Friday, January 13, 2006

Happy Octave of Epiphany: the Baptism of Christ


O awesome Majesty, Who willed to plunge beneath the floods to liberate from their sins all who are joined to Thee by baptism. By this sacrament, I humbly pray Thee to absolve me from my sins and to bestow on me all Thy Spirit's blessings, O Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. (Prayer from the Nunnaminster Codex.)
The Octave of Epiphany, January 13, is the day the Orthodox West celebrates the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. Just as the Occidental Epiphany "lengthens" the Christmas season by keeping the focus on the Infant Christ, the celebration of Christ's baptism a week after Epiphany "lengthens" the period of the Church Year dedicated to Christ's manifestation. In the West, we begin with Epiphany, in which the light of a star leads three Gentiles to adore at the foot of His creche. The intervening Sunday focuses on the finding of Christ in the Temple, when He manifested His supernatural growth "in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man" (St. Luke 2:52). Slowly, the light of the Epiphany star widened its vista to shine on an ever-increasing family.

Today, the manifestation of His Godhead reaches a crescendo. With His baptism in the Jordan, "the worship of the Trinity was made manifest." The voice of God the Father removes all doubt that "This is My beloved Son, in Whom I AM well pleased." The Holy Spirit, too, descends upon Christ and causes Him to shine with the blinding light of His Divinity. However, these, the clearest revelations of Jesus' true status as the Second Person of the Trinity, begotten before all worlds, are manifest only to those "with eyes to see and ears to hear." Perhaps most of those witnessing the baptism saw nothing different about Christ after the baptism than before -- did not hear the voice of the Father nor see the graceful lighting of the Holy Ghost -- not because God withheld the vision from them, but because "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (I Cor. 2:14). They are tuned to another frequency, as it were, and cannot see what is right before them.

...Which is an apt description of the 21st century Christian. Most did not make it to a church to celebrate this holiday. We have fields to plow, and families to nurture, and a million other gadgets and diversions to acquire or pursue. We are in danger of losing, not a physical manifestation of Christ's glory, but the eternal vision of Christ in Heaven. "What have we done to deserve being put away from God's presence?" you may ask Perhaps nothing. But the road leading to Christ is narrow and arduous, and we will never reach our destination through indifference to the path that leads thither.

However, Christ's baptism also reveals the rich blessings to those who engage in the simplest act of obedience. Christ was baptized, not because of any sin of His, but "to fulfill all righteousness" (St. Matt. 3:15). After His baptism and acclamation by the voice of the Father comes the descent of the Holy Ghost. This is a foreshadowing of the great outpouring of the Holy Ghost in the form of fiery tongues at Pentecost. Both anointings follow acts of obedience: His baptism in the Jordan River, and His three-day sojourn in the tomb after His voluntary Passion. We, too, can experience and have experienced this anointing -- like the Apostles, like Christ.

"For as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27).

"Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin." (Rom. 6:3-6.)

The Fathers of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church say baptism is how believers become "born again." However, St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans calls it something else: death! Specifically, a participation in the death of Christ, which leads to our personal death to sin and to the kingdom of death itself. Here we find a paradox: only by dying to self can we be truly alive to God, partakers of the Lord's resurrection, and vessels and temples of the Holy Ghost. Whether we preserve that gift depends upon our ability to perceive Christ, to participate in the energies of Christ, to contemplate the light that once shone out over a cave in Bethlehem; which lighted upon Christ rising from the banks of the Jordan; and which led first a few women, then a near-dozen Apostles, then the whole world to an empty tomb on the first Easter.

St. John the Baptist was struck by the paradox of Christ's asking to be baptized, when He baptized with the Holy Ghost and fire. The Wise Men experienced the paradox of asking an earthly king the whereabouts of a true King. The Blessed Virgin and most chaste St. Joseph experienced the paradox of seeing a young carpenter's apprentice teach the finest scholars of the Law about God's Word. Our spiritual life, too, will depend upon our ability to navigate the paradox of the Christian life: , that mourning brings comfort, that the meek shall inherit the earth, that the poor in the world's eyes and the persecuted and reviled own the kingdom of Heaven, that the last shall be first and the first last, and that one finds his life only by through self-abandonment. Thus, we pray:
O Divine Master grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

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