Monday, February 23, 2015

Great Lent: Be balanced, but be serious

Dear Parish Faithful,


The following meditation has been posted on the OCA website.  Thought I would share it with the parish on this first day of Great Lent as a kind of summary of my meditations from last week.

Great Lent: Be balanced, but be serious
“Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence, and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, and with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage.  So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life” [Matins of Monday in the First Week of the Fast].

On Monday, February 23, 2015, Orthodox Christians around the world begin their Lenten journey.  We are well aware of the challenges ahead of us, but these challenges—and our resolve to meet them with humility and firmness of faith—only reinforce how essential it is to live according to the Orthodox Way as the surest preparation for the paschal mystery.  We have two basic choices to make:  to respond with perseverance as we “gird our loins” to cross over the desert of the fast en route to the “Land of the Living,” where we encounter the Risen Lord, or to wimp out!  I trust that only the former choice is uppermost in your minds and hearts.

We are given the tools of the ascetical life by Christ Himself—prayer, almsgiving and fasting.  At our most basic biological level we need to eat and drink to sustain our lives.  Yet our passions transform that need into its opposite:  to live in order to eat.  As Christ teaches us, “Man does not live by bread alone.”  That is the truth we would like to “taste” as we are tested by fasting.

In addition, we have the following tools to strengthen us in our Lenten efforts:

+  the many liturgical services unique to Great Lent;
+  the reading of the Scriptures;
+  faithfulness in prayer;
+  the confession of our sins in the Mystery of Repentance; and
+  the love of our neighbor through almsgiving.

With the first day of Great Lent on the immediate horizon, may we come up with a “domestic strategy” that allows us to integrate the season of Great Lent into our lives, rather than reducing the season to mere symbolic gestures.  Be balanced, but be serious.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Astonishing Discoveries during Lent





Dear Parish Faithful,


We begin Great Lent and the practice of fasting from certain foods and drink on Monday, February 23.  This fasting is an essential component of  our over-all Lenten effort as we, as human beings, are a psychosomatic unity of "soul and body."  For the soul/spirit to be liberated to some extent from "this world," and "the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life" (I JN. 2:16), the body must be disciplined to some extent, so as not to keep us overly enmeshed in the desires of the flesh.  As a desert father once said, "I discipline the flesh in order to save the body."  And Christ Himself fasted for forty days in the wilderness as He prepared for His ministry that would culminate with the Cross.  We follow the example of the Lord when we, too, fast for forty days. We should not reduce Great Lent to this "food fast" - a very common temptation - but we cannot eliminate this fast if we take Great Lent seriously, by some pseudo-spiritual reasoning that treats the urges of the body as inconsequential.

I would once again like to rely upon Fr. Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent as a sure guide in this essential aspect of the upcoming Lenten season:

    There is no Lent without fasting.  It seems, however, that many people today either do not take fasting seriously or, if they do, misunderstand its real spiritual
    goals.  For some people, fasting consists in a symbolic "giving up" of something; for others it is a scrupulous observance of dietary regulations.  But in both
    cases, seldom is fasting referred to the total Lenten effort.  Here, as elsewhere, we must first try to understand the Church's teaching about fasting and then
    ask ourselves:  how can we apply this teaching to our life ...?

Fr. Schmemann begins his approach to fasting based upon the typology of the Old Adam who broke the fast; and the New Adam who kept the fast.  Consequences of great significance followed after these two very distinct decisions and two very different paths:


    What then is fasting for us Christians?  It is our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total
    dependence on food, matter and the world. By no means is our liberation a full one. Living still in the fallen world, in the world of the Old Adam,
    being part of it, we still depend on food.  But just as our death - through which we still must pass - has become by virtue of Christ's death a passage
    into life, the food we eat and life it sustains can be life in God and for God. Part of our food has already become "food of immortality" - the Body and
    Blood of Christ Himself.  But even the daily bread we receive from God can be in this life and in this world that which strengthens us, our communion
    with God, rather than that which separates us from God. Yet it is only fasting that can perform that transformation, giving us existential proof that our
    dependence on food and matter is not total, not absolute, that united to prayer, grace, and adoration, it can itself be spiritual.

