The Life Aquatic – Underwater Ministry

The Baptism of Jesus is an event that, in many Churches, is passed over in relative silence. At most, they treat it as an act of obedience or humility. Christ is clearly not in need of repentance (He has no sin), and yet He insists that John should baptize Him. The Holy Spirit is seen to descend and rest upon Him at the completion of this act. That, in sum, is almost everything said about His Baptism throughout much of the Christian world.

Not so, in Orthodoxy. The feast of Christ’s Baptism (known as Theophany), is one of the three greatest feasts of the year: Christmas, Theophany, Pascha. The three feasts are similar. Their iconography has intentional “rhyming” elements, and the liturgical pattern is similar. Pascha is, of course, the truly Great Feast, the other two being lesser, or little “Paschas.” Christmas is sometimes called the “Winter Pascha.”

In the cultures where Orthodoxy dominates, Theophany sees large public gatherings. In Greece, young men dive into the waters to retrieve a Cross that is thrown as part of the Blessing of the Waters. In Russia, people plunge themselves into the icy waters of her frozen rivers. Everywhere in the Orthodox world, the Feast centers around water. It also initiates the season in which priests visit the homes of the faithful in order to bless them (with water). That such festivities are absent in Western Christian traditions is of note. It signals that some fundamental understanding that permeates the Orthodox world is largely absent elsewhere. Something essential is seen as peripheral.

For lack of a better phrase, I will describe this difference as rooted in the “culture of Atonement.” The most fundamental aspect of Christian belief is found in how we understand the actions and ministry of Christ. St. Paul offers the simple creedal formula: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”(1 Cor. 15:3) To that simple statement, every Christian group would (or should) say, “Amen.” But the agreement seems to vanish beyond that point. To say more than “Christ died for our sins” immediately requires some notion of how “atonement” occurs. At its root, the question is, “How does Christ’s death reconcile us with God (make for at-one-ment)?” To answer that question, it is also necessary to say what it is that separates us from God. What is the nature of sin such that it is a problem?

It is around these questions that the “cultures of Atonement” begin to differentiate. As a matter of historical fact, the answer to these questions was never singular. The New Testament presents something of a “spectrum,” drawing on any number of metaphors when the subject is addressed. What can be said, for sure, is that, over time, and for a variety of reasons, those metaphors tended to separate themselves. East and West, particularly as they became estranged, developed different “cultures” as they spoke on these matters. Using broad strokes, we can say that the East tended to describe the Atonement in ontological terms, terms that described sin as death, a movement from being towards non-being, as the problem, and Christ’s death-as-a-union with us in our death, and our union-with-His-life, as the solution. He becomes what we are that we might become what He is. The West tended to describe the atonement in juridical terms, terms that described sin as a legal debt that required a payment. Sin was seen as a legal problem and Christ’s atonement was explained as a legal solution. Christ’s death paid for our sins.

It is little wonder that the West could see very little importance in the Baptism of Christ. There was no “problem” being solved. He had no sin, and Baptism was understood only in that sin-as-legal-problem mode. Thus, His Baptism is reduced to an example of His meekness. On the other hand, in the East, where sin is an ontological question, a movement towards death, Christ’s Baptism is seen as an act of His uniting Himself to us in our sin.

“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

The “rhyming” of Nativity, Theophany, and Pascha, are founded in this Eastern culture of Atonement. In each case, there is Christ uniting Himself to us in our sin that we might be united to Him in His righteousness. In the Nativity, Christ’s birth is a birth into a broken and dark world, an entrance into our ontological hell. Icons of the Nativity typically portray the cave where the Child was born in a manner that is reminiscent of the depiction of Hades in the Paschal icon. Similarly, the icons of Christ’s Baptism, portray the place where Christ is Baptized in a manner that also shows it to be a descent into Hades, an entrance into our ontological darkness.

The hymnography associated with Christ’s Baptism draws all of this in fine focus. From the sixth of the Royal Hours:

“O Prophet,” the Lord now says to John,
“come and baptize Me, thy Creator,
for I cleanse and enlighten all with grace!
Touch My divine head and do not hesitate!
O Prophet, let it be so now;
for I have come to fulfill all righteousness!
Make haste; for I hasten to destroy the Enemy,
the prince of darkness, hidden in the waters,
that I might deliver the world from his snares,
and in My love grant eternal life!”

