Orthodox America

  A Death that Promises Life

Fr. Alexey Young

     Both as a secular and as a religious holiday, Christmas in the West has long been the most prominent celebration of the year. Influenced by this tradition, Orthodox Christians generally assume that the Feast of Christ's Nativity must be second in importance only to Pascha in the Church cycle of feasts, Many will therefore be surprised to learn that in fact it is Theophany, the feast of our Lord's Baptism, which holds a position of preeminence second only to Pascha.

    If we were theologically attuned, we would more easily comprehend the profound significance of this Feast. But somehow, coming so close after Nativity, it catches us unawares, still in the midst of indulging ourselves in rich foods and sweets, altogether unprepared For the strict fast to which we are called on the eve. And this is to be regretted, because the Feast of Theophany contains such a wealth of theology as to epitomize God's entire economy for oar salvation. What could be more deserving of our undivided and most reverent attention?

    Liturgically, the Feasts of Nativity and Theophany are closely linked; in ancient times they were in fact celebrated together. Both feasts are distinguished by the so-called Royal Hours read on the eve, which lay out for us the scriptural foundation of the Feasts from both the Old and New Testaments; this is then embellished with the exalted hymnography of the various stichera.

     Our Lord's Incarnation, His coming to earth in the flesh as a babe, was revealed to very few. Soon after the actual event, His identity as the Son of the Highest, the promised Messiah, was strangely concealed. For thirty years He lived in obscurity as "the carpenter's son," patiently awaiting the fulfillment of time and the coming of age when according to the Jewish law a man night begin to teach. Even St. John the Baptist, although he acknowledged Christ's superiority, was not sure of His Divinity until He came up out of the water when the heavens opened and the Spirit like a dove descended upon Him,and a voice came from heaven, saying: "Thou art My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased" (Mark 1:10-11). At once Christ's identity as the Messiah was established before all people, and for the first time the mystery of the Trinity was manifest--the very meaning of the Greek word Theophany: 'God manifest,'

      The Baptism of Christ is, as it were, a door into His public ministry on earth, a ministry which ends at His ascension with His command to the disciples: "Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"(Matt. 28:19). Finally, our Lord's Baptism foreshadows our own baptism, the door through which we enter into the Church, and which admits us to receive the gift of son ship and the gift of eternal blessedness which is our salvation. Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3) The holy Apostle reminds us that we who were baptized into Christ were baptized into His death. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains in his Catechetical Lectures: "At the self-same moment, ye died and were born; and that Water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother." The triple immersion symbolizes Christ's three-day burial, after which He resurrected in glory. And we too are raised up in newness of life.

    Let no one think, however, that this is some magic formula which bestows salvation automatically on all those who plunge into the waters of regeneration. The same Holy Father would have us bear in mind that although God is lavish in His benefits, "yet He looks for each man's honest resolve...for though the body be here, yet if the mind be away, it avails nothing." For this reason, before being immersed, the candidate for baptism is asked--not once but three times: "Dost thou renounce Satan and all his works, and all his angels, and all his service, and all his pride?" And three times: "Hast thou renounced Satan?" Having pledged the renunciation of his former sinful life, the candidate (or his sponsors, the godparents) then responds to the priest's thrice-repeated question: "Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ?" And again three times: "Hast thou united thyself unto Christ?" In all, the candidate must give an affirmative reply twelve times, emphasizing his conscious willingness and firm desire to be joined to Christ. 

Make your vows and pay them to the Lord thy God (Ps. 75:10)

 In one of his sermons on the Feast of Theophany, the late Metropolitan Philaret urged his flock to take this occasion to reflect upon these vows which each Orthodox Christian makes at his baptism. Have we given more than lip service to these vows? We see that so much of this world is under the influence of Satan and his angels. If we have in truth "renounced Satan, and all his works and all his pride," we must struggle not to give in to the spirit of this world, but to concentrate on "the one thing needful"--uniting ourselves unto Christ. "Set your affection on things above," writes the Apostle, "not on things of the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:2-3).

    Sadly, there is not one of us that can claim to have been faithful to his baptismal vows. Our 'old man' seems to be as alive as ever, with all his passions and evil inclinations. How then shall we be able to stand before the Lord at the dread Last Judgment? Knowing the weakness of our nature, God in His mercy has provided us with a second kind of baptism--repentance, which is a baptism of tears. Great Lent will soon be here, and it calls us to this second baptism.

    Brothers and sisters, during this season of the holy Theophany, let us think well upon the vows we gave to Christ when we were received into His Church and 'born again.' Let us renew our pledge to die to our old man and put off our bad habits and spiritual laziness. "Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12: 24). Let us, therefore, die to ourselves that we may live unto Christ and inherit salvation, as He has promised to those who love Him.