    Ultimately, to fast means only one thing:  to be hungry - to go the limit of that human condition which depends entirely on food and, being hungry,
    to discover that this dependency is not the whole truth about man, that hunger itself it first of a spiritual state that is in its last reality hunger for God

    It is for this reason that we need first of all a spiritual preparation for the effort of fasting. It consists in asking God for help and also in making our fast
    God-centered.  We should fast for God's sake.  We must rediscover our body as the Temple of His presence.  We must recover a religious respect for
    the body, for food, for the very rhythm of life. All this must be done before the actual fast begins so that when we begin to fast, we would be supplied
    with spiritual weapons, with a vision, with a spirit of fight and victory.

    Great Lent, p. 93, 96, 97.

On a personal and domestic level, everyone must set some goals that are realistic, but yet challenging, and make every effort to stay with that initial "plan" throughout Great Lent.  Perhaps in the process, if we actually take Lent seriously, we can make some of those astonishing and liberating discoveries about food, the body, and the world around us, so that we move from the level of being consumers to the level of being Eucharistic in our approach to life.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Participating" in Lent


Image result for orthodox icons lent



Dear Parish Faithful,


I still stick by my contention that a "good beginning" for Great Lent will give us the "momentum" and resolve for a "good ending" to Great Lent.  And this good beginning is not simply based on our well-planned lenten menus and recipes. I would like to here concentrate on the liturgical services unique to Great Lent.  Our participation in these services may just pose a greater challenge than fasting from certain foods and drink.  And that challenge is again probably the result of our "busy schedules" which almost seem immutable and unchangeable in their demands on our time and energy.  This is an old problem and one that will not disappear any time in the near future. This is a component of life that is here to stay. And it certainly challenges our role as "stewards" of our time.  Our schedules control us far more than we control them. The "world" is decidedly indifferent to the liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church!  But is it really "impossible" to make some adjustments and expend some effort for the sake of our spiritual lives that are nourished in the Church and nowhere else?

I will again turn to Fr. Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent in order to share some of his thoughts on this interminable challenge to perhaps find some guidance on what to do:

    No one, as we have already said, can attend the entire cycle of Lenten worship.  Everyone can attend some of it.  There is simply no excuse for not making Lent first
    of all the time for an increased attendance of and participation in the liturgy of the Church. Here again, personal conditions, individual possibilities and impossibilities
    can vary and result in different decisions, but there must be a decision, there must be an effort, and there must be a "follow up."  From the liturgical point of view, we
    may suggest the following "minimum" aimed not at the spiritually self-destructive sense of having fulfilled an obligation, but at receiving at least the essential in the
    liturgical spirit of Lent:

    In the first place, a special effort must be made on the parish level for a proper celebration of the Forgiveness Sunday Vespers.... It must become one of the great
    "parish affairs" of the year and, as such, well prepared.... For, once more, nothing better than this service reveals the meaning of Lent as the crisis of repentance,
    reconciliation, as embarking together on a common journey...

    The next "priority" must be given to the first week of Lent. A special effort must be made to attend at least once or twice the Great Canon of St. Andrew.  As we
    have seen, the liturgical function of these first days is to take us into the spiritual "mood" of Lent which we described as "bright sadness."

    Then, throughout the entire Lent, it is imperative that we give at least one evening to attend the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with the spiritual experience it
    implies - that of total fasting, that of transformation of at least one day into a real expectation of judgment and joy.  No reference to conditions of life, lack of
    time, etc. are acceptable at this point, for if we do only that which easily "fits" into the conditions of our lives, the very notion of Lenten effort becomes absolutely
    meaningless.  Not only in the 20th (and 21st!) century, but in fact since Adam and Eve, "this world" was always an obstacle to the fulfillment of God's demands.
    There is, therefore, nothing new or special about our modern "way of life." Ultimately it all depends again on whether or not we take our religion seriously, and
    if we do, eight to ten additional evenings a year at church are truly a minimal effort...

