A HOMILY FOR THE SUNDAY BEFORE THEOPHANY

 

About Holy Baptism, and Preparation for the Feast

 

        Brothers and sisters!

 

        Today is the Sunday before Theophany, and throughout the world the Holy Orthodox Church is preparing for the festive commemoration of the saving Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh and the glorious manifestation of God the Holy Trinity at the Jordan.  We call the approaching feast “Theophany” because on that wondrous day, God the unbegotten Father witnessed in a mighty voice to the fact that the One being baptized was His only-begotten Son; because God the Son, begotten of the Father before the ages according to His divinity, came forth and as man began His public ministry to the world; and God the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds eternally from the Father, was seen visibly descending in the form of a dove.  Tonight and tomorrow morning we shall hold the services for the eve of the feast; tomorrow evening and Tuesday morning the services for the feast itself.  Our Holy Church celebrates Theophany with exactly the same magnificence as she does the Nativity of Christ, and in fact the two were, in very earliest Christian times, a single feast honoring all facets of Christ’s appearance to the world.  Only in the fourth century was the Nativity established as a separate feast.  One still follows closely upon the other, so that together they form the opposite festal pole from Holy Pascha, and like Pascha rank higher than all the other great feasts.

        Because every feast is best explained by its services (especially Vespers and Matins), I would be very happy if everyone could attend all the divine services we will be celebrating during the next several days.  But since this is impossible, I will say a few words now as a poor substitute for the rich hymnography of our Holy Church, for the sake of those who cannot be in attendance at all the services.  Hopefully, what I say will also assist those who can be present to prepare themselves for a meaningful and joyous celebration by stirring up in them beforehand the remembrance of what Holy Baptism means. 

        The word “Baptism” is a noun derived from the Greek verb “vaptó,” meaning “to plunge,” or “to immerse.”  The Holy Fathers teach that there are many different types of baptism.  Saint Gregory the Theologian lists five:

        First, the baptism of Moses, which served the purpose of ritual purification.

        Second, the baptism of John the Forerunner, which led the people to repentance and acceptance of Christ.

        Third, Christian Baptism, performed by the energy of Christ, which makes men Christians.   

        Fourth, the baptism of blood, which is martyrdom.

        And fifth, the baptism of tears, which cleanses the sins every one of us commits after receiving Christian Baptism.

        Saint John of Damascus enumerates the various types of baptism somewhat differently.  He speaks of eight kinds:

        First, that of the flood in the time of Noah, for the eradication of sin.

        Second, that of the sea and the cloud in the time of Moses.  The sea was a symbol of the water of Christian Baptism, and the cloud a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

        Third, the baptism of the Law, which required that every impure person wash himself and even his garments before entering the camp of Israel.

        Fourth, that of John, which was preliminary and led to Christ.

        Fifth, that of Christ, which is also our Baptism; for Christ was perfect and needed no cleansing, but accepted it for our sake. 

        Sixth, that of repentance and tears.

        Seventh, that of martyrdom and blood, which Christ also underwent on our behalf.

        And eighth, that of the everlasting fire of Gehenna, which destroys sin, but does not save.

        Saint John Chrysostom, stressing the difference between Jewish baptism, which is merely external and cleanses the body, and Christian Baptism, which is primarily internal and cleanses the soul, points out that John’s baptism stood midway between the two.  It is higher than the Jewish baptism and lower than the Christian, and forms a bridge between the two.

        As I just mentioned, our Lord had no need for purification, but was baptized for our sake.  Saint John of Damascus explains more exactly what this means.  Being perfect God and perfect man, Christ never committed sin of any kind; but He wished to identify Himself fully with our purification.  Christ fully identified with all our grief and pain by undergoing the dread Passion and Crucifixion (even though He was a stranger to sin, which is the cause of grief and pain); and similarly, by Baptism He made our purification His own, even though He needed no cleansing at all.  Christ is said to have crushed the heads of the dragons lurking in the waters, destroying the wicked spirits and cleansing water so that it became fit for bearing the Holy Spirit, and fit for our spiritual cleansing and refashioning.  By bowing His head beneath the Forerunner’s hand, Christ blessed that hand -- but it did not bless Him.  Since He is the God of the Old Testament Who gave the ordinance concerning baptism to Moses, Christ fulfilled His own Law, even though He had no more need of ritual than of spiritual cleansing.

        Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain explains that in order to remake a clay vessel, a potter needs two elements:  water and fire.  Taking a broken, ground-up old vessel, he uses water to remold the clay and fire to cast it.  God, the supreme Artificer, remakes our nature similarly.  Taking our human nature, crushed by sin, He remakes it with water and fire.  The water is the water of Holy Baptism, the blessing of Jordan; the fire is the fire of His Holy Spirit.

        Note that in the refashioning, our nature does not disappear altogether, but is utilized for a better vessel, the new man in Christ, Who is both our Creator and our Re-creator.  In ordinary nature, fire and water do not co-exist.  Fire cannot be ignited or spread in a very damp place, for water quenches fire.  But in the Jordan they do co-exist, because the fire of the Godhead is uncreated, whereas the water is created.  The water does not quench the fire; rather, it is sanctified by the fire of the Divinity and thereby serves for our sanctification -- for our reshaping as a new and better vessel, the new man in Christ Jesus.

        And so, brothers and sisters, we who were once refashioned in the waters of Holy Baptism and are now preparing for the yearly commemoration of Christ’s Baptism and ours must take care not to revert to the old man, but resolve to live at all times according to Christ.  Otherwise, Holy Baptism will be for us nothing more than a simple immersion -- a symbol for the eye, but not strength for the soul, power for the heart, and a mystery opening the gates of heaven.  With all our heart let us value the priceless gift of our refashioning as we should, and live in accordance with faith and our high calling as sons and daughters of God according to grace and divine Baptism.  Let us flee every sin and be doers of the word,[1] striving with all the powers of our heart, will, and mind for the inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven[2] for us who have been born of water[3] and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

[1] James 1:22

[2] I Pet. 1:4

[3] John 3:5