Bright Friday (2019)

Bright Friday

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)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem comments on being baptized into Christ:

O strange and incredible thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised; our imitation was in an image, but our salvation was real. Christ was truly crucified, and buried and raised up, and all these things he graciously gave to us, so that by imitation of his passion we might gain participation in salvation in reality. O surpassing love of humanity! Christ received the nails in his pure hands and suffered, and to me grants salvation without my suffering and pain, through sharing [his suffering]. (Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, p. 101)

Baptisms in the early church were done on Lazarus Saturday or Holy Saturday, having used Lent as a time of preparation for baptism – studying God’s Word and through fasting and prayer opening the heart of the candidates to God’s saving action in the world. Baptism was called illumination, and all the candidates were given candles to hold as symbols of their new life in Christ.  St Macarius the Great writes:

“As many torches and burning lamps are lit from a fire, though the lamps and torches are lit and shine from one nature, so too is it that Christians are enkindled and shine from one nature; the divine fire, the Son of God, and they have their lamps burning in their hearts, and they shine before him while they live on earth, just as he did. This is what it means when it says: ‘So God has anointed you with the oil of gladness’” (Ps 45.7). (Illumined in the Spirit, p. 86)

Christ is risen!  Truly, He is risen!

Bright Thursday (2019)

Bright Thursday

Great Lent was traditionally used as a time to prepare catechumens for baptism.  At the end of Great Lent – for Lazarus Saturday or on Holy Saturday – the catechumens were illumined in baptism.  This is reflected in the fact that we still sing “As many as have been baptized into Christ…” during these festal Liturgies in place of singing “Holy God...”  In the week after Pascha, after the catechumens had been newly baptized, there was continued catechetical work in the early Church to help those newly initiated into Christ to understand what they had experienced.    St. John Chrysostom, addresses words to the newly baptized Christians:

You shall be called “newly-illuminated,” because your light is always new, if you wish it that way, and it is never extinguished. Whether we shall have it so or not, night follows the light of this world; but the darkness knows not the shining of this new light. The light shines in the darkness; and the darkness grasped it not. Certainly, the world is not as bright when the sun rises as is the soul which is illumined and becomes brighter from the grace it has received from the Spirit.

Consider more closely the nature of these things. When night falls and it is dark, many a time a man sees a rope and thinks it is a snake; and when a friend approaches him, he flees from him as if he were a foe; when he hears a noise, he is frightened. Nothing like this would happen in the light of day; everything is seen then just as it really is.

This same thing happens in the case of our soul. Whenever grace comes and drives out the darkness from our mind, we learn the exact nature of things; what frightened us before, now becomes contemptible in our eyes. We no longer are afraid of death after we have learned carefully from this holy initiation that death is not death but a sleep and repose which lasts for but a time. Nor are we afraid of poverty or disease or any such misfortune, because we know that we are on our way to a better life, which is impervious to death and destruction and is free from all such inequality.

Let us, then, no longer stay gaping after the good things of this life, such as luxurious foods and expensive clothing. For you have the greatest of garments, you have a spiritual banquet, you have the glory which comes from on high; Christ has become all things for you: table, clothing, house, head, and root. For all you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. See how He has become your clothing.

Your shining robe now arouses admiration in the eyes of all who behold you, and the radiance of your garments proves that your souls are free from every blemish. For the future, all of you, both you who have just deserved the gift and all who have already reaped for yourselves the benefit of His munificence, must make the excellence of your conduct visible to all and, after the fashion of a torch, you must illumine those who look upon you. For if we should be willing to guard the brightness of this spiritual robe, as time goes on it will send forth a more brilliant luster and an abundance of gleaming light, a thing which cannot happen in the case of material garments.

For even if we multiply the care we take of our bodily clothes ten thousand times, the passing years leave them threadbare, and by the time they have gotten old they are worn away to nothing. If we keep them stored away, the moths get at them or they are ruined by the many other things which destroy material garments. If, however, we are eager to do our fair share, the garment of virtue will not become soiled nor feel the onslaught of age, but as time passes, so much the more does it reveal the fresh sheen of its beauty and its radiant light.

(Baptismal Instructions, pp. 175-176, 114)

Baptism: Being Born of Christ

“As the name of the Trinity is invoked, the candidate is immersed three times in the water and then three times rises up from the water once more: and immediately he enters into possession of all that he seeks. He is born and created; he receives the good seal; he is granted all the happiness that he desires; darkness before, he now becomes light; non-existent before, he now receives existence. God claims him for his own and adopts him as a son. From prison and utter enslavement he is led to a royal throne.