To repeat what Fr. Alexander wrote (emphasis added):  "There is simply no excuse for not making Lent first of all the time for an increased attendance of and participation in the liturgy of the Church."  Excuse the cliché, but if "there is a will, there is a way." Strong desire can assist us in overcoming certain obstacles.  If we cannot do the "impossible," then we may have to strain ourselves a bit to do the "possible."  I fully agree with Fr. Alexander's guidelines as expressed above as something to aim for as a family or as an individual.  Great Lent demands some effort.  And that is a basic precept of the Gospel.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Great Lent - a school of repentance





Dear Parish Faithful,

"To the questions:  What is repentance?  Why do we need it?  How are we to practice it? - Great Lent gives the answer.  It is indeed a school of repentance to which every Christian must go every year in order to deepen his faith, to re-evaluate, and, if possible, to change his life.  It is a wonderful pilgrimage to the very sources of Orthodox faith - a rediscovery of the Orthodox way of life."

- Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, p. 9)


In his book, Great Lent, Fr. Alexander Schmemann actually begins with the Sunday of Zacchaeus and the four pre-Lenten Sundays.  We have now been through four of those five Sundays as we prepare for this year's Great Lent only a week away from today.  Looking at this pre-Lenten period collectively, Fr. Alexander summarizes it thus:

    ... The weeks of preparation for Lent were established by the Church.  This is the time for the response, for the decision and the planning.  And the best
    and easiest way here is to follow the Church's guidance - be it only by meditating on the five Gospel themes offered to us on the five Sundays of the pre-
    Lenten season:  that of desire (Zacchaeus), of humility (Publican and Pharisee), of the return from exile (Prodigal Son), of the judgment (Last Judgment),
    of forgiveness (Forgiveness Sunday).  These Gospel lessons are not merely to be listened to in church; the whole point is that they are to be "taken home"
    and meditated upon in terms of my life, my family situation, my professional obligations, my concern for material things, my relation to the concrete
    human beings with whom I live. If to this meditation one adds the prayer of that pre-Lenten season, "Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of life ..."
    and Psalm 137 - "By the waters of Babylon ..." - one begins to understand what it mean to "feel with the Church" how a liturgical season colors the daily
    life.  (Great Lent, p. 90-91)

Yesterday was, of course, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, a "commemoration" that can only have an impact on our lives if we take seriously the notion that each and every one of us will stand before the "dread judgment seat of Christ" at some appointed time in the future, hopefully able to offer a "good defense" (apologia).  In this Last Judgment, we will find out just who we actually were in our lives in this world.  There will be nowhere to hide and nothing to hide.  All will be brought out into the open - or rather before the dazzling light of Christ in glory.  What we will present to Christ to judge us by is what we are "working on" right now in the day-to-day existence of our lives.  That is a thought simultaneously intimidating and hopeful.  It is intimidating because we all know that we can somehow get lost along the road of life - in our passions, our petty preoccupations, and in any predispositions to sin.  It is hopeful because to give a "little one" a cup of water to drink is praised by Christ as an act of meaningful charity - and that is always an act that will expand the heart to embrace the neighbor in an act of personal love, delivering us from the "hell" of self-absorption and self-isolation.  As I like to say, each and every one of us is working on our own eulogy to be shared with others at our respective funerals. Our life is the text of that upcoming eulogy that we are "writing," again, on a daily basis. I am hoping that the priest can say about me more than that I was a "nice person" who took care of my family and "minded my own business." The Parable of the Last Judgment goes far beyond such prosaic considerations and confronts us with how we responded to the "other," especially the one in need (of clothing, of food, of drink, of hospitality, of a visit).  The parable is about the discovery of the "person" more than about "social activism," I believe. 

