The previous blog, Hymns of Theophany: In His Baptism Christ Washes Away our Sin, considered what it means that Christ, the incarnate God, was baptized for us and for our salvation. In the Incarnation God is, even before the Cross of Christ, dealing with the sin that had become the enmity between God and humanity. In this blog we will consider an example of how the Orthodox Church Christologically reads the Old Testament as prophecy of the Christ.
The hymns of Theophany offer examples of ancient biblical exegesis as they explore the depths of the meaning of God in the flesh being baptized in the River Jordan. The baptism of Christ raises questions about what is the River Jordan that God chooses to be baptized there? What does it mean that the holy God incarnate is baptized – a ritual clearly associated with the washing away of sin? Such questions move us into a symbolic mode of thinking, for literally the questions are not answered in any one scriptural passage.
One of the hymns from the Matins for Theophany says:
“The sea and cloud in which the people of Israel once were baptized by the lawgiver Moses as they journeyed from Egypt, prefigured the wonder of the baptism of God! The sea was an image of the water and the cloud an image of the Spirit by which we are initiated and cry aloud: Blessed are You, O God of our fathers!”
We see in the hymn beautifully woven together images of the creation of the world (The Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1), as well as the Exodus story in which Moses led the Hebrew people on the path of salvation from slavery. The Israelites were led by the cloud and passed through the waters which saved them from the Egyptians. All of these images are being seen within a theme of baptism – Christ’s and our own. This reading of the Old Testament Scriptures gives us a sense of how all of the Scriptures might be open to us through the lens of Christ’s own life. For all that He did was done for our salvation.
Consider this hymn from the Matins of the Eve of Theophany:
“Today the prophecy of the Psalms swiftly approaches its fulfillment: “The sea looked and fled: Jordan was driven back” before the face of the Lord, before the face of the God of Jacob! He came to receive baptism from His servant, so that our souls washed clean from the defilement of idolatry, might be enlightened through Him!”
The prophecy to which the hymn refers is a particular reading of Psalm 114:
“When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea looked and fled, Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs. What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the LORD, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.”
The Psalm in turn is praising God for the events of Exodus in which the Israelites were led out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. The final entrance into the Promised Land was the miraculous crossing of the River Jordan which is described in Joshua 3-4. When the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant stood in the midst of the Jordan, the flow of its waters was stopped so that all of Israel could pass through the riverbed as on dry ground.
The Psalm is referring to what the Scriptures present as a historical event. But interestingly, the hymn reads Psalm 114 not as merely telling what God did in the past, but as prophecy: foretelling what God would accomplish in His Christ. The Psalm assumes the presence of the Lord in His Ark, whereas the Theophany hymn sees the Ark as being a prefiguring of the real presence of the Lord in the Jordan. The Lord’s presence actually only occurs when Christ, the incarnate God is standing in the Jordan River at His baptism by John. The Ark is thus interpreted to be a sign of God’s presence in the Jordan, whereas at the baptism of Christ, the Lord is fully present in the River. When Christ enters the waters of Jordan, the River literally encounters the face of the Lord. Or, in a slightly different framework we can say that Christ is revealed as the true Ark of the Lord, which was merely prefigured in the days of Joshua.
And as the hymn says it is in the Theophany event of Christ’s baptism that idolatry is exposed, but in Christ we realize the actual presence of God on earth, and all previous theophanies involving the Jordan River as prefiguring the truth. The hymn strongly suggests that failing to see the those Old Testament events as prefiguring Christ and prophecies of Him causes us to make idols of them. The Ark thus instead of being a symbol and sign of God (and a prophecy of the incarnation) becomes an idol, an object of worship.
Another hymn from the Prefeast of Theophany connects the awe and uncertainty the anthropomorphized River Jordan must have felt when it actually did encounter its Lord and Creator in it.
“Sins were washed away in Noah’s day, when Your word opened the floodgates of heaven. If Jordan recognizes You, how could He bear You? His streams turned back when they received less than You!”
The Jordan stopped its flow when it encountered the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol and sign of God’s presence with the Israelites. So what could it do when it actually encountered its Lord and Creator in the incarnate Christ?
Many hymns of Theophany meditate on the scene described in Matthew 3:14-15, where it is assumed that the Forerunner John trembled at the thought that he was to baptize Christ because he knew he needed to be baptized by Christ. The hymns portray a humbled John doing what the Lord wished to occur for righteousness sake. So too in the hymns we see the hint that the River Jordan also reluctantly washed over in baptism the body of its Creator. The waters obeyed their Master!
As sin was washed away from the earth in Noah’s day in the cataclysmic flood, now with the Creator standing in the waters of Jordan, our sins are being washed away not only without the loss of life, but in a life-giving manner. We can meditate on one final hymn from the Matins of Theophany:
“We know that in the beginning You brought the all-destroying flood upon the world, causing the terrible destruction of all things. O God, You reveal strange and mighty wonders! And now, O Christ, You have drowned sin in the waters for the comfort and salvation of mortal man.”
No longer is it humans who are destroyed by sin, but sin itself is destroyed when the Incarnate Word of God allows Himself to be baptized in the Jordan. God shows Himself to love the sinner, but hate the sin. Thus it is that sin is drowned in the baptismal waters of the Jordan.