Today we celebrate a day that is called by many names: the Baptism of our Lord, Theophany, and it is also called Illumining. We commemorate our Lord’s baptism today in the Jordan. Theophany is the appearance of God, where indeed the Holy Trinity manifested Himself after Our Lord’s baptism. Why would we call it Illumining? It is because through baptism we are indeed illuminated.
God had a plan for man. The primeval plan was for us to grow in knowledge and in wisdom, according to how we could bear it, in purity, without any knowledge of evil at all. But man didn’t choose that plan. So God, in his wisdom knowing this, sent his only-begotten Son. Salvation is the knowledge of God, but only the pure can know the pure. We can even see this in our daily lives. There are people whom we just don’t completely understand, and we know this because we understand that they’re somehow more pure and more humble than us. And we think: “I don’t understand how that person can take such abuse from her husband, or his son, or his co-worker, or some other person, and be so humble about it.” We know people like that. Hopefully there are people that speak about us in those kind of tones, because we are supposed to be a light to the rest of the world, you know.
Only the pure can know the pure. But we’re dirty, and we need purification. And what’s more, we don’t have any way to become pure. We don’t have any way to clean ourselves. We’re blackened, and we have no way to clean ourselves on our own. And our flesh, what is more, wars against us. Even if we wished to clean ourselves, (and we don’t have the means, without God’s help, mind you), we cannot. We don’t have the strength, the ability, we don’t have the knowledge, we don’t have the grace. W cannot t understand God without Him revealing himself to us. So, that is why our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came incarnate of a Virgin, into the midst of us – to invigorate us and make us able to live. But not only that; but also to give us an example.
His ministry was two-fold. Being God, He taught us all the things that were necessary for our salvation, by His example, by how He lived, by how He spoke, by His demeanor. And He transmitted this faithfully and carefully to his disciples. And this is only to be found – this mind of Christ is only to be found – in the Orthodox faith, and it has been transmitted carefully and perfectly, throughout the ages, by the Church.
He showed us no only by His teaching, but also by how He lived. And He was a man, as well as being God, so He was subject to the things we are subject to, even unto death. So therefore, when He told us to be baptized, later on, after His resurrection, his words certainly have weight, because He subjected himself to baptism. He was not the kind of leader, or the kind of king, who would tell his subjects to do something that He wasn’t willing to do. In fact, he said to James and John, that you cannot drink the cup that I will drink and be baptized with the baptism I will be baptized with. They could not bear what our Lord bore for us.
He will do more for us than He requires of us and expect more of himself. And indeed, that is a principle of leadership. A leader, whether he be a father, a mother, or a priest, or an employer, or someone who teaches children, such as many of the men in this church, must lead by example. All the men in this church, should be teachers of our boys, and all of the women, of our girls, and you teach them by being selfless, and emptying yourself as Christ emptied Himself. He taught us how to do it, and gave us the blueprint of how to do it.
Today we have an amazing thing before us. He who created the waters submits to being baptized in them. He who created the heavens and the earth and saw that it was good and not any whit evil, submits to cleansing in waters. He who regenerates our flesh, Who is the Regenerator, He descends in the flesh into regenerating waters. And he does this to show us how necessary it is for baptism.
To know Christ we must be like Him. You cannot know somebody unless you become like that person – it is not possible. So our Christian life in the flesh is to try to acquire the virtues, to be a good husbandman, to acquire the Holy Spirit, as my patron, St. Seraphim of Sarov, said, “By fasting, by diligence, by care, by prayers, by weeping, by repentance, by the whole Christian life.” That is the whole reason for ascetical exercises. It’s not because they’re rules to be followed. It’s because they are LIFE!
A man who sees a way of life that leads to eternal life, would be crazy, blind, not to follow such a life. So our Lord taught us many principles of how to life, but the most important aspect of His ministry is that He made us ABLE to live this way. I can tell you many things, and they might be, (I hope that they will be) true, about the teaching of the Church, but I cannot invigorate you or make you able to live this way. That is only possible through your submission to the God-man Jesus Christ and the All-Holy Holy Trinity, Who makes a man able to live. So the God-man, when He preached, preached with authority, because He was able to back up his words like nobody else can.
