The Forerunner John and Knowing One’s Limits

“Yet as John is baptizing, Jesus approaches, perhaps also to sanctify the baptizer, and certainly to bury all the old Adam in the water, but before these things and for the sake of these things to sanctify the Jordan. As indeed he was spirit and flesh, so he initiates by the Spirit and the water. The baptizer does not accept it; Jesus debates [with him]. ‘I need to be baptized by you,‘ the lamp says to the sun, the voice to the Word, the friend to the bridegroom, the one above all born of women to the firstborn of all creation, the one who leaped in the womb to the one worshiped in the womb, the one who was and will be the Forerunner to the one who was and will be manifest.

I need to be baptized by you...’”

(Gregory Nazianzus, Festal Orations, pp. 91-92)

Many Patristic writers were particularly taken by the dialogue between Jesus and John the Forerunner when Christ came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John.  It is a dialogue only St. Matthew reports in Matthew 3:13-17 –

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Patristic writers saw in John great humility as he recognizes his Lord and Master.  They saw John as the creature being awed and fearful at the presence of his Creator.  They saw John marveling at how the sinless One desires to be baptized for the remission of sins.  John recognizes his own need for salvation and God’s grace, but submits to God’s will even if he can’t fathom its depth, meaning or purpose.  They saw John’s hand trembling as he but a servant places his hand on the head of the Master to submerge the Creator under the waters of His own creation.  They saw John worried about whether this was the right thing to do but knowing he as servant needed to obey what Christ the Lord said.

Everything Jesus Does Is a Sacrament

“…each thing that Jesus accomplished, no matter how apparently insignificant, had salvific effects.

‘Everything that Jesus does,’ writes Jerome in his explanation of why the Gospel of Mark found it necessary to record the detail that Jesus rode on an ass when he entered Jerusalem, ‘is a sacrament. He is our salvation For if the Apostle tells us, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever else you do, do all things in the name of the Lord” [1 Corinthians 10:31], are not these much more our sacraments, when the Savior walks or eats or sleeps?’ As the Gospels themselves indicate, the dynamism or radiant energy possessed by Christ extended also to his clothing, which Hilary comments on apropos of the story of the healing of the woman with the flow of blood in Matthew 9:20-22: “The power abiding in his body added a health-giving quality to perishable things, and a divine efficacy even when as far as the fringes of his garments. For God was not divisible and able to be contained, as if he could be shut up in a body.”

A striking instance of the energy that radiated from Christ, finally, is associated with his baptism in the Jordan River. Jesus’ mere physical contact with the Jordan was enough to cleanse it and, along with it, all the waters of the earth, so as to make them suitable in turn for cleaning those who would be baptized. We find this idea as early as the beginning of the second century in Ignatius of Antioch and frequently thereafter.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 83-84)

Blessing Water

At Theophany we Orthodox bless water, a practice for Christians that can be traced to the early church.   We also bless water before every baptism reciting many of the same prayers and ideas at both services.  The Apostolic Constitutions, a Christian document from the 4th Century, mentions the blessing of water before a baptism:

“… let the priest even now call upon in baptism, and let him say:

Look down from heaven, and sanctify this water, and give it grace and power, that so he that is to be baptized, according to the command of Your Christ, may be crucified with Him, and may die with Him, and may be buried with Him, and may rise with Him to the adoption which is in Him, that he may be dead to sin and live to righteousness.

And after this, when he has baptized him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, he shall anoint him with ointment…”     (Kindle Loc. 3817-21)

In the prayer, baptism is clearly our dying with Christ – we are identifying ourselves with Christ, to be crucified with Him and die with Him and be buried with Him so that we can rise with Him to eternal life.  The prayer asks God to grant this sanctifying power to the baptismal waters, not just to the rite of baptism.  The incarnation is our salvation – we are saved in, with and by creation itself.  The spiritual life is not separating ourselves from the physical world but rather transfiguring the physical world to be the spiritual reality which God created.  Theophany is revealing God to us, but also revealing that creation itself is meant to be for our salvation.  Faith is not just a noetic exercise: it is the transformation of our bodies, the formation of our hearts and souls , not just the informing of our minds.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.    (Romans 6:3-11)

Theophany: Reveals God and Creation

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him.