In the words of Fr. Schmemann:

    The parable of the Last Judgment is about Christian love.  Not all of us are called to work for "humanity," yet each of us has received the gift and the grace
    of Christ's love.  We know that all men ultimately need this personal love - the recognition in them of their unique soul in which the beauty of the whole
    creation is reflected in a unique way.  We also know that men are in prison and are sick and thirsty and hungry because that personal love has been denied
    them.  And, finally, we know that however narrow and limited the framework of our personal existence, each one of us has been made responsible for a tiny
    part of the Kingdom of God, made responsible by that very gift of Christ's love.  Thus, on whether or not we have accepted this responsibility, on whether we
    have loved or refused to love, shall we be judged.  For "inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me ..."
    (Great Lent, p. 26)

The limitless patience, compassion and love of God are revealed in the incomparable Parable of the Prodigal Son. According to Christ, it is never too late to repent.  And yet, the Parable of the Last Judgment reveals the equally essential truth that we will "answer" for the life we led given to us as a gift from the God who is love.


Great Lent - Journey to Pascha







Dear Parish Faithful,


One of the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann's books that has become something of a "classic" is Great Lent - Journey to Pascha.  Countless Orthodox Christians - at least in North America, though the book has been translated into other languages - have been deeply inspired by Fr. Alexander's fresh and dynamic analysis of the meaning and purpose of the Church's unique Lenten services.  It is hard not to experience the Canon of Repentance by St. Andrew of Crete; or the Presanctified Liturgy in a new and exciting way after reading Fr. Alexander's book.  Fr. Alexander makes one look forward to these services.  Even his approach to Great Lent as a "journey" to Pascha is deeply captivating.  As Fr. Alexander wrote at the very beginning of his book:

        When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going.  Thus with Lent.  Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter,
        "the Feast of Feasts."  It is the preparation for the "fulfillment of Pascha, the true Revelation."  We must begin, therefore, by trying to understand this
        connection between Lent and Easter, for it reveals something very essential, very crucial about our Christian faith and life.  (Great Lent, p. 11)

The entire book is a brilliant guide in helping us to understand the connection between Great Lent and Pascha. I would say that this book is one of those "must reads" for all Orthodox Christians.

In Ch. 5, "Lent in Our Lives," Fr. Alexander has a section entitled, "Taking It Seriously ... "  In this section, he anticipates all of the objections (excuses?) that we bring forward to explain how we really can't do a whole lot more than "observe" Great Lent somewhat minimally because of our "busy" lives and schedules.  Great Lent is so antithetical to our culture that we find ourselves only negatively "giving up something" for the season as a way of meeting certain perceived obligations - some fasting, confession before Pascha, etc.  In the process, the depth of Great Lent that Fr. Alexander spent the greater part of his book explaining, basically disappears from sight. As he writes:  "This obligation having been fulfilled, the rest of Lent seems to lose all positive meaning." (p. 88)  At this point, Fr. Alexander reveals his capacity to be both challenging and provocative, when he questions these assumptions and objections that we make:

        We can say without exaggeration that although Lent is still "observed," it has lost much of its impact on our lives, has ceased to be that bath of repentance
        and renewal which it is meant to b in the liturgical and spiritual teaching of the Church.  But then, can we rediscover it, make it again a spiritual power in
        the daily reality of our existence? The answer to this question depends primarily, and I would say almost exclusively, on whether or not we are willing to
        take Lent seriously.  However new or different the conditions in which we live today, however real the difficulties and obstacles erected by our modern
        world, none of them is an absolute obstacle, none of them makes Lent "impossible."  The real root of the progressive loss by Lent of its impact on our lives
        lies deeper.  It is our conscious or unconscious reduction of religion to a superficial nominalism and symbolism which is precisely the way to by-pass and
        to "explain away" the seriousness of religion's demands on our lives, religion's demand for commitment and effort.  (p. 88-89)

Fr. Alexander goes on to explain that Orthodoxy, unlike the Western churches, has not "adjusted" the genuine traditions of the Church to make the practice of our Faith more practical under current conditions (abandoning the fast, etc.). We have not lowered the standards of the Church so as to make the practice of our Faith - and Lent in particular - "easy."  He claims that that would be a "betrayal" of the living Tradition of the Church. But he qualifies this by saying that Orthodox Christians, by adopting a kind of symbolic nominalism, simply practice a different form of compromise that can result in self-righteousness.  He continues, by writing:

        So much in our churches is explained symbolically as interesting, colorful, and amusing customs and traditions, as something which connects us not so
        much with God and a new life in Him but with the past and the customs or our forefathers, that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern behind this
        religious folklore the utter seriousness of religion... The spiritual danger here is that little by little one begins to understand religion itself as a system of
        symbols and customs rather than to understand the latter as a challenge to spiritual renewal and effort.  More effort goes into preparing Lenten dishes
        or Easter baskets than into fasting and participation in the spiritual reality of Pascha.

Fr. Schmemann wrote this book back in 1969.  The culture has become increasingly de-Christianized since then.  The challenges are even stronger today.  Which means that we are greatly tempted today to reduce Great Lent to some nominal practices that may ease our conscience, but will do nothing to renew our relationship with the living God.  That would reduce Great Lent to a "religious custom" without much spiritual content.  I believe that Fr. Alexander is perfectly right when he further writes:

        To take Lent seriously means then that we will consider it first of all on the deepest possible level - as a spiritual challenge which requires a response, a
        decision, a plan, a continuous effort.  It is for this reason, as we know, that the weeks of preparation for Lent were established by the Church.  This is the
        time for the response, for the decision and planning.... The important point is that during this pre-Lenten season we look at Lent as it were from a distance,
        as something coming to us or even perhaps sent to us by God Himself, as a chance for change, for renewal, for deepening, and that we take that forth-
        coming chance seriously ... (p. 91)

In a manner that is hopefully neither pretentious nor self-righteous, my pastoral intentions are that we as a parish will take Lent seriously. We are going to follow the guidance of the Church in our liturgical services as well as possible; and proclaim the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness as we prepare to proclaim the Gospel of death and resurrection.  The question for each and every person or household within the parish then becomes:  Can I/we take Lent seriously. What is the depth of my/our commitment?  What can I/we do to go beyond any form of nominalism so that Great Lent means something in our lives?  What kind of "adjustments" must we make in  our homes to take Lent seriously?  Is my life shaped by the Church or by the world?  Without taking Lent seriously how we can we possibly believe that the "gates of repentance" will be opened to us by the Lord?

We will hear more from Fr. Alexander Schmemann's classic Great Lent as we draw closer to its beginning on February 23.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"Humility is a powerful force"






Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,



"Humility is a powerful force."  Prince Myshkin in The Idiot by Dostoevsky


In the Orthodox Church, the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (LK. 18:10-14) is the first of a cycle of  appointed Gospel readings that inaugurates the pre-Lenten season.  In other words, on an annual basis, precisely four weeks before Great Lent begins, we hear this parable proclaimed in the Liturgy.  The intentions of the Lord in delivering this parable are clearly expressed in the solemn pronouncement following the parable itself:

        For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.  (LK. 18:14)

The pride and self-righteousness of the Pharisee - he who "exalts himself" - is rather starkly contrasted with the humility and repentance - he who "humbles himself" - of the Publican. From these two examples of a revealed interior disposition, it is only the publican who is "justified" according to Christ.  With a kind of "folk-wisdom" that would have resonated for his rural flock in early 20th c. Serbia, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich recasts the parable in an earthy story form that seeks to reinforce Christ's teaching:

        A man went into the forest to choose a tree from which to make roof-beams.  And he saw two trees, one beside the other.
        One was smooth and tall, but had rotted away inside, and the other was rough on the outside and ugly, but its core was
        healthy.  The man sighed, and said to himself:  "What use is this smooth, tall tree to me if it is rotten inside and useless for
        beams?  The other one, even if it is rough and ugly, is at least healthy on the inside and so, if I put a bit more effort into it,
        I can use it for roof-beams for my house."  And, without thinking any more about it, he chose that tree.
And just to be certain, Bp. Nikolai drives home the moral point in the following conclusion:

        So will God choose between two men for His house, and will choose, not the one who appears outwardly righteous, but
        the one whose heart is filled with God's healthy righteousness.