In this “culture of the Atonement,” we see the solidarity of our life in Christ as well as our solidarity with those who are “lost.” Apart from Christ, we are drowning beneath the waters of the Flood, a life that is less than life and, instead, something that is marked only as destruction. We are the people of Noah’s world, and sinful Egyptians pursuing and persecuting the truth, even as the waters are crashing down on us. Our death is not simply a drowning, but a drowning under waters of chaos.

The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
The floods have lifted up their voice;
The floods lift up their waves.

Christ comes to us under the waters, beneath the waves of chaos. His ministry is an underwater ministry.

It is there, beneath the waves, that we find Him. It is to be noted that all who come to Him are immediately plunged beneath the waters. It is our union with Him. Baptized into His death, just as He was Baptized into our death, so we are Baptized into His resurrection, for He has overcome the waters. We, too, now have an underwater ministry as we seek to save those who are lost. There are moments of sheer resurrection in which we also become water walkers, as winds and seas obey Him. And He rescues us yet again as our unsteady feet, guided by an unsteady faith, begin to slip back under the waves. Buried with Him in the waters of Baptism, we are raised in the likeness of His resurrection. As He is, so are we in this world. Our ministry is beneath the waves. We daily enter into the aquatic life that we might save some who are drowning. Here, we hasten to destroy the Enemy, hidden in the waters, trampling Him underfoot in the name of Christ.

Christ is Baptized! Glorify Him!

44 comments:

  1. Thank you Father, what a beautiful missive to read first thing in the morning. I read the last few paragraphs several times, you write so beautifully and I was deeply moved.

  2. Beautiful.
    A Danaha hymn from the Malankara Syrian Orthodox service: https://youtu.be/SY2_03xHGaI.
    One of the initial lines say, “O Christ, you who made holy all the waters of the world, make us holy on this day of your Theophany”. (Wish my Malayalam skills were good enough to translate the entire piece.)
    Thanks again Father.

  3. Reminds me of “The Detectorists” theme song, which, though secular, I have always enjoyed in the spirit of Christian witness/ministry. In part, it goes: Will you swim through the briny sea for me, roll along the ocean’s floor? // I’ll be your treasure // There’s a place, follow me, where a love lost at sea, is waiting for you…

  4. In the very ancient Church, Nativity and Baptism were once celebrated on the same day (today — and that is still the case with the Armenian Apostolic Church). You remind me that Holy Baptism is called “Illumination” for a reason! Thank you for another beautiful post. There is a lot to think about and meditate on here.

  5. Thank you Father! “. . . drowning under the waters of chaos.” What an apt metaphor for the oppressive combination of the presence of Covid, civil and political unrest, and being separated from loved ones. I pray for strength to hold on to my faith. Your words helped me today. God bless you.

  6. Fr. Freeman,

    The more I think about the pantheist tendencies of Western theology, the more apparent it is that the East’s firm grip on Creation Ex Nihilo makes being/non-being the preferred categories in which to frame things.

    And again, this is why the Essence/Energies distinction, a firm denial of OS/OG/TD, a firm affirmation of Creation out of nothing makes us what we are in many ways.

    Here’s my short argument. In pantheism, you can never go back to a nothingness because there is literally nothing distinguishable from God. If God is always everything, nothingness never really exists because the nothing would be God. The fact that Western theology cannot embrace fully a view of ‘lostness’ that does not eventually entail an identification between God’s will and all that comes to pass – their view of ‘lostness’ results in God determining everything – means Creation out of nothing cannot fully be embraced – and if this is not embraced you border on pantheism. Their view of Creation fits much better with an eternal universe than does Genesis 1. Return to God is not through victory it would be through the acquisition of legal righteousness. The juridical view makes man not an – all or nothing or somewhere in between – but righteous or unrighteous, saved or damned, good or evil: an all good ( through the merit of Christ for Reformed, or for your own and the merits of Saints for Catholics) or an all evil – not nothing. because the Creation is already not definitively distinct from God as a creation. You can’t really move toward nothingness because nothingness isn’t a category, and this shows, in my opinion, that Creation from nothing isn’t being upheld, and that pantheism is somewhere “on the table”. I know this line of thinking borders on annihilationism – and to be upfront I’m sympathetic to annihilation – though I concede that the Resurrection is the basis for eternal life. I’m more of a hopeful annihilationist that a hopeful Universalist.

