Christ Ascending and Descending

The Sunday after Theophany

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended” – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.    (Ephesians 4:7-13)

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Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  (Matthew 4:12-17)

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Our Epistle today, Ephesians 4:7-13, quoting from Psalm 68:18, mentions Christ  ascending and descending.  He ascended to God’s throne above the heavens after His resurrection, and also descended into Hades upon His death on the cross.   This Ephesians reading for the Sunday after Theophany is tying together for us several ideas that the Church wishes to emphasize in its proclamation of the Good News.   Of course there is that cosmic picture of Christ who is God the Word descending to earth to be born in a cave and laid in an animal manger  – an event we celebrate as the Nativity of Christ.  But Christ continued His descent, dying on the cross, being buried and descending into Hades to free all the dead from imprisonment and slavery to Satan.  Christ ascended from Hades to appear on earth to show us all His resurrection.  He then continued His ascent all the way to the throne of God’s Kingdom above the heavens.

And this cosmic picture of Christ ascending from Hades to the height of heaven which is also our salvation is foreshadowed in the events of Christ’s descending at his baptism down into the Jordan River and then ascending out of the River to be proclaimed God’s own son.  Baptism as we all should know is exactly an image of being buried beneath the waters and then raised from the dead to new life.   Christ foreshadows his death and resurrection with His dying and rising at his baptism in the River Jordan.

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Additionally, at the baptism of Christ, the feast we call Theophany, the Holy Trinity is revealed to us as well as to the entire world.  This is the great Light which has dawned for us that is mentioned today’s Gospel lesson.

The connection between Theophany and Christ’s descent into Hades was made at one point in Orthodox history when numerous Orthodox churches took to painting on the back (west) wall of the Church, two icon frescos, one on top of the other.  The upper panel/fresco had the Baptism of Christ from Theophany in which the Trinity is revealed to us.  Beneath that icon was the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hades with those saved souls looking up to the icon of the Baptism of Christ.  They understood the Baptism of Christ was the prefiguring of His descent into Hades.  In those churches with the large fresco icons one on top of the other, the door to the church was located in Hades as well.  On Holy Saturday, the congregation in the church would watch as the newly baptized were brought into the church literally passing through their own death and sojourn to Hades where they were united to and saved by Christ.  All of that is still remembered in our Church on Holy Friday when we enter the church after our procession and all pass beneath the winding sheet and we have the ideas that we are passing into the tomb of Christ as into Hades itself where we proclaim and celebrate the resurrection!

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The Epistle mentions Christ leading the captives out and bestowing on them gifts.   We understand this as our being led out of imprisonment in Hades, slaves to death.  The gifts given to us are those Christ bestows on His church as mentioned in today’s epistle.

Christ creates the Church and all the offices of the Church and gives spiritual gifts for all the personnel He needs to carry on His ministry.  He gives us spiritual gifts so that we can accomplish His will on earth.   For Christ passes on to us that we as members of the parish and as members of the Body of Christ are to be the light of the world:

46718055141_fe4d57b0f9_n“You are the light of the world.  . .  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.   (Matthew 5:14-16)

The Great light which has dawned and which people see is not Christ alone, but us as the Body of Christ.  All of us united to Christ as His Body, the Church, for as St. Paul says in 1 Cor 3:16

 – You (plural) are God’s temple.  You (people) have God’s Spirit living in us.

The Church is not a building, but the people of God.  The Church is you and I doing God’s will on earth.

When people come and see the Orthodox Church, they might come and look at the beautiful, interesting and ancient icons on the walls of the building, but they should come to see the living temple, the living icons – namely you!

It is not the building that makes us Orthodox.  It is not the building that makes the Orthodox Church.  It is you people, the parishioners, the members of this parish!

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We extend an invitation to others to come and see the Orthodox Church, we should also be inviting them to see

How we live

How we love God and neighbor

How we worship God.

How we love one another.

How we are like Christ.

People need to come here not only to see icons or to see the Liturgy and Orthodox worship but to see us –

To see:

24765159445_b73aee26d1_nLove               Faith

Hope              Joy

Beauty           Light

Truth             Peace

In us!

St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 –

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  . . .  For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.

God entrusts us to make His Holiness present on earth and available to all who wish to enter into Communion with Him.  God wants us to be witnesses to the Light, but also to be that Light to the world.

