18 - Sunday Before Theophany, Jan 2, 2011

II Tim 4:5-8

Mark 1:1-8

Today is the Sunday before the feast of Theophany. With this morning’s Gospel reading, the Church helps us to make ready for the feast. There is much to reflect upon.

 Theophany means the “revelation of God”. Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan and God reveals Himself for the first time as Holy Trinity: “When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For, the voice of the Father bore witness, calling Thee His beloved Son, and the Spirit, in the form of a dove confirmed the truthfulness of His word.”

Of St John the Baptist, the Scriptures say that he was clothed with camel’s hair and had a leather girdle around his waist. This is how Elijah is described.[1] It is a way of saying that St John the Baptist is the second coming of Elijah as prophesied by Malachi, whose coming would signal the Day of the Lord and the coming of the Messiah: Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse."[2]

On the feast of Theophany, then, the scene before us is that of the Second Elijah baptizing the Lord’s Christ, the Second Adam, whose coming signals the terrible Day of the Lord foretold by the prophets. It is a Day of judgment, as the Lord Himself says; but, it is a Day when God reveals His love, for He sends not His Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved.[3] And the judgment that we deserve is borne by Christ on the Cross when, again according to the prophets, He bears the iniquity of us all: “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities. Upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”[4]

The feast of Theophany is the epiphany of Jesus’ personal identity. He is the Son of God, the Word of the Lord that came to the prophets and compelled them to prophesy. And here He is on the feast of Theophany compelling the prophets in the person of St John the Baptist to baptize Him in the same way we who are sinners are baptized. I think this may be at least partly why we’ll hear St John protesting and saying to Jesus: it is I who should be baptized by you. In other words, I am your servant, you are not my servant. But if Jesus is the Lord, then Jesus is the Savior. And, if He is the Savior, then He commands John the Baptist to baptize Him because it is for our salvation. There is much here to think about: how the “terrible Day of the Lord” prophesied as a Day of judgment by the prophets is revealed in the coming of the Lord as the Day of salvation to those who receive Him, to those who lay aside every excuse and draw near to Him in repentance. This morning, I would like to reflect on how the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan is an act of our salvation.

There is first the significance of St John the Baptist. He is a prophet in the tradition of Moses, which means that the God he proclaims is the same God who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush on Mt Sinai and revealed to Moses His Name: “I Am Who I Am.” The same God reveals Himself to St John the Baptist, coming to him in the flesh as Jesus, the Son of God, the same God who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, whose divine Name is “I Am Who I Am” (and so we see on the icons of the Savior, the divine Name of Jesus: “I Am” ). St John the Baptist completes the prophetic tradition of Moses; Moses revealed the Name of God to Israel. St John the Baptist reveals to Israel God Immanuel: God the Word who has become flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus of Nazareth. Moses revealed to Israel that God is one. St John the Baptist reveals to Israel that God is one in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If God who created the world in His own Image is not an abstract nature but persons; if the Image of God in whom man was made is not an impersonal thing but personal, the very Person of Jesus Christ, God the Word;[5] and if the Holy Spirit who makes alive and holy is not some abstract, impersonal energy, but person, then reality is personal. All the philosophies and scientific theories of the world have it wrong that seek to know the world on the premise that its primary principle is impersonal. This means that to be saved is not to be dissolved or absorbed into some impersonal One; it is to be restored to our personal reality in the image of God and, as images of God, to attain to unity with God in the mystery of personal communion.

 The God who appeared to Moses is the God who created the heavens and the earth and everything in them,[6] who, as the Psalmist proclaims, “has spread out the earth upon the waters.”[7] The Baptism of Jesus by John, therefore, is an act of creation, or rather of re-creating the world. Only, the Creator now stands not above the waters, creating the world by the Word of His divine fiat. He stands in the waters, creating the world anew from within the world as man. Here one cannot help but see a foreshadowing of His death on the Cross, when He will re-create the world from within the grave, and so destroy death by His death.

In the beginning, God breathed His Holy Spirit into the nostrils of Adam and Adam became a living soul, alive in the Spirit of God. He commanded Adam and Eve to subdue the earth and to have dominion over the earth. This was not a command to tyrannize and abuse the earth according to man’s self-will; it was a command to tame the earth in the love of God and to render the earth, together with man, a partaker of the divine nature and so to become spiritual, one with God, in fulfillment of its original creation as good. Man rejected God and became corrupt, so much so that God repented making man. He resolved to destroy the man He had made, saving only Noah and his family because Noah was righteous in the eyes of God. Even so, the Spirit of God departed from the earth when the dove left the ark and never came back. But in the River Jordan, we hear the witness of St John the Baptist, that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. The significance of the Spirit descending on Jesus in the form of a dove, I think, is that it means the Holy Spirit has returned to the earth and now dwells in the body of Jesus as in a holy temple. And now the commandment of God given to Adam is fulfilled in Jesus, the Second Adam. He subdues the earth on His cross when He destroys death by His death and makes the world alive and good again as it was in the beginning.

And the Church is the body of Christ; and you have received the Holy Spirit by having received the holy mysteries of the Church. United to Christ, you are united to the mystery of God re-creating the world in the birth, the baptism, the death and the resurrection of Christ. You participate in the Savior’s subduing of the earth and His having dominion over her by His perfect obedience to the Father, culminating in His victory over death in His Holy Pascha. Like the Royal Doors of the sanctuary, the gates of Eden stand open before you in your union with Christ who united Himself to you in His Incarnation, and who has re-created you in His Holy Baptism and in His Holy Pascha. You have been saved because you have been made alive in the Spirit of Christ. Having been saved, you have received your cross by which you can destroy death by your union with Christ in His death. And, if in the Spirit of Christ, and in the victory of His Holy Pascha, you rise from the waters of your baptism to take up your cross in order to die to sin, then in the Spirit of Christ you will be united to Christ in a resurrection like His.

Christ rose from the Jordan and was revealed to be the Son of God. We come out of the waters of our baptism and we are revealed now to be children of God in Christ, living souls, alive in the Spirit of Christ. In the Church, the heavens are opened to us as we hear and see the prophetic proclamation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the joy of the Feast, let us take up our cross and go forth now to Holy Pascha to become partakers in Christ’s victory over sin and death. Amen.

[1] II Kgs 1:8

[2] Mal 4:5-6

[3] Jn 3;16

[4] Isa 53:4-6

[5] Col 1:15

[6] Gn 1:1

[7] Ps 136:6