IN the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Well, here we are, in the beginning weeks of January, the first month of a New Year. I often find myself in an unusual state of mind at this time. Christmas was literally only two weeks earlier but it seems like months have passed. Thanksgiving seems like it was an eternity ago. But that’s what life in the 21st century has become; everything is on fast forward and living in America, Christmas is celebrated almost everyday in December and then on the morning of December 26, we have to hurry to put it away for another year.
Then we need to get ready for New Year’s Eve….3-2-1….happy New Year!...and it’s time to move on. Immediately we’re barraged by a myriad of commercials and advertisements for the latest diet or exercise trend. Fitness and health clubs will sign up scores new members offering them the promise of a brand new you, fit, thin and healthy. Then after they sign you up for their “special” offer, they ultimately hope you never show up and chances are after a few short weeks, you won’t. New year’s resolutions made will probably be broken before Valentines Day…a whole other story!
This pace can be exhausting! And now, when you add a global pandemic and the near constant threat of becoming ill on top of all of the normal pressures of the holiday season and you have a wonderful recipe for stress and anxiety.
There doesn’t seem to be any time to just be in the moment anymore. And the moment, such as it is, gets snatched away from us before we can truly appreciate it.
But time in our world and time in the church, sacred time, are not the same things. Hence why this Sunday is called the Sunday after Theophany we are literally in the Afterfeast of this great Holy day. We celebrate it and continue to reflect upon it for a period of days afterwards. During Pascha for example, the feast of feasts, this afterfeast period lasts a full 40 days!
Forty, as we know, is strewn throughout the bible carrying a special significance as it is used to represent a time of preparation of becoming ready.
So here we are, deep in the heart of our winter months, and there is an incredible experience happening, a miraculous unfolding is taking place if we can only stop and take notice. This revealing stretches back to November 15 when we began the Advent Fast. For 40 days, we were in anticipation of a wonderful miracle, the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, born in a cave and as we’ve heard Father Innocent share with us, it was a “hidden” event. It wasn’t accompanied by grandiose announcements across the globe, but rather heralded by angels at night to humble shepherds as they tended their flocks. There were no crowds celebrating and cheering the new born King, but rather the sound of farm animals breathing and nervously pacing as they gazed upon their maker laying in their food trough. There wasn’t a parade to welcome Him, but instead, He was ushered into another country with his parents under the darkness of night to avoid His life being taken by a deranged despot.
So what is this “unfolding” this “revealing” if His Nativity was so quiet? Well, just 3 short days ago, we celebrated a feast that in many ways stands on equal footing with that of Nativity, the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan. In fact, in the ancient church, these two festivals were combined and celebrated together on January 6th and now only the Armenian church keeps this tradition today.
You will hear the feast day sometime referred to by different names so let’s look at them and see what they tell us about this holy day.
First, it is sometimes called the feast of Epiphany which comes from the Greek EPI-PHANIA which means a shining forth, a manifestation or an appearing. But as Orthodox it most commonly we referred to as the feast of Theophany from the Greek THEO – PHANIA…a shining forth of GOD. Ironically, when I typed in the Greek Epihania in my google translate, the word that pinged back was Theophania, so even the google sees that these words are used interchangeably!
In the feast of Theophany, GOD is revealed to us. When Jesus deigns to be baptized by John, who as we know, was very, very reluctant to do so, he did so to as Jesus told him in order to “fulfill all righteousness” as we hear in Matthew 3:15. After he came out of the water, and so we understand---Baptism means immersion and is a sign of death, Jesus was immersed in the water and came up and out. That’s why we fully immerse our babies in the baptismal font, otherwise we are not truly baptizing them. We’re immersed in the water to take part in the death of Christ and when we are lifted up out of the font, we take part in His Resurrection. When Jesus comes out of the water…it happens…the Father speaks “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” and the Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove.
We’ve heard this so many times that we’ve become numb to its siginificance….God is making His true self known, he is revealing to His creation what He is, He is THEO-PHANIA - ing! Until that miraculous moment, mankind did not know what His creator was, didn’t know how he was but now we know and see clearly…God is Father, God is Son and God is Holy Spirit, one God in three persons and He became man, fully man in all aspects for his beloved creation so that WE can take part in HIS divinity.
And this is why we sing the Troparion over and over, in fact its probably one of the few that we know by heart:
When Thou, O Lord was baptized in the Jordan
The worship of the Trinity was made manifest
For the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee
And called Thee His beloved Son;
And the Spirit in the form of a dove
Confirmed the truthfulness of His word;
O Christ our God, who has revealed Thyself
And has enlightened the world, glory to Thee!
That is why this time is so special because in the span from the beginning of Advent 40 days to His Nativity, we witness His birth, eight days later He deigns to be circumcised to fulfill the ordinances of God’s law, HIS LAW, 40 days from His Nativity on February 2nd, He will be presented in the Temple, again fulfilling the Law, and on January 6th we witness His extreme humility as He accepts Baptism from His creation. For eighty days we witness these magnificent events that our Lord went through as he APPEARED to us.
And then, as we heard in today’s Gospel, which took place right after Jesus thwarted the Devil’s temptations in the desert (at the end of a 40 day fasting preparation) He comes out of the wilderness and begins His ministry with the words…..REPENT! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Literally, meaning…change your mind, change the way you thought of things…God’s kingdom and it’s King is here with you right now.
Our Orthodox faith shows us so clearly that our Lord has sanctified all creation and that it is good. Even though it is oftentimes mired in uncleanness in the world, ultimately, it has been renewed through Jesus Christ. That is why our worship is literally so physical as well as spiritual. Our temples are visually stunning, adorned with beautiful icons that radiate a heavenly glow, our sense of smell is engaged through the holy incense which is offered to God as a sweet spiritual fragrance, we prostrate ourselves and venerate the holy cross, gospel and icons engaging our sense of touch, we taste of the heavenly banquet each time we approach the holy chalice and we hear the beautiful words proclaimed in readings, songs and hymns…one such beautiful hymn that we would not have heard unless we attended the Royal Hours struck me as so poignant. You can imagine these words happening as you gaze at the icon. It is poetically voiced from the perspective of the river Jordan itself, listen to it’s beautiful words:
Why do you hold back your waters, O Jordan? Why do you hinder your streams, and why do you proceed in this unnatural course?
I cannot bear, said he, the consuming Fire. I stand in awe and shudder before His extreme condescension. For I am not worthy to wash Him that is clean; I have not learned to bathe Him that is without sin, but to purge defiled vessels. Christ, Who is baptized in me, teaches me to burn up the thorns of sin. John bears witness with me: the Voice of the Logos does cry: “Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.”
Unto Him let us, the faithful, CRY OUT: O God, who has appeared for our salvation, glory be to YOU!
So let us not be flustered by the chaos of life outside these doors, no matter how furious the noise or the storm, let us not be conned or duped into believing that the only way to make ourselves perfect is with strict adherence to the Adkins diet and a one year membership to Planet Fitness…but let us instead witness our Lord’s baptism with fear and a sense of awe and let us take the blessed and holy water that we’ll receive and use it as a way for us to renew ourselves and to recommit ourselves to be what we can and should be, truly the best versions of ourselves…to repent…to change our minds. Work on building the perfect you here, where it truly matters and let us witness to the love of our great God, who became everything for us and endured everything for us…because He loves us and wants us to have eternal life with Him in paradise.
To Him be the glory and honor, to Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Amen…Glory to Jesus Christ!