, for keeping the Gospel among the poor, among the needy, the homeless, the outcast. She was kind of like a Mother Teresa of Calcutta type, but much more bohemian, so to speak.

They say she smoked cigarettes or something; I don’t know. And she had a wonderful priest with her, Fr. Dimitry Klepinin. And her coworker, her son, Yuri Skobtsov; Ilya Fondaminsky, a converted Jew; Professor Mochulsky. There were very many people together who did this work. And what they did is, when the Nazis occupied France, they hid and protected Jews. They even forged baptismal certificates, and then they got caught by the Gestapo. They were put in prison camp, and Mother Maria was put to death on Great Friday in Ravensbrück prison, and the woman whose place she took in the death row survived, because the prison was liberated just a few days later, and this Jewish woman always remembered how that Russian nun had saved her life. Well, her son was put to death, Fr. Dimitry was put to death, Ilya was put to death—and they’re now canonized saints. I have an icon, a beautiful icon, of them, right here on my shelf where I’m speaking in my room here in Ellwood City, a beautiful icon that a woman painted for me, of Fr. Dimitry, Mother Maria, Ilya with a suit and tie on, on the icon with a halo, and Yuri there, with his cassock; he was a Church reader.

Mother Maria, she died in the 1940s. Well, in 1937, two years before I was born, Mother Maria felt called to this particular ministry. And when she was discussing it with her coworker, Professor Mochulsky—who actually was a wonderful man, too: he wrote a big, thick book about Dostoyevsky; he was a scholar—this is what she said. I’m reading from a book about her called One of Great Price [also published as Pearl of Great Price]. It says:

She said to Mochulsky, “It is all crystal-clear to me. Either Christianity is fire, or else it doesn’t exist. I just want to wander through the world, calling out: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! (Like John the Baptist, like Jesus Christ our Savior himself, like Peter on the day of Pentecost.) Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! And I want to accept it, [even] if people revile me and say all manner of evil against me.”

And she could have added: And I am ready even to die the death of the baptism together with my Lord who was baptized on the cross. And, in fact, she was. And, in fact, she was burned to death in a gas chamber. She entered into that fire like the three youths in the fiery furnace, and she died a martyr’s death—but she’s alive. Christ raised her from the dead. Her baptism worked! It was real in her life. She was baptized by the Holy Spirit and fire and being put death by Nazis in a gas chamber, fiery gas chamber. She became deified herself, and is a saint of the Church.

Christ said, “I have come to cast fire on the earth, and I wish it were already burning. I have a baptism to be baptized with, and I am constrained until it is fulfilled.” And it has been fulfilled. On the cross, it has been fulfilled. And we have been baptized into that baptism, by the Holy Spirit and by fire. And on this celebration of the season of the Epiphany again, when we remember all these things, beginning with the baptism of Jesus himself, beginning with John’s baptism of the crowds and the soldiers and the tax collectors. We remember these words of one of the most recent saints of the Orthodox Church, of ancient Christianity, and the 20th century, Mother Maria Skobtsova, who said, “Either Christianity is fire, or else it simply does not exist.”