The water of baptism destroys one life and reveals another: it drowns the old man raises up the new.

To be baptized is to be born according to Christ; it is to receive existence, to come into being out of nothing.”

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 89)

The Many Graces of Baptism

“When you come to the sacred initiation, the eyes of the flesh see water; the eyes of faith behold the Spirit. Those eyes see the body being baptized; these see the old man being buried. The eyes of the flesh see the flesh being washed, the eyes of the spirit see the soul being cleansed. The eyes of the body see the body emerging from the water; the eyes of faith see the new man come forth brightly shining from that new purification. Our bodily eyes see the priest as, from above, he lays his right hand on the head and touches (him who is being baptized) our spiritual eyes see the great High Priest (Jesus) as He stretches forth His invisible hand to touch his head. For, at that moment, the one who baptizes is not a man, but the only-begotten Son of God.

For this reason, when the priest is baptizing he does not say, “I baptize so-and-so,” but, “So-and-so is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In this way he shows that it is not he who baptizes but those whose names have been invoked, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  (St. John Chrysostom, Ancient Christian Writers: Baptismal Instructions, pp. 120)

Ancestral Sin, Great Lent and Hope

“Because the coming redemption of men and women is the defining feature of the Lenten season, the elaboration of the sin of Adam and Eve is never meant to lead to despair. Quite the opposite; it underscores the audacious mercy shown toward mankind. In light of Christ, the sin of Adam leads to exaltation, not condemnation. Another key concept to bear in mind is that crucifixion is not a one-time event limited to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth; in the liturgy of Easter, it is continually reappropriated in the life of the Church.

Paul says that baptism is our participation in the glory of the cross, gloria crucis – ‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism unto death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead…so we too might walk in newness of life’ (Rom. 6:3-4).” (Gary A. Anderson, In Dominico Eloquio – In Lordly Eloquence, pp. 29-30)

Baptized into Christ

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And baptism into Christ means incorporated into the diverse community of fellow baptized, co-crucified, co-resurrected, justified inhabitants of Christ”  (Gal 3:28).

. . . justification is an experience of both death and resurrection, and both must be stressed. But the resurrection to new life it incorporates is a resurrection to an ongoing state of crucifixion: I “have been” crucified means I “still am” crucified. Therefore, justification by faith must be understood first and foremost as a participatory crucifixion that is, paradoxically, life-giving (cf. 2 Cor 4:7-15). The one who exercises faith, and is there by crucified with Christ, is systauroo in Gal 2:19 – as in Rom 6:6), because he or she is animated by the resurrected Christ, who always remains for Paul (and the New Testament more generally) the crucified Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 2:2; cf. John 20:20, 27; Rev. 5:6). As Miroslav Volf says in commenting on this text, the self “is both ‘de-centered’ and ‘re-centered’ by one and the same process, by participating in the death and resurrection of Christ through faith and baptism…” Volf continutes:

By being ‘crucified with Christ,’ the self has received a new center – the Christ who lives in it and with whom it lives…The center of the self – a center that is both inside and outside – is the story of Jesus Christ, who has become the story of the self. More precisely, the center is Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected who has become part and parcel of the very structure of the self.

This understanding of faith as crucifixion is reinforced by Paul’s insistence that the believer’s experience (narrated representatively by Paul in first-person texts) is not only a death with Christ but also a death to the Law (Gal 2:19), to the world (Gal 6:14), and of the flesh (Gal 5:24). The mention of death of the flesh and to the world also demonstrates that Gal 2:15-21 should not be read only as a Jewish experience of liberation from the Law. Rather, every believer begins and continues his or her existence in Christ by co-crucifixion. Gal 2:19-21 suggests that co-crucifixion is both the way in and the way to stay in the convent.

Once again, we must stress that it is the resurrected crucified Christ with whom believers are initially and continually crucified. This is important, both christologically and soteriologically, in two ways. First, as an experience of the risen or resurrected Christ, co-crucifixion is not merely a metaphor but an apt description of an encounter with a living person whose presence transforms and animates believers: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I live, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me by giving himself for me.” As Douglas Campbell says, this is no mere imitatio Christi! For “God is not asking [believers]…to imitate Christ – perhaps an impossible task – so much as to inhabit or to indwell him,” such that “the Spirit of God is actively reshaping the Christian into the likeness of Christ.”

(Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, pp. 70-71)

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 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)