    In short, I think the fact that one gets this emphasis and we get ours is because we really believe that Creation was from nothing. I could make this quite long but I hope I’ve made some point.

  7. Fr. Freeman,

    Original Sin, Original Guilt, Total Depravity. I use those words so much I just figured you would know 🙂

    With Original Sin the flipside is Original Perfection or Original Righteousness. There’s no spectrum, it’s all good or all bad – but nothing isn’t on the table. Whereas in Scripture, nothing, chaos, etc., are there, and are there in Judaism and Orthodoxy. So, we get as a result of the fall disordered passions, the disconnect between mind and heart, the marring of the Image of God – they typically get a “good/perfect” or “bad/evil”.

    I think this smells of pantheism as I’ve been convinced Calvinism is very pantheistic and the determinism of many Western theologians preceded Calvin and others. Pantheism is inherently deterministic. I’ve come to the conclusion that Orthodoxy is the only Christianity that can actually uphold freewill with the least difficulty – and not because we fall back on mystery all of the time. With Calvin, and with any picture of man where it’s all good or all bad, the return of the depraved sinner is to perfection – in God’s sight. An application of Christ’s work – His atoning through bearing wrath – and uniting us to His merits – His works on the earth and His voluntary obedience. God is applied to the human legally. Union with Christ is union with the merits of Christ (or others) in this system. But the basis for it is in merit theology in general. This is why the Reformers’ soteriology is more consistently logical than Catholic theologians. But what is merit theology based on? A spectrum of movement towards or away from God? No, not really. It’s more a legal requirement. This is what the Reformed call the Covenant of Works but it could be called a Covenant of Merit. My interest in these things is finding the root of the anti-Eastern bent of Evangelicals and Reformed – along with pointing out inconsistency with Catholics – yet, I don’t really engage in this – I still want to be able to give some explanation. God in these systems is fully subject to Himself, to an imperative within Himself. It’s as if God obeys His own laws because He must. I know at some point when we describe salvation Eastern/Western Christians will sound alike because our heart/will will not be at odds in the New Earth or if healing happens here. But if God were to sin, He would be all bad. He couldn’t go back to perfection. In the same way, if we applied this logic to ourselves, if we sinned, we would be all bad, and then it shows we have equated our mode of being with God’s. The affirmation within Orthodoxy that before the Resurrection there was not eternal life in crucial here it seems. There’s already a presupposition that God created man eternal in Western theology prior to the Resurrection. Why though? Because God categories have been applied to us. The Resurrection is not the elevation of man to immortality and the undoing of death because death was never going to stop immortality anyway. Again, these show the breaks between a God with freedom who creates out of nothing, and a God who practically has an eternal universe already – as His will and what He creates basically share in analogous and synonymous relationship – and whether there is an initial moment of Creation – where matter starts to exist – makes very little difference. If the One God exists eternally, and the Universe for all practical purposes has already existed in His mind, foreknowledge, and if all created things share in Him almost synonymously – then it’s like a distinction without a difference. Yes, there will be caveats that we don’t share in everything God has in Western theology, but we are identical to the will of God already. God’s will is realized moment by moment already. So, again, distinction without much difference. Whereas, we can really believe, Creation was free, life began on a spectrum towards eternal life, regressed toward death, then the nothing was defeated/the “chaos monster”, life will progress for the faithful by Grace, life will regress for those who cling to this “death world”.

    Adam in perfection was to maintain Perfection by a continued merit – and what upheld this ongoing merit was an Original Righteousness.

    Losing this can only result in complete corruption. Salvation will be a restoration along these lines, addressing these issues, and only perfection can heal Adam. He must be accounted righteous not by any imaginary virtue, as the ability to gain virtue was impossible already – if you are perfect how can you acquire virtue -but by Christ’s or someone else’s. The Reformed will pare off the someone else’s, rightly so, it makes no sense. Christ’s merit will be applied to your infinite demerits. Yet, as you stated recently, we are saved Biblically through loving loyalty – the movement of the heart longing for God. This is Biblical salvation.

