Marked by the Light: The Leave-taking of Theophany

Ephesians 4:7-13; Psalm 67/68:18; Matthew 4:12-17; John 21:1-14

You have shown yourself forth to the world, O Lord,
And the light of Your countenance has been marked on us.
Knowing You, we sing Your praises.
You have come and revealed Yourself, O unapproachable Light

I wonder if you have the same experience that I do when emerging from an absorbing book, or an exciting film? One looks out all around onto the living room, which has been forgotten in the events of the story, or one goes out into the dark of the night, the movie now over, and feels a bit strange: the “real” world is disorienting after the impact of the fictive one.

We have been through two weeks or so of high liturgical drama—Christmas, the martyrdom of the innocents, the Circumcision of Christ, Theophany. We have again been astonished that the unapproachable One, Who cannot be reached by human effort of any kind, came to dwell among us: as a baby in Bethlehem and then the Jerusalem temple, and as a man plunged into the Jordan River by the hand of his cousin, John. We might now feel compelled to utterly leave that peak time behind, and go back to business as usual—especially when we realize that (this year, anyway) the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee and Great Lent will soon be upon us. But to change gears in an abrupt way like this would be a mistake. For, as the Kontakion for Theophany reminds us, Christ’s self-revelation as God has “made his mark upon us.” Like the three apostles on Mount Tabor, none of us, shone upon by the countenance of Christ, will ever be the same. This hymn speaks both of Christ’s epiphany to the world in his first coming and baptism, and also of His intimate connection with those of us who “have been baptized into Christ.” If we combine our jurisdictional traditions, taking several of the readings used by Orthodox for this Sunday when we take our leave of Theophany, we can see the full scope of this. The Unapproachable One who is also the Approaching Light both enlightens the world, and draws intimately near to each of us who is now part of His family.

Some of us read, for the Sunday of the Leave-taking of Theophany, this dramatic passage, Ephesians 4:7-13:

But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

The thematic connection of this passage with Theophany is, of course, clear. Jesus, plunged into the river Jordan, descends into the lower parts of the earth, filling the darkness with His glorious presence and touching it with glory—making it full of riches for his people! Because of Jesus’ advent, we now can understand the purpose of water, oil, wheat, and all of God’s creatures as His gifts to us, to mediate His presence, and for which we give our thanks. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it, “the world…is an epiphany of God, and when we worship and offer back to God these gifts, “the world is revealed in its true nature and vocation as a ‘sacrament.’” (For the Life of the World, 120).

By this reading of Ephesians we are also reminded of how the entire story of salvation hangs together. In the story of the vulnerable child (to whom the magi bring funereal myrrh as well as gold and frankincense), and of the man plunged below the water into that muddy river of death, we are directed forward to the cross, but then even further forward to the resurrection and the ascension. He descends that He might ascend, trampling down death by death and bringing glory to the world.

The passage from Ephesians quotes directly from the Old Testament, and a comparison Psalm 67:17 (MT 68:18) is fascinating. The Psalm has been concentrating upon the victory of God over His enemies, and about God preceding His people in the wilderness, showing His presence, and coming from Sinai into the midst of His people. Then, in Hebrew text, we hear: “Thou didst ascend the high mount, leading captives in thy train, and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there” (MT 68:18). In the Greek text however, which is normative for the Orthodox reader, we hear this: “Thou art gone up on high, thou hast led captivity captive, thou hast received gifts for man, even for those who were rebellious, that thou mightest dwell among them” (Psalm 67:18). In the first case, God is pictured as a victor, leading captives in His train, and taking the booty of the rebellious, so that the earth would be purified of rebels, and made a fit place for God to dwell. But in the second, God’s actions are more clement—captives are still taken, but the gifts that are received are for the sake of humanity, even for those who were rebellious. By trampling down death by death, Jesus binds the enemy, and so gains for us riches beyond number! The righteousness, the love, the wisdom of God are gained for us by this God-Man, and He comes to dwell in and among us in a wholly unprecedented manner. As St. Paul goes on to say in Ephesians, he has done this that we might become, in Christ, the complete human person, inheriting the full gifts of the Heavenly Father. It would seem that the OT Psalm had in mind God’s victory for the people of Israel in their crossing of the Red Sea, and His gift of Torah; but the apostle Paul, and the people of God, can rejoice in Jesus’ immersion in the Jordan—and later in death— for our sake, which issued in gifts to make His whole creation free.

One of the gospel readings appointed for this day emphasizes Jesus’ riches for the whole world; the other concentrates upon Christ’s beneficence towards those who are called by His name. In Matthew 4, we read about how after John was arrested, Jesus withdrew into the northern part of Israel that was surrounded by Gentile lands, “that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.’” And then we hear this note: “Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mat. 4:12-17) Jesus’ message was, of course, primarily for Israel. But the light He brought could not but dawn even upon the Gentiles, upon those who were sitting in darkness. And once His death, resurrection and ascension were accomplished, the disciples would be empowered to take that light into the whole world, into all the dark corners. Jesus’ baptism at the hand of John, then, was the precursor to that light shining everywhere. The candle is plunged into the water, and is not extinguished; the Light goes into the depths of Hades, and is not conquered, but makes what was dark light! Christ’s victory is vast and complete.

Yet His victory is not simply global. It also reaches us personally, intimately. This we see in the reading from John 21, which is prescribed for other Orthodox jurisdictions. Here we learn of the “third” time that Jesus showed himself, to seven of his disciples, who have gone fishing on the lake of Galilee. They are, of course, unsuccessful, until Jesus tells them how to fish—and then they catch a huge number, equal to the number of peoples of the known world in Biblical times. This catch, made possible because Jesus has been with them, is global in proportions. But that is not all that happens. Jesus also feeds them with his own hands, with fish and bread, and draws near to His dear ones in intimacy, speaking to them once again of His love for them, and their calling to follow Him. They learn that a showing forth of God is not only for the feeding of their mind, teaching them WHO Jesus is, but also for the strengthening of their spirit and their will. The Light shines upon them, and brings them into the Light, helping them to become lights for others.

Both Gospel readings, then, show what happens when God makes Himself known in the world—the whole world is affected, but most particularly the people of God. As the Kontakion puts it, God has shown forth Himself to the whole world, and put His mark on us in particular by shining upon us the light of His countenance. In the OT, though God worked the victory for them, the Hebrew people could not bear to look upon His glory, and Moses alone went up Sinai to meet with God and to receive the Torah. His face shone with that glory, so that the people were afraid even to look on him. But on Mt. Tabor, the three apostles entered into the glory-cloud that surrounded Jesus; and we are told that we, too, are to be illumined by God’s presence. Because Jesus has come to indwell our world to its very depths, plunging into the water, and draining the cup of death, all those who turn to Him may be participants in the Light. St. Paul tells us that we “all” have “unveiled faces” and are being changed together from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18), even as we pray and hope for the illumination of the entire cosmos. This began with Jesus, the Light in the manger, the One who was baptized in the Jordan for us.

All this may sound very familiar—and it is. Yet if we ponder what God has done, and continues to do both in our dark world and in the midst of His (sometimes hard-headed) people, we are bound to be moved to gratitude. For, even more than the mother of John, who are WE that God should come to us in this way? The apostle Paul puts all this in perspective for us:

This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief….Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen (1 Timothy 1:15-17).

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