Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Lord's Baptism, Theophany - insights from the East

Vasili Nesterenko. Baptism of our Lord. Christ the Saviour Cathedral (Moscow). 2000

The following is a slight adaptation of a passage from ”A Handbook for Church Servers”, by Sergei V. Bulgakov, 1871-1944. (Go HERE for Rowan Williams' talk on Bulgakov's life.)

In the Eastern Church this feast is called “Theophany” (“revelation of God”) because during the Baptism of the Lord the Divine All-Holy Trinity was revealed: God the Father spoke from heaven about the Son, the Son of God was baptised by John and was witnessed by God the Father, and the Holy Spirit descended on the Son in the form of a dove. This explanation of the feast is given by the Holy Church in its hymn: “When thou, O Lord, wast baptised in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity wast made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to thee, calling thee his beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of his word. O Christ our God, who hath appeared and enlightened the world, glory to thee.”

Since ancient times this feast also was known as the “Day of Illumination” and “the Feast of Lights”, because God is the Light and reveals himself to illumine “those who sat in darkness and the shadow of death” (Matthew 4:16), and to save according to grace, who has now been revealed by the appearing of our Saviour” (2 Timothy 1:9-10), and because on the Eve of Theophany it was the custom to baptise the catechumens . . . during which many lamps are lit.

Besides this, the ancient Church on this day also remembered other events in which the divine worthiness and representation of Jesus Christ was expressed both during his birth, and during his introduction to preach in public after baptism: 

1) The worship of the Magi as a revelation of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world by means of a wonderful star from this commemoration the very feast of Epiphany in the Western Church received the name of the Feast of the Three Kings; in the Eastern Church though it was part of the feast, it was not expressed in the character of the feast; 

2) The manifestation of the divine power of Jesus Christ in his first miracle at the marriage in Cana of Galilee when the Lord “created the beginning of signs”; and 

3) (in the African Church) The appearance of the divine power in Jesus Christ in the wonderful feeding of the more than 5000 persons by with five loaves of bread in the desert . . .

According to the teaching of St John of Damascus, the Lord was baptized, not because he himself needed cleansing, but rather, having taken our cleansing upon himself, to destroy the heads of the serpents in the water,  “to bury human sin through water and all of the old Adam, to fulfill the law, to reveal the mystery of the Trinity and, finally, to consecrate ‘the essence of water’ and to grant us a paradigm and an example of baptism . . . it inspires in us feelings of boundless gratitude to the Enlightener and the Cleanser of our sinful nature; it teaches that our purification and salvation from sin is only by the power of grace of the Holy Spirit; it specifies the necessity of the worthy use the gifts of the grace of baptism and the protection in purity of those precious garments of which we are reminded on the feast of the Baptism by the words: ‘As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ’ (Galatians 3:27); and it commands us towards the purification of our souls and hearts in order to be worthy of the blessed life.”

The Holy Spirit was revealed as a dove because this image most resembled both the Holy Spirit and Christ the Lord. According to the teaching of St. John Chrysostom, “the dove is a gentle and pure being and like the Holy Spirit is a spirit of meekness, that He also was revealed with the same image”; “in the form of a dove the Spirit descended as the depiction of Christ’s humanity as pure, sinless and true”. 

According to the explanation of Cyril of Jerusalem, “as then during Noah’s time the dove announced the end of the flood bringing an olive branch, and now the Holy Spirit as a dove announces the remission of sins; there, an olive branch, here, the mercy of our God.”

Another of the hymns chanted on this Feast in the Eastern Church links the Lord’s consecration of the baptismal stream with our own baptism: “The River Jordan receded of old by the mantle of Elisha when Elijah ascended into heaven; and the water was separated to this side and that, the wet element turning into a dry path for him, being truly a symbol of Baptism, by which we cross the path of transient age. Christ appeared in the Jordan to sanctify its waters.”


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