    Now, if Creation Ex Nihilo was really believed, then man’s fall was a fall into/towards nothingness, chaos, etc. – not complete corruption. You can only fall into nothingness, chaos – if these things can exist or if God can really create out of nothing. Death is a movement toward nothingness, being forgotten, etc. Death as fall operates in the Creation Ex Nihilo reality. Total Depravity operates in an eternal universe – at least with less conceptual difficulty. What does Creation Ex Nihilo add or contribute to the Western understanding of God? I understand that this puts God alone and seemingly forbids polytheism, but not really. Because if there is not a distinct division between what God makes and Who God is, then polytheism/pantheism is back. Since you cannot really distinguish between God’s Creation and God in Western theology because the EE distinction is denied, and because OS/OG would have the same effect anyway – the flower in your garden and God – are synonymous – they are both pure will. Whether the flower grows or fades is God’s will. This isn’t a denial of sovereignty. It’s the acknowledgement of freedom given to the creation. All is ultimately under God’s care, but not all that happens is equivalent with God. Creation from nothing creates a difference between God and the flower, they are not synonymous, and in many ways they are not analogous.

    If we live on a spectrum of being, this fits with Creation out of Nothing.
    If we live as good or evil, this fits with eternal, pantheistic universe.
    If we live on a spectrum, Jesus died to reinitiate the Edenic vision.
    If we live as good or evil, Jesus died to restore us to perfection.

    To be on a spectrum, you have to believe in a beginning telos/goal and a direction from something other than complete perfection, and the idea of complete perfection – suggests – that there is a denial of Creation Ex Nihilo which is the basis for the Creator/Creature distinction since if God made us out of Himself, we also would not be created out of nothing. But, and I’m sorry to make this long, I don’t know how to be short yet, if God’s will and God’s creation cannot be distinguished from each other – and I’m saying that they really can’t with OS/OG, the denial of EE distinction, with a perfect immortal Creation only brought back from the fall after their Original Righteousness is restored – then God makes us not out of nothing, but out of Himself, and that’s pantheism. The depraved reprobate becomes much like the person trying to reach nirvana after endless attempts – while being at the same time co-essential with God – reliving futile existence on Earth – only with no end. The same law structure is at work in Hinduism and Buddhism, only instead of you finally getting a handle on your law breaking – either against God or the universe – it’s doesn’t matter as they are both the same – Jesus atones through wrath bearing, you gain merit, you are restored to perfection. Doesn’t sound like Gospel to me anymore. And for the pantheist, you end up losing yourself being absorbed back into the Divinity in a bodiless existence. Another similarly held belief, though not dogmatically upheld. The references to New Earth, New Jerusalem, New Adam, etc. – that we hear all of the time are not there in most Protestant churches. It’s heaven, heaven, heaven. Where’s your body in all of this? Not that necessary it seems. Idealism, like the Matrix, fits in these schemes as well as matter is not necessary.

    Well, Father, I’ll probably ask forgiveness later for spending so much time on this, but I hope, if there’s some merit to all of this, that it makes sense.

  8. “It is there, beneath the waves, that we find Him.”
    That is a beautiful image. We must remember to look for Him as we are beneath the waves.
    So many times we forget He is there.

  9. Matthew,

    I think it would be incorrect to call creation ex nihilo a specifically Eastern concept; the phrase itself is Latin and some of the most important early explanations come from the West. Also, I’m not sure that the distinction between binary and spectrum is as helpful here as it appears. I am known for pushing back against black and white thinking yet pantheism can creep in anywhere, even in a system based on a spectrum; having a spectrum has its own set of challenges. Further, I do not find that the pantheistic trap to be very common in the strains of Calvinism I’ve dealt with (determinism yes, but they just lessen salvation and humanity to compensate for anything ontologically “fishy”!), nor absent from competing soteriologies. It may be better to address the questions directly without getting distracted by the “original” stuff: just dig into what it means to be created.

    And on addressing those sorts of questions, they require not just study but the other 2 pillars—self-discipline and service—to support prayer, which is where the connections really happen. If 1 of those 3 supports gets too large or too small relative to the others, true prayer just flops off. There is not a formula we can develop to break someone out of Calvinism and “make” them Orthodox—it is the work of the Holy Spirit. There is real value in such investigation, but without the the rest of the Orthodox life we’re not helping people, just changing their opinions and neurons around a little bit. I feel a better paradigm is to *live* out these truths—and be with others as they live them out. Share each others’s lives and discoveries with a sense of awe, wonder, and thanksgiving.

    Janine,

    I am familiar with some of the interesting history behind the calendar, including the separation of what was once one feast. I’ve been taught that Pascha, Pentecost, and Theophany are now the “big 3”, followed by the feast of the Incarnation: Annunciation. Nativity, while a Great Feast, is a ways down the list.