When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  (Matthew 3:13-17)

It is the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus (the Theophany) which help us understand why the birth of Jesus is significant to us.  For it is only after His baptism that Christ begins His public ministry.  Only after His baptism does Jesus begin proclaiming the Gospel and doing the miracles which we know about and which we proclaim in our Sunday lectionary.

The importance of Theophany is also shown to us in that while only two of the four evangelists tell us anything about the birth of Jesus, all 4 evangelists tell us about the baptism of Christ.  In modern popular thinking, Christmas is the big event and feast, whereas in the Church it is the Theophany of Christ which reveals the importance of Christ’s birth.  Popular piety does not always mirror theology and sometimes popular piety looms larger than life itself.

As has already been stated, Theophany is significant because it marks the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.   Mark’s Gospel in fact begins with the appearance of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan.  This is the beginning of the Gospel for Mark, not Christ’s Nativity.

At Christ’s baptism, God is beginning to unveil His mysterious plan for the world.  In Jesus encountering God in the flesh – divining and humanity united, Creator and creation sharing a common life.   When Jesus steps into the River Jordan, this is God’s son entering into the waters, but it is also the incarnate God entering into the water which God created at the beginning of the world as described in Genesis 1.

God creates the world and the waters of the world, and then God enters into these same waters and is immersed in them.  This is the great mystery of Theophany.  Jesus Christ reveals God to us.  He reveals God’s plan for the world.

The river waters of the Jordan are not only washing God in the flesh, they encompass God as Jesus is immersed in the waters.  He who created the waters allows Himself to be submersed beneath the waters.  There is no such place in the entire cosmos where God cannot enter, including Hades, the place of the dead.  In the River Jordan Jesus shows that God can disappear beneath the waters, be buried in the waters and yet still be both alive and be God.  He is preparing us for what will happen to Him in his burial.

His very presence in the world reveals to us that God is doing the unexpected.  God is uniting Himself to us humans.  God is making it possible for us to share in the divine life, to experience holiness.  God is showing that the physical world which He created is capable of containing God and revealing God to us.  In the waters of the River Jordan we learn who Jesus really is.

And we learn that the physical things can be sanctified and made holy.  The physical world is revealed as being capable of being spiritualized, as being the very means for us to encounter God.  Christ steps into the Jordan River and in touching the water, Christ makes the water a means for us to experience holiness, to experience God.  How is this possible?  Because God made water in the beginning to be a means to reveal Himself to us.  God is showing us what creation is capable of being.  And God is showing us we can encounter Him in and through the creation God made as a gift for us.  God shows us that even the watery depths of the earth are a place where God abides and where humans can still be united to God.

Matter, elements, the physical world are not merely physical.  The physical without the spiritual is dead, inert, void of meaning.  Christ reveals that all the physical world belongs to God is capable of life because it is spiritual as well.  Indeed when science wants to study the world as if there is no God, then the world of matter is devoid of God, it is lifeless.  In the Gospel we learn that matter, the physical world has as spiritual dimension if we care to find it.

And so we see the physical world, God’s creation becomes life giving in Christ.  Not only life giving, but giving eternal life.  And we see in Christ that not only the physical world is capable to being touched by God and made holy, but we ourselves as humans are able to be holy – to be united to God.

When we baptize people into Christ, we use the physical tools given to us by God – water and holy oil – to convey life to them, to show that we humans are not merely physical, material beings  – we are fully capable of bearing life and even giving life, we are made to be united to God.  The nature of water to give a new birth was revealed in baptism.

A final point, sometimes we Orthodox major on the minor in so many ways surrounding feasts.  The prayer of the blessing of water says:

And grant unto all them that touch it, and partake of it, and anoint themselves with it, sanctification, health, cleansing and blessing.