The Pharisee acted according to the Law, keeping himself externally free from sin, fasting twice a week and paying a tithe on all that he had.  It would be wonderful if members of the Church lived and acted like that with such consistency!  However, it is the interior orientation of the heart that Christ is most concerned with; and it is here that the Pharisee twisted righteousness into self-righteousness which is basically a form of idolatry - worship of the "self."  Do any of us escape that self-deceptive trap?  If not, then better to admit it, as St. John Chrysostom reminds us:

        It is evil to sin, though help can be given; but to sin, and not to admit it - there is no help here.

The humility of the publican is perhaps best expressed in a series of short descriptions - unwillingness to look up towards heaven, the beating of the breast, the plaintive cry:  "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner" - rather than in an intellectually-constructed abstraction.  Moved by an awareness of God's holiness and his own sinfulness, the publican did not fear to openly express his humility upon entering the Temple. But why do we fear humility?  How does the very concept of humility seem to frighten us, if only unconsciously?  Perhaps we fear being taken advantage of, of being used by others, of "losing ground" in our struggle to not only get ahead, but to simply survive in a harsh world. We equate humility - wrongfully, I am convinced - with weakness, timidity, fear of conflict, etc.  We may occasionally use the language of humility, but deep down, we "know better." We may even practice a cautious form of humility but only if that will allow us to remain in our "comfort zones."  But do we actually know better?  Can we actually ignore a universally-acclaimed Christian virtue without having experienced it ourselves?  And yet, we literally depend upon the humility of Christ for our salvation!  And we praise and glorify Christ precisely because of His humility!  Perhaps, then, if we ever made a sustained effort to be humble, we would appraise this essential virtue differently.  As the saints teach us:

        Until a human person achieves humility, he will receive no reward for his works.  The reward is given not for our works but for our humility.
        (St. Isaac the Syrian)

        A humble person never falls.  Being already lower than any, where can he fall?  Vanity is a great humiliation, but humility is a great exalting,
        honor and dignity.  (St. Macarius the Great)

The Gospel - based on the scandal of the Cross - has turned many things upside down.  In God's judgment, according to Christ, the proud are humbled and the humbled are exalted.  The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee sets this choice before us.  


        

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Returning to the Grace of the Most Holy and Life-Giving Spirit

Baptism of Christ Magnet


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,



"The aim of the Christian life is to return to that perfect grace of the most holy and life-giving Spirit, which was originally conferred upon us through divine baptism."
- St. Ignatius Xanthopoulos and St. Kallistos

Today is the Leavetaking of Theophany, so perhaps we can offer a parting opportunity, within the context of this great Feast, to reflect upon the great Mystery of holy Baptism.  We can do this effectively by turning to some of the great saints and theologians of the Church, who consistently and brilliantly illuminate the meaning of this Sacrament of Illumination.  At times, what they have to say may seem to be "unrealistic" - as if their rhetorical skills in describing the effect of Baptism outstrip a realistic assessment of Baptism as experienced by the great majority of members of the Church. However, we should also keep in mind that the Fathers of the Church were "maximalists" when describing and delineating the full effect of the "life in Christ" as it presented itself before them as something to be lived and then shared with others through their example and their writing.  The Fathers always presented us with the fullness of the Gospel, so that we, in turn, would not be tempted to reduce that same Gospel to the level of an uninspiring moralism or conventional religious piety. 


It is St. Cyril of Alexandria (+444) who explains how the Lord's Baptism establishes the "pattern" and sets an "example" for our own baptism.  And St. Cyril links together baptism and "never-ceasing prayer:"

    It was necessary, therefore, that the Word of the Father, when He humbled Himself unto emptiness, and deigned to assume our likeness, should
    become for our sakes the pattern and way of every good work. For it follows, that He Who in everything is first, in this also set the example.  In
    order, therefore, that we may learn both the power itself of holy baptism, and how much we gain by approaching so great a grace, he commences
    the work Himself; and having been baptized, prays that you, my beloved, may learn that never-ceasing prayer is a thing most fitting for those
    who have once been counted worthy of holy baptism. 

