On Dragons, Water, Light, and the Holy Trinity: Theophany and its Forefeast

Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:1-8
Isaiah 9:1-2; 27:1; 40:1-10.

I remember when I first encountered the Orthodox Church, I was surprised at the “spin” that they put on the feast of Theophany, celebrated at the same time as the Western Epiphany. I was not used to contemplating the Holy Trinity at this time of year, but accustomed to focusing upon Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed, as seen in the adoration of the Gentile magi on Epiphany, and the ratification of God in Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan at the octave, eight days later. On the surface, the story of Jesus’ baptism highlights Jesus the Man, undergoing the initiation rite of the Jewish people, plunged into the Jordan, that river which marked the first moment of the Hebrews’ entry into their promised land. John had called all the faithful back to the moment of origin, in a rite usually reserved for converts.

The Orthodox reading for the forefeast from Mark 1:1-8 describes his unusual call. It is as though John shouts: “Back to the beginning! Back to the beginning to prepare the way of the Lord! Remember your roots, how God took the initiative, and led you in weakness, by the hand, through the desert, across the Jordan, and into the land of milk and honey. Return to your first love, to God himself!” As Orthodox we indeed do remember beginnings in the Vesperal OT readings associated with the feast—Genesis 1, where God conquered over chaos, Exodus 14, where he conquered over Pharoah at the Red Sea, and Exodus 15, where he gave the people of Israel life-giving water. Here, as John comes on the scene, God reminds his people of these great saving events, and hints that something even greater is about to be revealed. For the Forerunner speaks in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. (Isaiah 40:1-10)

God knows that all flesh is but grass, and yet has come in our midst, not simply to give us an anointed Messiah, but to reveal his glory. And so we move from John’s general call to the astonishing picture of Jesus baptized, which we read on Theophany itself, as Matthew continues the story in Matthew 3:13-17. Indeed, as the Messiah is revealed, divine glory is shone! As we sing in Vespers, “Christ hath openly been revealed; God appeareth before our eyes.” And as the Doxastikon declares, “Christ the Truth cometh unto the Jordan to be baptized of John, who saith unto Him: I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me? I who am grass dare not touch the Fire. Do Thou sanctify me, O Master, by Thy divine Epiphany.”

And so when we contemplate the event we move naturally from its outer revelation, the epiphany of Jesus as Messiah, to the inner mystery, the shocking identity of this One who “fulfills all righteousness,” indeed, this One who IS divine righteousness personified. In his baptism, God the Son enacts a deep solidarity with God’s people. Not needing baptism for repentance himself, he shows forth his utter identification with our human plight: vulnerably he embraces our weakness, as he will again on the Cross. The Light of lights is plunged deep into the river of the Jordan, down into the primal element of water! That light is never extinguished: for upon its re-emergence, the Light of the Son is met by two Others, with whom he is yet One. The Spirit, as a dove, alights in suitable comfort upon the One who is both our anointed Human representative, and God incarnate; The Father’s voice sounds approval of his Messiah, and communion with God the Son – “this is my Son, my chosen, with whom I am well pleased.” There is no mistaking it: we see more than a king anointed for our sake. An inner mystery is there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear:

When You, O Lord were baptized in the Jordan
The worship of the Trinity was made manifest
For the voice of the Father bore witness to You
And called You His beloved Son.
And the Spirit, in the form of a dove,
Confirmed the truthfulness of His word.
O Christ, our God, You have revealed Yourself
And have enlightened the world, glory to You!

There are only two places in the gospels where all three persons of the Holy Trinity are explicitly shown to act in concert—the baptism, where Father’s word, Son’s action and Spirit’s seal connect, and the transfiguration, where Jesus shines, approved by the Father and overshadowed by the cloud of glory, the sign of the Spirit’s presence. It is fitting that at the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we receive a poignant hint of the true nature of God. Why would we expect anything less? After all, as John’s gospel tells us, the Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, came for the express purpose of showing who God is, of “exegeting the Father” (John 1:18) to the world. The baptism of Jesus is the beginning of that great interpretation of God to humankind, an interpretation that would be carried throughout the ministry of Jesus, into his suffering, death, resurrection and ascension—the ascension that unleashed Pentecost. Jesus’ whole life bears witness to the Father: and here, at the baptism, the Father bears witness to the Son, in concert with the overshadowing Holy Spirit!