Baptism is an image; it’s an image of death and of life. The church says it over and over and over again. When we descend into the waters, we die. Our old man, with its lusts, dies in the waters. When we ascend out of the waters, we are reborn a new creature. This is a hard thing to understand. We cannot fathom it. We do not know how a man is reborn of water and the Spirit, we just know how we are told to begin the Christian life. Baptism is the first mystery. Although perhaps one would say the first mystery is really the incarnation of the Son of God, which made everything else possible. In our life, our entrance into the Christian life is through baptism. Without it, we’re not able to progress one wit in the knowledge of God. And the knowledge of God IS salvation, brothers and sisters. But remember, one cannot progress in the knowledge of God without progressing in purity at the same time.
We have no “armchair theologians” in the Orthodox Church. He who is a theologian – who studies God – lives as God wishes him to live, and is enlightened. We have had theologians that have not been able to read or write. Or even, and this is hard for us in our industrialized society to understand, they might not even have been intelligent, as we would think of intelligence. But they were intelligent in the ways of God, because they lived a life in accordance with His grace.
I hope you understand now why our Lord was baptized. There was no NEED for Him to be baptized. In fact, what does it say after He was baptized? “Straightway He came up out of the water.” To the fathers this is crystal clear, and therefore to us it will be now, too. He came straightway out of the water because He has no sin. In those days St. John was baptizing for repentance, right? A baptism of repentance, but not for remission of sins, because he cannot remit sins. But people would, when they came out of the water – (and how would you like this, some of you have been baptized in streams that are cold!) – they were held in the water. They came up partway, (obviously their head was out of the water), and they confessed their sins right then and there. And then they were released out of the water. That’s how it was done. But our Lord had no need to do so, He had no sins to confess. In fact, when He went into the water, the demons fled. You see the icon? You see the demons in there? The demons are fleeing from the water, because they could not bear to be in the same place as the God-man Jesus Christ.
How can anyone stand against this mystery when our Lord endorses it so emphatically?! And also, if we have an understanding of how water was treated, throughout the whole history of the Church – now I mean the history of the Church from Adam, you know, because God had a salvific plan from that time. There is a cute bumper sticker, but it’s not true: “Founded AD 33, Christian Church.” It was reborn, and recreated in AD 33, but the plan had been in place since Adam and Eve.
Let’s take a look, a little bit, at these short scriptures we read today. “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John to be baptized of him. But John forbade Him, saying “I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest thou to me?” And Jesus said unto him, “suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.” It’s a little bit of a riddle; what is He talking about, “all righteousness?” It was a tradition, a strong tradition, a God inspired tradition, of the Jewish people, that when a prophet said something, you did it! Jesus obeyed a prophet. John was the greatest of the prophets; our Lord Himself said so. So He obeyed a prophet, by being baptized. John did not mean for the God-man to be baptized, and he wanted to tell him, “no, I can’t. I am unworthy. I want to be baptized of you.” But our Lord showed obedience. That’s how he fulfilled all righteousness. And also – I said this before – He gave us an example.
Our Lord does not tell us to do anything we are not capable of doing. He does not tell us to do anything in the flesh that we cannot do in the flesh, and that he did not already do in the flesh. He told us that our flesh should become pure. He purified His flesh. His flesh was always pure; he made his flesh completely invigorated with the Godhead. And indeed, that will happen to us, because He did it to Himself. He promises us that we will rise from the dead. Well, he did it to Himself, so we are capable. He commands us to be baptized; He did it himself. He turned the other cheek when he was slapped by the arrogant Pharisees and by their henchman, the Roman soldiers. And He commands us to turn our cheek when we are slapped. He commands us to forgive, and He forgave. There is nothing, there is no commandment that the Lord gave that He did not fulfill Himself in the flesh. And He even told us to be perfect, and He was perfect – in the flesh and as God. So all those things we are capable to doing because He did them for us and made us able to. He led by example, and He led by power and grace and mercy.
