Eve of and Sunday before the Theophany of Christ, January 5, 2020
2 Timothy 4:5-8; Mark 1:1-8
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today I want to talk about dragons.
I know, I know—some of you are probably now thinking that Fr. Andrew’s love of hobbits and elves and fairy tales has finally cracked him and is making its way into his sermons. And you would be partly right, though not about the cracking.
Because dragons are in the Bible. And they are most certainly in Theophany, which is the feast day that we’ve begun to celebrate today and will complete in fullness tomorrow. So we’re not talking just dragons in general but water dragons in particular. Before we get to that, though, we need some context.
A part of God’s creation that is generally unseen by us humans is the heavenly hosts—the angels. As the Scripture tells us, a part of the heavenly hosts rebelled against God, coming to be known by the term demons. These are fallen angels, formerly in a relationship of harmony and love with God, but now in rebellion. And instead of assisting God in ruling and bringing life to His creation, they oppress it and bring destruction.
These fallen angels began to accept the worship of mankind, which is the origin of paganism, as the Bible says in several places (Deut. 32:17; Ps. 96:5, 106:37; Baruch 4:7-8; 1 Cor. 10:20-22). Sacrifice to these demons and eating those sacrifices brought mankind into communion with demons. And by this means, mankind became more and more like the demons, because you become like what you commune with, what you worship (Ps. 115:8).
God made the angels for service to Him in this world, including in places, with their presence bringing life to them, because they were in communion with God. But the demons, the fallen angels, brought death with them instead, because they were out of communion with God, the Giver of life.
The devil in particular is described by St. Paul as the one who has the power of death (Heb. 2:14). So death and the demonic powers always go together. Death is what they use to terrorize us, and it is the fear of death that keeps us in slavery to the demons (Heb. 2:15).
Now, understanding all this, we also need to understand how the Bible talks about death and how it was generally understood in the ancient world. Even today, we have the idea that death has something to do with being in the underworld, that is, underground. But there is another element which the ancient world connected with this sense of the underworld—water. The conception that many had of the world is that what was under the ground was a great depth of water, that there is the place of death—the abyss.
Knowing this, we can see, for instance, how the journey of Jonah while in the belly of the great sea creature was understood not just as a trip underwater but a voyage into the underworld, into the place of death. And it’s why Jesus refers to His own descent into hades and resurrection as “the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt. 12:39-41, 16:14; Luke 11:29-32).
So from all this we get an association of water with death and the demons with death. It is no wonder therefore that in most versions of the icon of Theophany, we see demons down in the water beneath Jesus’ feet as He is being baptized.
You see, when He entered into the Jordan, He was not just getting wet. And He certainly had no need to be cleansed. He was beginning his entrance into the realm of death, His entrance into a world dominated by demons. And what did He do there? He trampled them down. In our own icon of Theophany here, you can see him smashing what look like snakes in the water.
And that brings us back to dragons, and not just dragons but water dragons. The water dragons of Theophany are the demonic powers who use death and the fear of death to enslave us. And Jesus’ entrance into the waters destroys their power.
When we look at the Scriptures and especially the Person and work of Jesus Christ as an assault on the demonic forces and their terrorist death weapon, everything comes together in sharp focus and holds together in a way that makes instant sense. Jesus came here to exorcise the world from demons, to bring life up against death, to bring humility up against pride, to bring love up against selfish desire.
This is the war we’re in the middle of, and it is of course a war that Christ will win and that in a sense He has already won.
The blessing of water at Theophany is therefore a ritual participation in Christ’s mission in this world. Through our prayers and actions of blessing together today and tomorrow, we are joining Christ’s entrance into the waters, crushing the heads of the dragons lurking in them. We are entering into the abysmal realm of death, confronting demons, and defeating them.
The most important question to ask in considering our prayers and services together is not so much “What does this mean?” (which is of course important) but rather “What does this do?” And to understand what Theophany does we should look at the icon and see that the Lord Jesus Christ is crushing the heads of dragons.
Those dragons are not merely symbolic in the sense of standing for something. Those are real demonic forces with real influence in this world. And the act of crushing their heads is an act of aggression, an act of war. Jesus came here to defeat these beings. It is no struggle for Him, of course, because He is the creator of all things. Creation simply obeys Him. He does not have to cast spells or say magic words. He simply commands, and even the demons are driven out—instantly.
The struggle belongs to us, and it is a struggle not because God is in any sense weak but because we are weak and our hearts are not really in the fight. If our hearts were fully and completely with God, the task of exorcism we have all been given would not be a struggle at all. God would simply do it through us, and we wouldn’t be in the way at all. We see this with the saints.
So what do we do? How do we make this a struggle with progress?
Probably the most important thing to understand first is that we are not neutral in this war. We are either doing the will of God or the will of the demons. We are following either the way of life or the way of death. There is no third way, no neutral way.
So from this basis we evaluate everything that we do. Are we entering into Christ’s confrontation and defeat of death by worshiping Him, by obeying His commandments, by giving up what we want and what we do not need?
Or are we allying ourselves with the demons and their death terrorism, worshiping them instead, by disobeying God’s commandments, by basing our lives on our desires?
The choice is very clear, though it is not easy to make. We have to make it again and again. So long as we are in this life, when we make the wrong choice, we have the chance to repent. After we die, we do not have the chance to repent.
Let’s not feed ourselves to the water dragons. Let’s enter with Jesus into the waters to crush the heads of the dragons who lurk there.
To our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore, with His Father and Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.