  10. Matthew I could follow what you said, but I don’t know enough to offer a critique other than that on the whole you make some speculative leaps that are not logically deducible. You have clearly thought these things through.

    Father it could be that you lack sufficient understanding of the western concepts Matthew illustrates, but to follow on your suggestion that your mind is not wired to read that, maybe your introverted thinking is low in your MBTI cognitive function stack. I do believe that one way of grouping human beings is by their psychological types, God created us with different cognition but there are patterns and markedly similarity with those of the same type. Obviously human beings are multi-dimensional so a personality doesn’t place you in a box just like being a man doesn’t place you in a box as any isolated aspect of your identity only shapes a small part of who you are. Comparing MBTI with enneagram I would say the former is about cognition while the later is about motivation.

  11. Janine and Theophorus,
    Christmas, Theophany, and Pascha have the same construction in many ways – such that Christmas can be judged to be among the “big 3.” Do note that Christmas has 40 days of preparation through fasting as well. Interestingly, Pentecost is known as the Feast of the Trinity in Slavic lands (even its name has given way to something else). Janine is correct in my understanding.

  12. Ah, the longer I am in the Church (34 years now) the more I see the value of the approach Joseph Barabbas takes: prayer, service and discipline OR prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Especially the Jesus Prayer. I hope one day to become Orthodox through repentance and by the Grace of God.
    The Creed especially:
    …And in One Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only Begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds. Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made: Who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.
    That and Matthew 22:40 is all I reall need

  13. For Matthew Lyon, Forgive me if this is not helpful, but yesterday I learned about a recently published book titled Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind by Eugenia Searvelis Constantinou, PhD (Dr. Jeannie Constantinou) I have been Orthodox Christian for 15 years, coming from Anglican and having been raised mainly attending Methodist churches, so I have no theological studies, I am sure this book will be helpful for me so I thought I’d share.

  14. Joseph, Others,

    Here’s my presupposition: in any monistic or pantheistic system, eventually the system collapses/is conceptually pantheism. What is the real difference between monism and pantheism? If will and being are the same, then whatever exists is will/being. To just state that creation is not also equivalent to being is just that – stating it – but it doesn’t ruin the accusation. If there is no distinction between God and His will, then whatever He wills is Himself in some sense. We have the EE distinction though so it is not a problem for us, it doesn’t create the problems that is. But, OS/OG would create the problem on their own because these doctrines (along with an original perfection) mean that – to ensure the perseverance of those elect out of the mass of damnation – history, causes, secondary causes – all causes – will be taken to be necessary to ensure this. Of course, not everyone follows this, but it is easy to see why you might if you take OS/OG as a starting point. Creation from nothing is the starting point for a denial of pantheism. So, if a theology verges on pantheism, something about this Out of Nothing is either inconsistent, misconstrued, or outright denied.

    I think any time you see an entirely deterministic system of thought, you should smell pantheism. If in pantheism all is God, in monism all is Will which is also God, and in deterministic Christianity, all is Will also, even other wills. And from there, since Creation from Nothing is the starting point for a denial of pantheism, then something must be amiss with adherence to this doctrine.

    And it is my suspicion, that legal framework atonement, flows out of here. If you can’t break down – and I’m not saying I’ve figured this out – strongholds – it will be difficult to get yourself, or others, to seek salvation. I mostly try to remove mental barriers, while also praying, reading Scripture and the Fathers – so that I will take seriously the call to work out my salvation. If I have a legal framework, the work is done already.

    Thanks for your comments. Again though, I’m not banging down Calvinist/Thomist doors. I just want an explanation for how our thinking diverged. But, I must pray more, this is always true.

    Thanks!

  15. I hardly know how to make a meaningful comment in this thread. I was born in Knoxville, TN to fundamentalist Baptist parents and ended up living in the Greenville, SC area after graduating from Bob Jones University. At age 56 I left the Baptists to attend an Anglican Church. Perhaps one day I may join the Orthodox faith, but my wife who I love dearly, simply is not ready for such a move. It took all the courage she had just to make the move to low church Anglicanism.