It is St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th c.) who explained the meaning of a Sacrament as a genuine participation in what we could call the reality of grace that lies hidden within - and is then conferred upon the participant - through the rite of the Sacrament.  Through "imitation" of the death and resurrection of Christ through the rite of Baptism, we sacramentally die and rise with Christ "in truth:"

    O what a strange and inconceivable thing it is!  We did not really die, we were not really buried; we were not crucified and raised again; our imitation of Christ
    was but in figure, while our salvation is truth. Christ actually was crucified and buried, and truly rose again; and all these things have been transmitted to us, that
    we might by imitation participate in his suffering, and so gain salvation in truth.

A true Baptism must include the invocation of the Holy Trinity, as Christ taught His disciples (MATT. 28:16-20). Fr. George Florovsky makes this point clearly:  "The Trinitarian invocation is required because outside the Trinitarian faith it is impossible to know Christ, to recognize in Jesus the Incarnate Lord, "One of the Holy Trinity."  A fine explanation of the meaning of the Trinitarian invocation and its effect upon the person being so baptized is found in a passage from St. Nicholas Cabasilas (+14th c.):

    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 child.  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 and 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.

And yet, a Sacrament is not some form of "holy magic," as if conferring a kind of mechanically bestowed grace regardless of a person's level of commitment to the life in Christ.  The process of salvation - which we often refer to as theosis (deification) - is a synergistic process combining divine grace and human freedom. This also implies an ascetic struggle.  We must cooperate with God if we are to experience the transforming grace of holy Baptism.  St. Gregory of Nyssa (+395) said this well in his Great Catechism:

    ... If the life after initiation (baptism) is of the same quality as the uninitiated life (before baptism), then, though it may be a bold thing to say, I will say it without
    flinching; in the case of such people the water is merely water, for the gift of the Holy Spirit in no way shows itself in what takes place. ... A child born to any one
    is entirely akin to his parent.  If then you have received God, and have become a child of God, display in the purpose of your life the God that is in you, display
    in yourself the Father that gave you birth.

A great saint of a more recent past - Seraphim of Sarov (+1833) - places Baptism in the context of one's whole earthly existence.  This is  part of God's providential care for each of His "adopted" children.  If life is indeed a period of testing, then the grace of Baptism, which is nothing less than the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon us in the Sacrament, gives us the strength to prevail in this "lifelong test of man on earth:"

    And what in the world can be higher and more precious than the gift of the Holy Spirit sent down to us from on high in the Sacrament of Baptism?  This grace of
    Baptism is so great and indispensable, so vital for man, that it is not taken away even from a heretic until his death.  That is, it is not taken away from him until the
    end of the period of appointment on high by God's providence as a lifelong test of man on earth - a test to see what a man can accomplish by means of the strength
    of grace given to him on high in the time allotted to him by God.

Within the life of the Church all theology is ultimately best expressed through doxology - the living praise of the living God that brings joy and gladness to our spirits through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Doxology - the glorification of God - is a kind of prayerful/poeticized theology that allows us to approach the mystery of God in Christ with humility and praise. One of the many wonderful hymns of the Feast of Theophany summarizes the theological and spiritual content of the Feast in a manner befitting the depth of its significance for us:

    The true Light has appeared,
    and grants enlightenment to all.
    Christ who is above all purity is baptized with us;
    He sanctifies the water
    and it becomes a cleansing for our souls.
    The outward sign is earthly,
    the inward grace is higher than the heavens;
    Salvation comes through washing,
    and through water the Spirit:
    Descending into the water we ascend to God.
    Wonderful are Thy works, O Lord:  Glory to Thee!

When all is said and done, in the end we approach God and sing "Glory to Thee!"