Audio length: 15:28 minutes
The Faithful at St. Aidan's celebrate a baptism and Fr. Gregory teaches on the significance of the Troparion for the Feast of Theophany.
Shams here has been baptised today and has taken the name Photios the Patriarch of Constantinople in the 9th century. Photios comes from the Greek word for light so it means to be enlightened and is interesting that the early Church Fathers referred to baptism as a ‘bath of enlightenment’.
There are three stages in our conversion: we are purified, we are illumined and then we are united to God. We are purified as we hear the gospel and as we repent of our sins. We are illumined as we gain understanding of the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church and of the Teaching of God through millennia. We thereby advance in our way to union with God which is the final stage of the God-given purpose of humanity in creation - that we should have a close personal union with our Lord.
Now, in celebrating this baptism today it is most appropriate that we do so on the feast of Christ’s own baptism - not that He needed to be baptised, because he was Light from Light and in him the was no darkness. In Jesus there is only Light; He is the Light of the world. He did this, as the Scriptures say, “to fulfil all righteousness” - not to be above humanity but to be immersed in humanity; the Pure amongst the impure, the Light amongst darkness, He who was united to the Father in the one nature, which is divine, amongst those who werefractured and split and divided. In this way He brought unity, He brought life and He brought understanding, not as I said above our humanity but immersed in it - which is why Jesus was baptised.
On this day we sing a hymn, a hymn of baptism and it is this hymn that is sung when the priest goes round the homes during what for us has to be the whole of January, because we are not a compact village, and when the houses are blessed during the feast of Theophany. I want to encourage you all to have your houses blessed at this time and this signifies of course that our whole lives are washed, illumined, enlightened, united to God, no less our homes and here in this temple.
This is the hymn that we have sung:- (Fr. Gregory sings the whole Troparion). Let us now consider this hymn phrase by phrase and we what we can learn from it and the Scriptures both for ourselves and of course, Photios, newly baptised himself.
WHEN YOU, O LORD WERE BAPTIZED IN THE JORDAN, THE WORSHIP OF THE TRINITY WAS MADE MANIFEST.
The gospel today records John the Baptist’s puzzlement that his Lord should come to him for baptism. He knew, (as we know), that Christ, being perfect, had no need of baptism; yet Jesus replies that this is necessary to “fulfil all righteousness,” in other words to be SEEN as the Messiah, the Anointed One, (Christos - Christ), come to save. The Baptism of Christ is rightly therefore called the Theophany of our Lord, his divine manifestation or showing. This is made apparent in three ways, the first two concerning God, the last concerning us. This is made clear in the next verse of the Troparion and this is how our understanding of the Trinity, such as it is, is contained in this hymn but more importantly in our hearts and in the teaching of the Church.
FOR THE VOICE OF THE FATHER BORE WITNESS TO YOU, AND CALLED YOU HIS BELOVED SON.
Remember that the voice of the Father was heard from heaven declaring that Jesus was the Onbe sent by Him and in Him the Father was well pleased. The sonship of Jesus is made clear at the outset that all may know that He has come from the Father. Indeed He has this intimate relationship with his Heavenly Father such as that in turn He teaches His followers to addrsss God as ‘Abba.’ Now ‘Abba’ doesn’t just mean “Father” it means ‘Daddy’. Now if you are offended by that and consider that it is demeaning to God, understand this: if every hair of our head is numbered, if not one sparrow falls the ground but that our heavenly Father knows it, if we are worth more than these then how can we not call God ‘Daddy’? We indeed have that intimate relationship with our heavenly Father and that is what Christ brings.
This of course is the first component of the Trinity and the second is like, namely this: that we cannot say that God is our ‘Abba’ unless we are filled with the Holy Spirit, unless we have that life transforming encounter with the Blessed Trinity and we know deep within the recesses of our own hearts and in our relationships with one another that God is loving, so loving that Jesus died for each one of us and that perfect Communion with God that Jesus has He longs for us have as well. He who has ears to hear let him hear. And it is necessary for us that the Divine Voice is heard, and it is heard in the humanity and for the humanity, not only of Christ but in and for each one of us - because we need to know that God is ready and present to save.