    All I have ever really known is the “juridical” view of the atonement. I will probably go to my grave with that view whether I like it or not. It is hard to break from a lifetime of thinking a certain way. But I have come to appreciate the “life from death” emphasis in the atonement that you proclaim, and find it quite “biblical”. I have come to see that “keeping the law” is much more about enjoying the life that God has given to us rather than a way of measuring how well I am performing at the moment. I will never be able to get away from the thought that my guilt needs a solution, so l will simply be thankful that one is offered in the atonement. What is wonderful and new is the idea that salvation is unity with Christ both in death and in life. When I think this way, the most ordinary things in life become filled with the life of God Himself. It becomes more than just a legal victory of doing right instead of wrong, it just becomes living. I understand more than ever what Jesus means we he says, “I am the life.”. I will never look at the baptism of Jesus the same way. Thank you Father Stephen.

  16. Matthew,
    I’m not sure it’s a good idea to hold on to a legal framework or philosophical arguments as part of your salvation, if this is what you’re doing. It’s one thing to hone such skills for academic purposes but another for life in Christ.

    It seems to me there is a very strong emphasis in Orthodoxy to live a life of stillness, and that involves a different sort of work than the one you’re describing or demonstrating.

    Please forgive me saying these words—coming from me is like ‘the kettle calling the pot black’. I struggle to live in this manner.

  17. Last, the Lord knocks, but doesn’t break down doors. That’s just not His Way.

  18. I was not raised in any Christian Tradition but both of my parents had formative encounters with God that became the foundation for coherent and beautiful philosophies of life. Their teaching and example led both my brother, an Archpriest Emeritus and me into the Orthodox Church, once we encountered Jesus. He led us here and was here to greet us once we arrived. His mercy and blessings have sustained us both through some difficult times. I know nothing of Him but mercy. I cannot imagine in my wildest imaginings a juridical, condemning Jesus Christ. That is like telling me my wife is a serial killer.
    I can say that the Jesus of Calvinism is in no way the Jesus I know.
    I also know how difficult and scary letting go of beliefs held strongly for a lifetime can be. Yet, Jesus is so beautiful, loving and kind if one simply and with open heart calls on Him, He will come. Then the fun begins.
    Theology is great to explain the human encounter with our loving and Incarnate God but all too often theology becomes a replacement for simple inter-relationship based on thanksgiving and repentance. Especially in chaotic times:
    http://anothercity.org/st-porphyrios-on-prophecy-and-repentance-in-times-of-peril-5/

    Without entering into His mercy, theology is impossible and becomes vain imaginings.
    I have seen too many people drawn into lives of doubt and shame that way. It seems it can be as tough a drug to kick as heroine.
    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  19. A poem I wrote thinking about this season

    water
    softly trickling over fingers
    following the aqueducts of our creases
    hanging heavy on the end of fingertips

    water
    crashing against the shoreline
    hidden lightning, visible thunder
    monsters relentlessly tearing at beached prey

    water
    numbingly cold, sharp and crisp
    turning the hopeful warmth of courage to raw, cold fear
    chasing people back into their houses

    water
    scalding showers and hot baths
    eyebrows like dams holding back steamy salt sweat
    foggy mirrors and rivulet filled walls

    water
    beads of condensation on cold glass
    quenching parched throats and thick tongues
    liquid silver coolness soothing to the belly

    water
    vast oceans
    incalculable droplets
    immense, unfathomable, immeasurable, unexplored
    keeping secrets deep within

    water
    trickling creeks
    singing in their paths
    gently hugging their banks
    giving way to a day of wandering
    stopping to talk along the way

    water
    raging flooded rivers
    deciding it is boss
    choosing who will stand and who will bow
    brown and torrid
    blindly running

    water
    stagnant death
    tepid mosquito breeding pools
    motionless and unwilling to move
    drying ‘til clay is cracked before giving up its hold

    water
    clear as crystal, pure as diamond
    purifying all within it
    cleansing all who touch it
    baptizing all who drink it

    water
    in all and for all
    our very blood
    our tears, our piss, our sweat
    our very breath

  20. Father Stephen

    This article has been resonating, slowly at first, now, bell like, more loudly. A few reflections for what they are worth if anything.

