The Baptism of the Lord

Baptism of Christ, mosaic, 11th century, Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece

We are at the great feast of the Lord’s Appearance! “God is the Lord, and He has revealed Himself to us” (Psalm 117.27) is often sung at Church services. Today the Lord appeared to men on earth. It is a great event, historic and cosmic. We in our Holy Orthodox Church have the grace of the Holy Spirit that allows us to live and feel exactly what was then.

These days we are given to taste a little of the Appearance of God—Theophany, from the Greek theophaneia. At the same time, we also celebrate the Manifestation of the Holy Trinity. For in the Jordan the Holy Trinity is revealed: The Savior, the Son of God, is baptized in the Jordan; the voice of the Father bears witness; and the Holy Spirit descends in the likeness of a dove. St. John the Baptist saw all this fully while the others perhaps only realized that it was something special.

In the Holy Gospel of Matthew, we find the following: “At this time,” meaning the time St. John the Baptist was preaching to the people that “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” So at that time, “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” (3.13–15).

The encounter between the two, the servant and the master, is impressive. Apparently, it was reversed: the servant, the ascetic, the righteous man of God John the Baptist was more powerful, better known; while the master, Jesus, approaches unnoticed, very discreetly and humbly. St. John came with such power to awaken consciences, to remove the scales from the eyes, and to open the ears, that men might hear the voice of the Savior; a voice which, in contrast to that of St. John, does not shout. And St. Sophrony Sakharov says that the genius of St. John the Baptist was that he detected the Savior in the crowd. Because He was like everyone else. But when He came, St. John knew who He was although there were no signs pointing Him. The Savior did not say, “I am the Messiah,” but St. John knew. St. John the Baptist was born and had lived in the wilderness for this very moment. To prepare His way and make Him known to the world. So, he had to recognize Him.

This meeting is impressive from another perspective, too. The Savior said only one word, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In general, He spoke very few words, and He did so now as well, at this unique meeting. From a human perspective, it is a little difficult to imagine living a whole life in the wilderness for this moment to see the desired One, yet all He says to you is just one word and that is it; everything lasts but a few moments. But with God it is different. For pure hearts, such as that of St. John the Baptist, one second is enough to see the Son of God incarnate. Because God’s time is not the same as our time. For Him, one second means fullness. So it was for St. John the Baptist—the encounter with Christ meant the crowning of his life and it was imprinted in his heart for eternity.

“Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What is this righteousness?! Because the Savior comes to the Jordan to be baptized, as St. John the Baptist says in the Gospel of John, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29), He comes to the Jordan to clothe Himself with our sins and to suffer unjustly for them. What was being done was in fact a great injustice. He comes to suffer for us, no longer holds us accountable, no longer makes us pay for anything, but takes everything upon Himself. This is not righteousness, yet it is God’s righteousness. And “God’s righteousness is for all people to be saved” (cf. 1 Timothy 2.4), and for this He gives His only begotten Son. So, the Savior comes to fulfill this divine righteousness, which in human terms is injustice, because He suffers unjustly. Thus, we see in His Appearance a sign of great nobility. We, though fallen and sinful, live in endless self-justification. He shows us something else, another model: though innocent, He takes all the blame upon Himself. Signs of God’s infinite nobility at the Jordan!…

During these days, our Church hymns: “Thy hand which touched the head of the Master, free of corruption the same with which thou didst point Him to us by the pointing of the finger, raise thou it to Him for our sakes, O Forerunner. (…) And thine eyes also, which did behold the All-Holy Spirit descending in the likeness of a dove, raise to Him, O Baptizer, granting mercy for us.” And in another place: “At the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord,’ Thou hast come, O Lord, taking the form of a servant, and Thou who knowest not sin dost ask for baptism. The waters saw Thee and were afraid; the Forerunner was seized with trembling and cried aloud, saying: ‘How shall the lamp illuminate the Light? How shall the servant set his hand upon the Master? O Saviour who takest away the sin of the world, sanctify both me and the water.’”

The Appearance of God at the Jordan River sanctifies the waters. Therefore, the grace of the Feast sanctifies the waters; of course, at the priest’s prayer. Theophany Water is made only now because of the grace of the Feast. During the rest of the year, the priest can only make holy water. Even if the prayers for the Great Blessing of Waters are read on another day of the year, it is still not possible to make Theophany Water because the same grace is not present. We have the grace of the Lord’s Appearance in the church today, and visibly we will have it all year long, in the form of the Theophany Water.

Finally, let us add some good advice from a Romanian priest in Ukraine, who in turn received it from a Russian spiritual father. When someone is ill, let them fast, and every hour drink a spoonful of Theophany Water because it is very good for the spiritual and physical health. Of course, the longer he manages to fast, the more often he can take the holy water. Let this be done with the blessing of the priest.

May God place this grace of the Feast in our hearts, may He strengthen us in the faith all year long, so that we may also bear witness and love the Appearance of the Lord. Amen!

Protosyngellos Ieremia