Friday, January 7, 2022

Let Us Receive 'The Blessing of the Jordan'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men ... awaiting our blessed hope, the appearance of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ ..." 
- Titus 2:11-13

On January 6, we celebrate the Feast of Theophany. To use its full title, we celebrate THE THEOPHANY OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST, a title that we usually summarize as "Theophany" (sometimes "Epiphany"). This year the feast was on a Thursday. The church was rather filled for the Feast, though falling on a weekday, so we can then truly say that our communal celebration was festal. Serving the Great Blessing of Water added to the beauty of the day, as we blessed the waters as a sign of the cosmic redemption of matter in and through Christ. As the Russian philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev wrote: "The grass grows and the flowers bloom within the Church." Truly, our festal celebration was an excellent beginning to the New Year. 

 The Theophany commemorated on January 6, is actually the original date on which the Lord's Nativity was observed, together with the Visitation of the Magi, and the Baptism of Christ. This nexus of events are distinct "theophanies," or "manifestations of God" to the world, each of which reveals the presence of Christ as a light illuminating the world, as well as being the long-awaited Messiah and Savior. In fact, Theophany is sometimes called "The Feast of Lights." It was in the 4th c. that our current Christmas day of December 25 was established slowly throughout the Christian world. The Nativity of Christ was a more hidden theophany; while the Baptism was more open in nature.

From the appointed Epistle reading of the Feast, TIT. 2:11-14, 3:4-7, we learn of the two "appearances" (the Gk. word is epiphania) of Christ: basically His Incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth, and His Parousia, or Second Coming, as the Lord of Glory. Thus, the first appearance was in the past; while the second will be in the future. The first appearance was in humility; the second will be in glory. We live in the present, between these two appearances. We commemorate the one, and await the other. And our mode of life should reflect the fact that we have been baptized "into Christ."

In his Epistle to Titus, the Apostle Paul refers to this baptism as "the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit"(3:5). The purpose of this baptism was "so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life" (3:7). The appearance/epiphany of the grace of God and the grace that we receive in Baptism is "training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world" (2:12). Baptism essentially allows us - by the grace of God - to transcend our biological mode of existence; so that we are now open-ended beings capable of transformation by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Although subject to our biological condition, we are not enslaved to it, with "no exit" in sight. That is a potential gift unique to human beings.

At the Third Royal Hour for Theophany, we heard a beautiful passage from the Prophet Isaiah, who anticipated the transforming power of Baptism and the mode of life that would accompany it: 


Thus says the Lord: "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless; plead for the widow. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool."


The Baptism of the Lord is directly related to our own personal baptism. This was prophetically delivered to Israel; anticipated by John's baptism in the River Jordan for the "remission of sins;" and now actualized in the Church each and every time that a person - infant, child, adolescent, adult - "puts on Christ" in the sanctified waters of the baptismal font. If, as the Apostle Paul declares, we have "put on Christ," then we need to manifest a Christ-like life to the world to the extent that we are able. The Feast of Theophany brings that to life for us as we now, as then, receive the "blessing of the Jordan."

When we "bless" the waters, we are basically acknowledging the initial "very good" with which God blessed the created world "in the beginning" (GEN. 1:31). We do not disparage the created world, but rather rejoice in it. We are definitely not dualists! However, that initial state of pristine purity was lost through the subsequent presence of sin within the world, to such an extent "that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now" (ROM. 8:22). Therefore, the entire cosmos has been awaiting the redemption that only the Son of God could bestow through His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection. In this way, "the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (ROM. 8:21). By blessing the material world — probably best exemplified through the blessing of that most primal and foundational of all earthly elements, water — we anticipate that eschatological liberation here and now within the grace-filled life of the Church. To summarize this ecclesial recognition of the goodness and sanctification of the world around us, we can turn to the explanation offered by Archbishop Kallistos Ware, from the Festal Mention:


The fall of the angelic orders, and after it the fall of man, involved the whole universe. All God's creation was thereby warped and disfigured: to use the symbolism of the liturgical texts, the waters were made a "lair of dragons.'
Christ came on earth to redeem not only man, but - through man - the entire material creation. When He entered the water, besides effecting by anticipation or rebirth in the font, he likewise effected the cleansing of the waters, their transfiguration into an organ of healing and grace.


Further, in discussing our traditions of taking some of the blessed water home with us, Archbishop Kallistos writes the following:

...Orthodox are encouraged to drink from the water that has been blessed at Epiphany and to sprinkle themselves with it; they take it also to their homes, and keep it there to use from time to time. In all this they are not guilty of superstition. If they act so, it is because they are convinced that in virtue of Christ's Incarnation, of His Baptism and Transfiguration, all material things can be made holy and 'spirit bearing." ( The Festal Menaion, p. 58-59.


The Leavetaking of Theophany is not until January 14. That means that we will continue to celebrate the Feast on Sunday at the Liturgy. During this time of the Afterfeast, a good practice is to incorporate the troparion of the Feast into our daily prayer life: both in our personal prayer and as a family. Before blessing our family meals together, we could sing or chant the troparion of the feast, so that we are doing at home, what would be done in church - extend the celebration of the Feast and thus be more attentive to the liturgical rhythms of the Church calendar.