It doesn’t say that we should take it home and venerate it as if it is some holy object worthy of veneration.  We are not to treat it as if it is imbued with nuclear power.  We are to use it to bless ourselves and encounter God.  It’s purpose is to give us an experience of God.  The holiness of this water is that it means God is present with us.  So use it to bless yourselves and your homes and your gardens, so that the God who showed us the nature of water in baptism will be present with you in your person and in your home.  God enters our life not to give us “sacred objects” to venerate, but to transfigure us into beings who are united to Him.

The Warmth of Putting on Christ

Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, You are very great! You are clothed with honor and majesty, who covers yourself with light as with a garment…   (Psalm 104:1-2)

A very common idea among early Christians and also found in ancient Jewish writings is that Adam and Eve in Paradise were clothed with garments of light, given to them by God.

These garments were removed from them when they sinned, and thus they became aware of their nakedness and tried to cover themselves with leaves and hide themselves in the trees so that they would not have to stand naked before God.  The reversal of this in the early Church occurred when each person undressed before their baptism.  In baptism, they had nothing to hide, having confessed their sins (unlike Adam and Eve who tried to hide themselves and the fact that they had sinned), and so could stand naked before God and feel no shame.  Following baptism, a special white garment was placed on the newly baptized signifying their putting on the garments of light again.  And we sing the words of Galatians 3:27 – “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

As one early Syriac Christian notes:

At  the incarnation the Son ‘put on body’, and at His baptism in the Jordan He deposits the garment of glory in the river, so that it becomes once again available for human beings to put on. (Treasure House of Mysteries, p. 16)

Thus the baptism of Christ which we Orthodox commemorate in the Feast of Theophany is organically connected to our own baptisms.  Christ, the incarnate God, is clothed in the garment of glory since He has not sinned.  In His baptism, it is Christ who sanctifies the water rather than being sanctified by the water.  In the Syriac Christian tradition, Christ deposits the garment of glory into the Jordan River.  Before we baptize the catechumens, we pray over the water that God will send down upon the water “the blessing of Jordan”.  That blessing is the garment of glory which the baptized receive as they emerge from the triune baptism.

St. Romanos the Melodist writes poetically:

In Galilee of the nations, in the country of Zavulon and the land of Naphthalim,

as the prophet said, a great light has shone – Christ.

For the darkened, a shining beam has appeared, blazing out of Bethlehem,

or, rather, out of Mary – the Lord, the sun of justice,

has made his rays dawn on the whole inhabited world.

Therefore let us all, Adam’s naked children,

put him on that we may be kept warm;

for as a covering for the naked and a light for the darkened

you have come, you have appeared,

the unapproachable Light.

(On the Life of Christ, p. 80)

Romanos’ poem is sung at the Matins of Theophany as the Ikos hymn after the sixth ode of the Festal Canon.

The Jordan River: Giving Birth to Christ

Thoughts about the Feast of Theophany from St. Ephrem the Syrian:

Ephrem’s second standpoint shows a more specific concern to associate Christ’s baptism with Christian baptism. In a remarkable hymn on Christ in the river Jordan and in the womb of Mary Ephrem links these two aspects: Christ’s baptism in ‘the womb’ of the Jordan looks back in time to His conception in Mary’s womb. Both wombs, Mary’s and the Jordan’s, by bearing Christ the Light, are clothed with light from His presence within them; Mary’s womb thus becomes the source of her own baptism, the Jordan’s womb becomes the fountainhead of Christian baptism:

The river in which Christ was baptized

conceived Him again symbolically;

the moist womb of the water

conceived Him in purity,

bore him in chastity,

made Him go up in glory.

In the pure womb of the river

you should recognize Mary, the daughter of humanity,

who conceived having known no man,

who gave birth without intercourse,

who brought up, through a gift,

The Lord of that gift.

 

As the Daystar in the river,

the Bright One in the tomb,

He shone forth on the mountain top

and gave brightness too in the womb;

He dazzled as He went up from the river,

gave illumination at His ascent.

The brightness which Moses put on

was wrapped on him from without.

whereas the river in which Christ was baptized

was clothed in light from within;

so too did Mary’s body, in which he resided,

gleam from within.

(Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 91-92)

Prophecy of Example and of Word

St. John Chrysostom says the Old Testament was preparing us for the New, God providing prophecy not only in words but also by example.  All God’s words and deeds were preparing the world for the greater thing God planned to do – the incarnation of the Word in which God reunited earth to heaven.  Prophecy and promise were done so that people would not find the great work of God to be unbelievable.  God’s actions were done so people would be ready when God made Himself visible in the incarnation.

“Now, since we are delivered from the controversies with the Jews, I shall demonstrate this to you from the New Covenant, so that you will see the agreement of the two covenants. Did you see the prophecy that was made with words? Learn the prophecy that was made with examples; although even this is not yet totally clear, I wonder, what is prophecy by example, and I wonder what is prophecy by word? Shortly, I will make this clear, too. The prophecy that is made by example is the practical prophecy, and the other prophecy is the theoretical prophecy. In other words, the most prudent He persuaded with words, and the most unconscious He informed by showing them examples.

Because, in other words, something big was going to happen: God was about to take upon Himself human flesh. Because the earth was going to become heaven and our nature was going to be elevated toward the nobility of the angels. Because the word surpassed the hope and expectation of the future goods that were to come. So he would not confuse the people with the new and paradoxical event of the Incarnation, those who then would have seen it all at once, and those who were going to hear it, for this reason, He iconically depicted it beforehand with examples and words, and, in this way, He accustomed our hearing and vision.”

(The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance & Almsgiving, p. 80)

The Son and the Sons of God

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.  (Galatians 4:4-7)

When St. Paul wrote his epistles, he refers to Jesus as God’s son, and also refers to us Christians as “sons.”  For our modern sensitivities and for the sake of political correctness, we might prefer to refer to Jesus as God’s child and to believers as God’s children so that women and daughters do not feel left out of the Church by the patriarchal language Paul uses.   Yet the differences in our modern understanding and that of St. Paul about sons and daughters can also help us better understand the exact point Paul is trying to make.

St Paul is not making a point that women/daughters are less valued that males/sons, for it is this same St Paul who stresses in this same letter that in Christ “there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).   And our Lord Jesus Himself said,  “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).  Angels have no gender, and Christ seems to imply that in heaven, in the resurrection, gender no longer matters – an ideal which monasticism tried to live out in its celibacy, its desire to live the angelic life in the flesh, and in the stories of the women saints who strove to live as men.

What St Paul is doing with his emphasis on sonship is to take the assumed values of his time to show that the rights and privileges of the son are being extended to all believers.  Sons, in the world that he knew, “sons” had special rights and privileges when it came to inheritance, that daughters did not have.  He is saying the values of the Kingdom of God are different from the values of the world, because in the Kingdom, all those who believe are adopted with the same rights as a son has – all will receive their full inheritance in the Kingdom.

So though our cultural understanding of inheritance is different than his, and we think of sons and daughters both having rights of inheritance, in Paul’s world this was not the case.   He knows what the rights and privileges of a son are in his world and he is making the clear connect that Jesus is the first-born son of the Father with all the rights and privileges that comes with that position, and we each and all, male and female, have been adopted by God with the full rights of sons of the Father.

In the ancient world, there were clear differences regarding inheritance for sons, daughters and slaves.  St. Paul’s exact point is that within that understanding of inheritance, we are being adopted as sons with all the rights of inheritance of sons.  We are not being adopted either as daughters or as slaves with the diminished rights they would have had in Paul’s world.

We can call to mind the parable Jesus tells of the Prodigal Son  (Luke 15:11-32) who wishes to return to his father’s house with nothing more than the status of a servant.  The Prodigal  knows he is not a son. He has not behaved like a son but disowned his father by claiming his inheritance before his father had died.   However in the parable, his father welcomes him as a son (my son who was dead is alive!).  The father treats the prodigal as a son, not a captured runaway slave.  And this is made even more notable by the reaction of the older brother who wants nothing to do with his prodigal brother.  The father claims the prodigal as a son, but the elder brother rejects him as a brother, though recognizing his brother is the son of his father [“this son of yours” (Luke 15:30)].  What the elder brother is not willing to accept is that his brother has any filial right of inheritance left.  Note the Prodigal son demanded his inheritance as if the father was dead, but the father welcomes the son back as if the son had been dead!  The Father shows how a son is treated and welcomed.  This is what it is to be called God’s sons, even if adopted.  This is Paul’s point in saying we are adopted as sons (and not as daughters of his day, who had few rights of inheritance).  I think St Paul is trying to make this point clearly, he is not commenting on whether treating daughters and sons differently is proper or correct, he is noting clearly that all believers have the same rights as the sons of his culture had.

