Today we celebrate the Theophany of our Lord Jesus Christ with the great blessing of waters. The word “theophany” is from the Greek word theophania which means “appearance of God.” A lot is happening in this feast: Jesus Christ is being baptised in the River Jordan; God the Father states that Jesus Christ is His “beloved Son with whom [He is] well pleased”; and “the heavens were opened” and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove and lands on Jesus. So for the first time in the New Testament, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are stated to be present, working together through the Baptism of the Lord; and the Holy Trinity is revealed to the world.
In ancient times, this feast was called the Day of Illumination because God is Light and has brought his Light into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Just as the Jewish festival of Passover has become Pascha, and the Jewish festival of Shavout, the giving of the 10 commandments to Moses, has become Pentecost, so for us as Orthodox Christians the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, has become Theophany. To avoid confusion, it should be noted that Non-Orthodox Western Christians celebrate the Epiphany today, remembering the visit of the three magi to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. So this is an important day for Jews, for non-Orthodox Western Christians and for all Orthodox Christians throughout the world. But what exactly are we as Orthodox Christians celebrating?
In a sermon on this third chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew, St John Chrysostom points out that:
In fact, the things concerning Christ had been up to that time [until the baptism of Jesus] veiled, and many thought He was dead, owing to the massacre which took place at Bethlehem. For though at 12 years of age He [revealed] Himself [in the Temple], yet did He also quickly veil Himself again. And for this cause there was a need … of a loftier beginning.
This was precisely the situation in the Jewish Temple which had been desecrated by Antiochus and his followers. In 164 B.C.E. Judas Maccabeus and his followers fought and rededicated the Temple, with only enough oil to light the Temple lamp for one day, but the oil burned miraculously for eight days until further oil arrived. There was a need “for a loftier beginning”—for a new beginning in worshipping God.
One Orthodox commentary points out that on The Theophany the Trisagion which includes the words “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us” that traditionally begin an Orthodox service of prayer is replaced by psalms that glorify God and by the words of Galatians, chapter 3, verse 27: “For as many as been baptized into Christ have put on Christ: Alleluia.” What does it mean for us “to put on Christ?” Can today be a new beginning in our lives, as it was for the Jewish people at the time of Judas Maccabees and for so many who witnessed the baptism of Jesus Christ?
Preaching on this third chapter of St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, St John Chrysostom stressed the impact of St Paul’s words, and I quote: “For if Christ is the Son of God and you put Him on, having the Son inside yourself and being made like Him, you have been made one in kind and form.” As the third-century martyred Bishop of Carthage, St Cyprian, phrased it: If we have acknowledged our sins and “been sanctified by baptism and spiritually transformed into a new [person]” then we have “been made ready to receive the Holy Spirit.”The confession of our sins prepares us to be “sanctified by baptism,” to be “spiritually transformed into a new person” and to be “made ready to receive the Holy Spirit.”
Note the order in which this process of sanctification happens. First, we are honest with ourselves. We recognise we are sinners; and we seek to identify and eliminate those sins through the grace of God. Then, we begin to understand that the impact of the experience of baptism, although it happens only once (and often when we are very young) is a continuing experience. Precisely because we have each chosen to, as St John Chrysostom phrased it, have “the Son of God inside [ourselves],” then throughout our lives we are steadily “made” more and more “like Him.” This process was clearly understood in the ancient Church when catechumens were “illuminated” and received into the Church during the Vespers of Theophany.
Now, clearly Jesus Christ Himself was without sin and had no need to be baptised. So why was He baptised? Theodore of Mopsuestia, the fourth century founder of the Antiochene School of exegesis, offers an impressive response to the question of why Jesus Christ was baptised. Theodore was not a saint, but one whose newly recovered works in Syriac suggest that he was judged unjustly to be too close to Nestorius and the heretical idea that there were two separate persons in Christ, one human and one divine. Theodore wrote, and I quote:
Since necessarily we were to be symbolically transferred from this life by baptism and settled into that life which is to come, [Jesus Christ] saw to it that this baptism should be fulfilled first of all in Himself. In His providential dispensation of things, He had received before all others, this baptism of adoption which is by water and the Spirit. [Jesus Christ] thereby showed this baptism to be great and honourable, in that He Himself, first of all, truly accepted it… For just as He both died and rose again, we also shall do so in the same way.”
In other words, baptism is the act that begins to transfer us from the sins of this world and all the confusion those sins cause us and others to the peace that passes understanding of the next world. Note that Theodore suggests that the way in which baptism impacts our lives is by “[settling] us into that life which is to come.” It is, as Theodore proposes, a “baptism of adoption … by water and the [Holy] Spirit.” Now, to “settle” a person is to place them firmly in a particular situation; and the situation in which each of us is being placed is “a baptism of adoption.” The word “adopt” is from the Latin word adaptare meaning “to choose.” We have each chosen to draw near to Christ through baptism; and He has chosen to give each of us the Holy Spirit and a model for how to settle over many years into the life that He has for each of us in which, we like Him, die and rise again.