    1. I have been thinking for a while now that Jesus’ life and actions are sort of like a parabola. Near the top on the left are his conception then his incarnation into the world. At the matching point on the upper right are his Ascension and then Pentecost. Towards the bottom are the crucifixion on the left and resurrection on the right with the mysterious day in between at the very bottom. Viewed this way His mission does indeed look like a deep dive. I love the way St Mark describes the way his baptism ends ” …. just as he was coming out of the water he saw the heavens torn apart … ”. (How good might that be for a description of the power of the Ascension – he is looking upwards as he breaks water he sees the vastness of the heavens themselves opening up?) Anyway, if that parabolic model has any value, then as you say, it may be useful as a pictogram of how, as we enter into baptism, we join ourselves to the full deep dive shape of his entire ministry. Which is also, by the way, a very good argument I’d say for full immersion baptism, rather than the more magical dab of water on the forehead style …

    2. In a related vein it’s interesting that in Genesis 1, God’s ruach “sweeps over” the face of the waters (the face of the deep no less) on day 1, then separates the “waters from the waters” on day 2, then gathers the waters so as to create land on day 3. So lots of activity and things sort of externally done to the waters of the deep by what is presumably principally the First Person of the Trinity (as Genesis 1 uses the language of creation), with Ruach presumably the Third (sounds a lot like His energos) for the first three out of six days of Creation. I was thinking on pondering your article was that one further thing that the Second Person of the Trinity does is enter into the dark waters themselves and finishes that act of creation by transforming them from within their very being – by doing the deep dive per 1.

    3. I was a little surprised that when you were talking about the western conceptions you did not mention cleansing. I thought one of the western conceptions of baptism was that the water symbolism was about cleansing of sins which sort of fits with the western atonement idea of Jesus coming to cancel sin – He sort of begins by washing etc. Your explanation of it is generally much, much richer and better as Christ entering the waters of chaos and transforming those waters themselves via what is essentially an underwater ministry. But still, I do wonder a bit about the cleansing thing particularly as the form of the rite was that of The Forerunner.

    4. It is interesting that most of Jesus ministry takes place around an inland sea. Presumably not by accident. And the great Pascha premonition story (at least in Mark and John) of Jesus walking on the water takes place in the dark on that same inland sea. To make the case here is a pointed summary of John’s version (chapter 6) : it is Passover (in fact the Passover before the big one); Jesus feeds with a miraculous abundance; a crowd is going to make him King; he goes up his mountain while the disciples become separated; at evening (a time of transition) they pass onto a boat on the inland sea; it becomes dark and rough and scary; in the night what seems to be a ghost (Mark says just that) seems to come to them and they are terrified. The situation is resolved as he says “fear not it is I” (or “I am”). and “as they welcomed him into the boat it arrived at the place to which it was going”. I mention this in detail because I am thinking it provides a good symbolic reinforcement of the idea that Pascha itself has sitting behind it a rich transformation of the waters picture that we only get as we ponder deeply.

    5. The other image I have continued to think about over the past few weeks following an earlier article is that of St Peter in John 21. I thought that when he hears that it is Jesus on the shoreline his instinctive reaction was to take off his clothes and jump in the water there was a tingle of baptism there. Your article has reinforced that feeling. Maybe as shame-ridden (over the denial) Peter also needs to descend into (accept) the dark waters as part of his transforming reconciliation with his beloved Lord? I’m still feeling my way into that, but it feels right.

    6. This transformation of the waters points to another metaphor that I have always liked, that of God as ocean. A couple of months ago a more learned friend than me said this – I assume it is right: “St Symeon the New Theologian saw life as an adventure in the sea of God’s glory. In his final paragraph he wrote of the man who prayed and lived life in that ocean;

    “But when he plunges into the depths and becomes wholly submerged under the waters, he can no longer see anything outside and he knows only one thing, that he is entirely immersed in the deep. So it is with those who progress spiritually and ascend towards perfect knowledge and contemplation.” Immersed in the inexhaustible God who births the incarnation and takes human life joyfully and lovingly back to fullness.”

    If that’s right then it maybe shows why these waters of chaos were always going to be changed?

    7. Finally, in a similar vein, I was reminded again of T’S’ Eliot’s words from the last stanza of East Coker (the second of the Four Quartets) :

    “Love is most nearly itself
    When here and now cease to matter.
    Old men ought to be explorers
    Here or there does not matter
    We must be still and still moving
    Into another intensity
    For a further union, a deeper communion
    Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
    The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
    Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”

    Apologies yet again for length. Your fault for writing interesting and thought provoking articles! 🙂

  21. Fr Stephen

    I know a lot of people who use the monthly holy water ( a few drops in a glass of water ) daily, as a “spiritual vaccination” against covid, given the closure of the Churches and inability to have Holy Communion. Can the great holy water of Theophany be kept at home and consumed throughout the year ? It is not clear if this should only be kept in Church or if at home too, it has to be placed in front of an icon and a lit candle.