Let’s consider Matthew’s account more closely. We are so used to it that we may not notice its strangeness. Here Jesus, the pure one, is baptized by a wild man in the desert. He submits to the hand of the one who is preparing the way for him. The holy one undergoes a baptism that John says is for repentance. John is scandalized, in the same way that Peter was scandalized at Jesus’ washing his feet. Peter felt that he should be washing Jesus’ feet. John argues that he needs what Jesus has. But what Jesus has for John, for us, comes to us by means of the whole life of Jesus, from incarnation through ministry through to the cross and beyond. In this God-Man, we see revealed the true nature of our righteous and loving God: the holy God does not ignore sin, and so he calls for repentance; the compassionate God will not leave us dead, and so there is baptism. Jesus’ own baptism, he explains to John, is a fitting thing for the moment—it fulfills righteousness.

Here, before the eyes of the incredulous John, and in the earshot of others who may not have understood much of what they heard, the One who IS righteousness, who IS faithfulness, was acting. The One who is Humanity re-clothed in glory is made naked for our sake, the Head of the universe is submitted to a human hand, the One who made the hosts of heaven is plunged into dark water and mud. And in this act he is approved by the voice of the Father, that same God who had spoken to Israel in the past, and he is sealed by the mysterious presence of that same Spirit who brooded over the waters of creation. We sing:

O Almighty and Sovereign Lord, the great River of Peace art Thou and the sweet Torrent of Delight; how shall the streams of a river then receive Thee now drawing nigh, entering naked in its floods, Thou who wrappest the sky with clouds and Who hast stripped bare all the enemy’s wickedness and malice and again hast clothed the earthborn with incorruption and endless life?

In the baptism of Jesus, we see nothing other than a cameo portrayal of the Holy Trinity, with each divine Person responding to the other; a poignant promise of that ineffable fellowship of love and holiness into which we who are in Christ are invited. The heavens are opened, and Jesus’ humble action shows to us a great mystery—worship of the Trinity is revealed. Do our hearts shake, just as John’s hand no doubt shook as he pushed the head of the one who is Our head, the eternal Light into the muddy waters of the Jordan?

But there is more. The baptism, in telling us about God, also tells us about ourselves. Another of our hymns declares, “Today the Lord enters the Jordan and cries out to John: Do not be afraid to baptize me. For I have come to save Adam, the first-formed human.” Or, as we rejoice in the forefeast,

Prepare, O Zebulon, and adorn yourself, O Naphtali;
River Jordan, cease flowing
And receive with joy the Master coming to be baptized.
Adam, rejoice with our First Mother
And do not hide yourself as you did of old in Paradise;
For having seen you naked,
He has appeared to clothe you with the first garment—
Christ has appeared to renew all creation.

What is all that about? Adam and Eve we recognize, but why Zebulon and Naphtali? These were the Northern tribes associated with Galilee, contaminated by the Gentiles, soiled by pagan worship and confused ideas. In our hymn, they are pictured as getting ready to receive Jesus, like a bride receiving her husband! It is not to the righteous that Jesus came, but to those who were in the dark, ill and blind. And it was spoken about long ago by the prophet Isaiah:

But there will be no gloom for her that was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined (Isaiah 9:1-2).

Here, as with the coming of the Magi, we are reminded that the King of all is for ALL—not simply for Israel as her Messiah, but the new Humanity, re-clothing the entire human race, all who will respond to Him. God’s light shines not only upon Israel, but upon the entire world— even upon those living in the caves and the darkness. So we shout out, “Today hath the Lord appeared in the courses of the Jordan, crying to John and saying, Be not dismayed at my Baptism; for I have verily come to save Adam, the first to be created.”