If someone is in danger and is drowning in a lake or a child is getting near a flame we don’t just lecture them; we don’t just tell them: “Well the rules say that matches should not be struck by little ones,” or, “please observe the notice: ‘do not go near this lake!’” If we really care for them, we will put our hands on their shoulders to stop them getting burned or around their waist so as to stop them from falling in. In short we will intervene - we will not simply speak but we will back up our words with actions and this is precisely what God did in the Incarnation of His Son. He came to save us, He stretched out his hands to us and in the Resurrection, as we lift up our hands to him, He raises us up. This also is the significance of baptism: to be buried in Christ and to be raised up again in Him and in the Holy Spirit we confess these things … as the Troparion continues …
AND THE SPIRIT, IN THE FORM OF A DOVE, CONFIRMED THE TRUTHFULNESS OF HIS WORD.
The crowd receive yet more affirmation of the Anointed One through a visible manifestation of the Spirit’s power mediated by the descending dove, perhaps in a cloudless sky with the shimmering sun behind it - a vivid evocation of the Holy Spirit. As St John the Baptist notices here, this little bird manifests the power and glory of the gentle God; not you will notice a raven or an eagle but a dove. Here then comes the Holy Spirit, no less in this baptism as in Pentecost itself. We need not speculate the precise species of the dove than work out the opacity and nebulosity of the Divine Cloud that received Moses on Sinai or manifested itself in the Temple, the shekinah. These things are not themselves to be worshipped, they are symbols of His Presence, the Most High who is with His People, in tangible forms for sure, in Sacraments, in Mysteries, in this baptism. He who is named cannot be named and this is the paradox of our faith that human language fails where God is worshipped … but love - love prevails and so this is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. By the fruit of the Holy Spirit we shall be known:- love, joy, peace gentleness, self-control. This is evidence that we have been born again, that we have been baptised in the Spirit no less in water. Baptism is for each one of us a new Pentecost.
The Christian life is not simply an imitation of Christ but a transformation into Christ, into his humanity, that being divinised we might achieve the original purpose and blessing set for us by God in the garden of Eden. So the Trinity is fully made manifest, theophanised. The Father sends the Son and upon Him and upon us the Holy Spirit rests.
The Trinity is not for us some complex difficult doctrine, some kind of mathematical problem … how can one in one and one not be three?! St Gregory the Theologian, my patron saint, makes this clear. We not talking about mathematics here, we are talking about an encounter with the living God - made known in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit as the Troparion goes on to conclude …
O CHRIST, OUR GOD, YOU HAVE REVEALED YOURSELF AND HAVE ENLIGHTENED THE WORLD, GLORY TO YOU!
Jesus is the Light of the world. He is the Name above all other names and by no other name under heaven, the Scriptures say, can anyone be saved. “I have come that they might have life,” Jesus said. “I am the way and the truth and the life no one comes to the Father but by me” … but who are we to say who comes to the Father by Jesus. We are not to the judges of that process! We pray that in Christ one day all will be enlightened and as St Paul says, then God will be all and in all.
We today, on this feast of Theophany, receive the life-giving waters, as indeed Photios has received them in baptism - as we receive them when we wash ourselves at home and as we receive them every time we repent and believe upon Christ’s word. In this way we also are being enlightened.
The world will not believe us when we say that we have the Light of Christ unless we truly do have the Light of Christ within us. If we have the Light of Christ within us, then the world will believe. Until that moment let us pray and work and repent. But when that moment comes, as Jesus taught, “let your light so shine before men that they may glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
So indeed, glory be to Him who is our enlightenment who has made Himself known in Christ. We being moved by the power of the Holy Spirit declare that He has saved us. Let us tread this path today with Photios toward the kingdom of God when all who bear this Light will be known to Him and that which is dark may be consigned to the darkness where everything may be forgotten and only that which may be remembered which being true … is this … that God is Love and ONLY Love.
Fr. Gregory Hallam