“Then He suffered him. And Jesus, when He was baptized went up straightway out of the waters and lo! The heavens were opened unto Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting upon Him. And a voice from heaven saying “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” We already said what it means that He went “straightway out of the water.” John was in the water trembling, as a man before God. And God comes out of the water, and the Holy Spirit descends upon His shoulder, Jesus’ shoulder, so as not to confuse the two. And the voice says, “This is my son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
And the heavens are opened. Why? Because the heavens are opened to us through baptism. And also the heavens are opened to us through something else. Right away after the baptism, St. Mark barely catches his breath, I don’t think he even has to dip his pen again in ink, and he starts to write, “and straightway He was led out by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days.” There is a reason why he writes with such haste, why he doesn’t even finish talking about baptism and wham! He is talking about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, because this happens to us. Right after our baptism we are tempted. During the whole of our life we’re tempted, and sometimes we feel that we are in a barren place, a rocky dessert, with no water and no comfort, and we get despondent. Our Lord had the same things happen to Him; He became hungry as a man, tired as a man, He wept as a man. And right after His baptism He shows that we should expect that we are in a life or death struggle.
Immediately upon being baptized we are enlisted as soldiers. Not as conscripts, mind you, but as willing men, willing to put on the armor of faith and of righteousness. We are willing to fight the good fight, because we have stated so, whether it was as an infant when our sponsors stated for us and we grew to maturity and we learned of the church, or whether it is, in the case of most of us, where we spoke for ourselves and agreed to the tenets of the Christian faith before we were thrust down into the water and out of it three times.
The Church today, (and yesterday by the way), blesses water. This is called the great blessing, and in it we read amazing passages from the Old Testament about water and its salvific qualities. And then we take this water and we sanctify everything with it. And you should listen closely to the services – especially I can remember some things from last night – they talk about how our Lord cleanses the water, casting out demons from it, and making it pure and wholesome. It is good – to drink, to anoint ourselves with, good to bless and sanctify everything. And we indeed bless and sanctify water because our Lord blessed and sanctified water.
I am always amazed – even after 18 years (the first 18 years I lived was not as an Orthodox Christian, actually the first 20), how our faith involves all of our life – everything! All of our senses – sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste – everything! And every aspect of our life – nothing is untouched by the holy church. In a pious Christian life, nothing is secular, but everything is sacred. So after we bless the water today, and bless the inside of the church, and go around and bless the outside precincts, you will take water home. You should drink this water in the morning, with the sign of the cross, and also eat a small piece of antidoron, before you eat or drink anything else. And you should also drink this water if there is a temptation or a difficulty in your life. You should anoint yourself with the water. You should sanctify things in your home. I have had the custom of going around all the rooms of my house with a senser, with all the rest of the family carrying candles and singing the Theophany Troparion, to bless everything with holy water on a regular basis. I do not do it as much anymore – I guess I am more distracted and busy than I should be – but this is an important task. Anyone can do this. The demons see the water, even after the water dries on the walls and you cannot see it, (except if you have sprinkled it on paper, the marks never go away then), the demons still see it, and you have marked your house as a dwelling of Christians.
But of course, if you do this, then you must live as a Christian. What happened to the man who had the demons taken out of him, and the demon went around deserts and rocky places, and desolate areas, and the found no place to dwell? What did the demon do? He got seven other demons worse than himself, and he went back to the man. They found his soul was all swept and garnished inside, but since the man had not lived a virtuous life since his deliverance from the one demon, and the demons were able to make their abode in him, and the last state of the man is worse than the first!
There is responsibility placed upon you, brothers and sisters, because of the grace you have been given – because of your baptism. Also because of the All-Holy mysteries which all of you should desire to receive today, and the services of the church, and all the mind of the church. Everything that you do is sacred, and it makes you responsible, for living according to how you have promised to live. The good news is that you are ABLE to do it, because the God-man made you able to do it!
God revealed Himself, and continues to reveal Himself to us, as we are able to understand Him. As we become more pure, He reveals more of His purity to us. And we ascend like eagles! That is the meaning of Theophany. That is the meaning of the illumining. May it be that all of are illumined and follow Him in all ways. Amen.
Fr. Seraphim Holland