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The Holy Trinity – The God Who Saves

Theophany is a feast celebrating God revealing Himself to us.  The revelation though is a surprising mystery – for God is not a Him but a Trinity of Divine Persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  At Theophany we hear the voice of the Father, are aware of the Holy Spirit present in the form of a dove, and see the Son who is Jesus the incarnate God baptized in the River Jordan.  The Trinity is manifested at the Baptism of Christ.

St Nicholas Cabasilas writes:

“Even though it is by one single act of loving-kindness that the Trinity has saved our race, yet each of the blessed Persons in said to have contributed something of His own. It is the Father who is reconciled, the Son who reconciles, while the Holy Spirit is bestowed as a gift on those who have become friends. The Father has set us free, the Son was the ransom by which we are freed, but the Spirit is freedom, for Paul says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). The Father has re-shaped us, by means of the Son we were re-shaped, but “it is the Spirit who gives life” (Jn. 6:63). The Trinity was foreshadowed even at the first creation. Then the Father created, and the Son was the hand for Him who created, but the Paraclete was the breath for Him who inbreathed the life.”

(The Life in Christ, p. 74)

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)

Truth Relies on Us All

The Lord Jesus said: “‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?'”  (John 14:21-22)

St Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 384AD) offers an answer to the Apostle Judas‘ question as to how it is that God’s manifestation may be seen only by some when “objectively” the event should be visible to everyone.

“…True doctrine conforms to the dispositions of those receiving the word, for although the word presents to all equally what is good and bad, the one who is favorably disposed to what is presented has his understanding enlightened, but the darkness of ignorance remains with the one who is obstinately disposed and does not permit his soul to behold the ray of truth….

In keeping with this insight of mine, consider the air which is darkened to the Egyptians’ eyes by the rod [Exodus 10:21-29], while to the Hebrews’ it is illuminated by the sun. By this incident the meaning which we have given is confirmed. It was not some constraining power from above that caused the one to be found in darkness and the other in light, but we men have in ourselves, in our own nature and by our own choice, the causes of light or of darkness, since we place ourselves in whichever sphere we wish to be.

Jesus & Moses at the Transfiguration

According to the history, the eyes of the Egyptians were not in darkness because some wall or mountain darkened their view and shadowed the rays, but the sun cast its rays upon all equally. Whereas the Hebrews delighted in its light, the Egyptians were insensitive to its gift. In a similar manner the enlightened life is proposed to all equally according to their ability. Some continue on in darkness, driven by their evil pursuits to the darkness of wickedness. while others are made radiant by the light of virtue.”  (The Life of Moses, p. 69, 72-73)

St Gregory’s answer is based in a clear idea of synergy – God’s revelation, God’s manifestation requires also observers who prepared/open to receive what God reveals.  This idea is reflected in quantum physics where the observer affects the outcome of what is being observed.  God does not even impose His revelation on humanity.  Our inner disposition toward God will determine what we experience of God in our life.  Almost 200 years before Gregory of Nyssa’s writing, St Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD) offered a very similar idea:

“In respect to His greatness, and His wonderful glory, no man shall see God and live (Exodus 33:20), for the Father is incomprehensible; but in regard to His love, and kindness, and as to His infinite power, even this He grants to those who love Him, that is, to see God, which thing the prophets did also predict.  For those things that are impossible with men, are possible with God (Luke 18:27).  For man does not see God by his own powers; but when He pleases He is seen by men, by whom He wills, and when He wills, and as He wills.  For God is powerful in all things, having been seen at that time indeed, prophetically through the Spirit, and seen, too, adoptively through the Son; and He shall also be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven, the Spirit truly preparing man in the Son of God, and the Son leading him to the Father, while the Father, too, confers [upon him] incorruption for eternal life, which comes to everyone from the fact of his seeing God.

For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendor.  But [His] splendor vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life.  And for this reason, He, [although] beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered Himself visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might vivify those who receive and behold Him through faith.  For as His greatness is past finding out, so also His goodness is beyond expression; by which having been seen, He bestows life upon those who see Him.  It is not possible to live apart from life, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness.”  (ADV. HAERESES 4.20.5)

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And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.  (John 17:3)