As many of us as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” – this is quoted by Paul in Galatians 3:27, the same epistle that he speaks about us as being God’s “sons”.  As many as – all of us, females and males have put on the Son of God in order to receive all the rights and blessings of inheritance of sons as understood by Paul’s culture, and also to be treated every bit as good as the Prodigal son was treated by his loving and merciful father.  We sing those words at every baptism and at every feast which was a traditional baptismal feast (such as Christmas and Pascha).  We sing the same words for males and females because all put on Christ, all put on Christ’s sonship.    If we adopted the language of our modern times and said “children” instead of sons, we might miss the very point Paul is trying to make – we received our sonship from and through Christ the only-begotten son of the Father.  We will be received by God, all of us, male and female and even prodigals, with the full rights of sons.  The values of the Kingdom are not the values of this world.

Again we only have to think about the parable of the workers hired at various hours by the master of the house (Matthew 20:1-13).  In the Kingdom, the last are first and all get the same wages, all inherit the full blessings of God, no matter when in their lives they agreed to serve the master.  This is the Kingdom’s fairness.  This is the master’s hospitality and generosity.  This is what Paul wants to emphasize in his epistle.

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”   (John 14:1-3)

Christ prepares for us, male and female, all things which belong to the children of God.  Our inheritance is the eternal abundance of the Kingdom.  We don’t receive the blessedness of the Kingdom because we are sons (male), nor do we receive the blessings as sons (males).  Rather, whether male or female,  we each and all receive all the blessings the biblical culture sometimes limited to the son.  The Son’s blessings are ours as well.

 

Christmas Blessings Received

Come, then, let us observe the Feast.  Come, and we shall commemorate the solemn festival.  It is a strange manner of celebrating a festival, but truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity.

For this day –

The ancient slavery is ended,

The devil confounded,

The demons take to flight,

The power of death is broken,

Paradise is unlocked,

The curse is taken away,

Sin is removed from us,

Error driven out,

Truth has been brought back,

The speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side,

A heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth,

Angels communicate with men without fear,

And men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this?  Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle.  He has come on earth, while being whole in heaven; and while complete in heaven, He is without diminution on earth.  Though He was God, He became human; not denying Himself to be God.  Though being the impassable Word, He became flesh; that He might dwell amongst us, He became Flesh.”   (St. John Chrysostom, THE SUNDAY SERMONS OF THE GREAT FATHERS Vol 1, p 115)

The birth of Christ inaugurates the salvation of the world.  Writing in the 4th Century, St. John Chrysostom enumerates the many blessings we have received by the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  Heaven and earth are united together, divinity and humanity are reunited, Creator and creation have their communion restored.  St Tikhon of Zadonsk writing in the 18th Century further reflecting on what the incarnate God means for has has the Lord Jesus asking us a series of questions about our spiritual search and sojourn:

“Do you seek wisdom?  I am God’s Wisdom.

Do you seek friendship?  Who is a greater or more loving friend than I, who laid down my life for you?

Are you looking for help? Who can offer greater help than I?

Do you need a physician?  Who can cure, other than I, the source of healing?

Are you looking for joy? Who will make you happy if not I?

Looking for peace?  I am the peace of the soul.

Looking for life?  I am the Resurrection and the Life.

Looking for light?  I am the Light of the world.

Looking for truth?  I am the Truth.

Are you searching for the true way?  I am the Way.

Why don’t you want to come to me?  You dare not approach? Who is more approachable than I?

You are afraid to ask?  Whom have I ever refused who has asked in faith?

Your sins prevent you? I died for sinners.

You are distressed by the great number of your sins?  My mercy is greater than all of them.”