For the Lord knows our weakness and our need, our nakedness. He clothed the first couple with the skins of sacrificed animals; that was only a first kindness, and he has now appeared to clothe us with himself—our first step to true glory. In going deeply into the water, he removes every impediment between us and his Father. For the Lord also knows our enemies, and removes that which is dangerous or deadly, those things that lurk in the deep. Isaiah the prophet promised, “In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Isa 27:1 ). And so, in our hymns, we remember what Jesus’ baptism accomplished: Thou didst bow Thy head to the Forerunner, thereby crushing the heads of the dragons. And having stood in the streams, Thou didst illuminate the whole creation. Wherefore, let it glorify Thee, O Savior, Thou Illumination of our souls.” Jesus’ baptism brings light, deliverance and rescue to us. It is a washing, a new beginning, a battle against evil, and an illumination—all of this and more. God has come among us. The apostle Paul reminds Titus in our epistle for this Sunday, “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (1 Tit 3:4-7) So we can rejoice, all humanity together, whether Jew or Gentile, highborn or ordinary, because in Jesus’ baptism we see our true identity—fallen human beings whom God has taken steps to restore and to create anew. Jesus’ humble submission to the Father’s will contrasts with the rebellion of humanity. His baptism enacts death and new life. He drowns our disobedience and defeats death. In this humble act of Jesus, we see what we are and what we may become—“heirs of eternal life.”

He is the pioneer of our salvation: a salvation that begins with baptism, dying to the old life and rising in God’s power. God utterly identified with us in the Incarnation, but that mystery was hidden to many eyes. Here, openly, in the Jordan, Jesus takes on the sin of Israel, plunging into the elements of water and mud, and rising again to receive the approval of the Spirit. In the incarnation He became human in every sense; He began His work in the waters of Jordan, making it possible for us to receive God’s forgiveness. From His baptism on, Jesus shows in His life what true righteousness is: notice that right after the baptism, he undergoes temptation, like Adam and Eve, and is in the desert, like Israel—and he is victorious! He will lead the perfect human life and will show God’s righteousness by word and deed. Indeed, his baptism points to that ultimate submission and victory—it points forward to his death, burial and resurrection. Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of that good news which promises forgiveness and new life for all who belong to him. In his baptism, Jesus begins on the path, forging the way for us, so that he will bring many of God’s children to glory.

There is a close, unbreakable connection, a similarity in STYLE, between the Incarnation, the Baptism and the Crucifixion of Jesus. They are the mark of the Holy One who fears no contamination by this world, by us, by our sin, by death. C. S. Lewis puts it this way:

In the Christian Story, God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and sea-bed of the Nature He had created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him…One may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover. He and it are both coloured now that they have come up into the light; down below, where it lay colourless in the dark, he lost his colour too. (Miracles)

And so, in submitting to the baptism that we needed because of our sin and decaying bodies, Jesus did more than merely sympathize. He showed his calling as our Messiah, while also disclosing the nature of the Holy Trinity, and our own true human nature—we may be sinful, but we are bound for glory, if we identify with him. What the holy One touches can never be the same—a new creation is in view! Jesus is shown to the Baptist, and so to us as the One who “fulfills all righteousness.” Outwardly, in his baptism, the sinless Jesus joins himself in a surprising way with God’s people. Imagine the Light of lights plunged deep into the river of the Jordan, down into the primal element of water! That light was, of course, not extinguished. There is no mistaking it. We are seeing more in the baptism than the approval of a Messiah, come for our sake. There is an inner mystery is there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear: Father, Son and Spirit working in perfect harmony, as they always do. At Jesus’ baptism, they are working for the healing of the world, for you and for me, for God’s people.

So this is “the beginning of the gospel” spoken of in the first verse of Mark: God does not leave us unchanged. For what has begun is not only Christ’s story, but our story, too – the story into which God has called us. The One who has shone forth shines with the purpose of transforming us. “For the God who said, ‘let light shine out of darkness’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus.” In the end, we are told, that transformation will be complete, so that we will see, with Christ’s eyes, the way that things really are. For the time being, we are given hints—humility reveals true greatness, death issues in life, and the communion of the Holy Trinity gives us hope that we too will live in harmony with others, as we find our true selves in Christ. If these things are not signs to us always of the glory to come, that is because the mist is not yet completely removed from our eyes.

And so we keep the feast:

Let us piously fill the air with the sound of prefestal songs for the hallowed Baptism of our Lord and God. For now, behold, as a man He soon shall come forward in the flesh unto His Forerunner John and shall ask saving Baptism, that He might restore and might fashion anew all who with faith in Him are sacredly enlightened and who partake of the Spirit’s grace.

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