  22. Fr. Freeman,

    A beautiful article. I think I understand what you mean when you talk of the problem of Baptism being viewed as a mere legality, but I wish you would elaborate further on how Christ unites Himself to us in our sin. Or is it a mystery about which nothing more can be said, and we must simply accept it as axiomatic that He did indeed unite Himself to us in our sin in a more than forensic and ontological manner though He Himself could not and did not sin?

    By the way, when you say above of the Orthodox Theophany water blessing that it is “essentially” the same prayer do you mean that the core intention of the prayer is the same even if the external ceremonials surrounding the blessing are different, or do you mean that it is the exactly same ritual?

    I ask because, to the extent of my knowledge, the blessing of the Epiphany Water in the Roman Ritual seems to be a distinct ceremony and longer than the usual holy water blessing. ( 1, 2 )

    Unfortunately I have never witnessed this ritual. I have, however, witnessed the blessing of the Epiphany Chalk, which is used to inscribe a blessing upon the doorways of homes.

    -NSP

  23. NSP,
    In terms of the blessing of the waters, it is exactly the same prayer of blessing. What is different is that the prayer, when done on Theophany, makes specific mention of “this day.” But the blessing is the same. I don’t know that one is longer or shorter. Orthodoxy doesn’t seem to have a short form for anything! ...even when you’re standing outside freezing…

    2Cor. 5:For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

    It helps in thinking about this, I believe, to remember that sin and death are inextricably linked in Orthodox theology. Sin is death, death is sin. Get the forensic stuff out of your mind. To say that Christ was “made to be sin for us” is the same thing as saying that “Christ died for us.” Death is as much a contradiction of God (who is Life) as sin is (God is righteousness itself).

    When we sin, it is not entirely true to say that it separates us from God. Sin has as its direction a movement away from God. But God has outflanked us, and meets us even in our sin. “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there.” We cannot get away from the presence of God, for all the “get-away” places are now filled with Christ. God is with us. Utterly.

    For me, this especially means that I should not despair, even in my sin. I think to myself (and to God), as long as He doesn’t abandon me, I will be fine. All I ask is to be with Him. If He will be with me, then all will be well.

    Our experience of shame “feels” like we are separated from God, and even estranged from ourselves. But Christ has entered even our shame and made it His own, such that He is with me even in that most painful darkness.

    He is closer to us than our breath.

  24. Dear Fr Stephen I will be forever thankful to God for the words you have written in your comment here: “When we sin, it is not entirely true to say that it separates us from God. Sin has as its direction a movement away from God. But God has outflanked us and meets us even in our sin…” I am very familiar with the Psalm you quote and also “know” that I should not despair. However, your words and phrasing allow for Our Lord to make this real in my life! Glory to God for All Things! And I am looking forward to your book!

  25. Sin affects the entire creation. Christ’s Incarnation, Baptism and Pascha inaugurates the transformation and transfiguration of creation—(all of it including sin), ‘justifying creation”, to mean the ‘right balance’ of all things are being returned to their respective rightful place (within God). All of the water in all life forms on this earth has been blessed by Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.

    These thoughts have been inspired by both Fr Stephen’s article, here, and Fr Schmemann’s books, “For the Life of the World” and “Of Water and Spirit”.

    I believe that generally when a priest says a prayer for a purpose versus laity, that there are nuances of difference relative to the priest’s office to the flock. From my experience this distinction relates to all prayers that might be said. However, I’ve never been taught this directly. Rather this is what I have interpreted from experience on various occasions.

    Father I beg that these statements be corrected as needed.

    Cliff, may God bless you and your wife’s sojourn. If you’re inclined, I would like to encourage you to read Fr Stephen’s book, “Everywhere Present”.

  26. My comment was written and submitted before I had read Fathers last comment. I’m writing on my phone— a slow process and often auto corrected in weird ways.

  27. And dear Father thank you for your edifying words to NSP, they are balm to my heart.

  28. Same Dee. I particularly appreciate the expression: “He is closer to us than our breath.” Glory to God for all Things!

  29. Oh dear what a faux pas!

    I mentioned “Cliff” but read Chuck’s comment a few days ago and didn’t remember his name correctly nor checked his name. I have no idea where I got the name Cliff from— might have been a senior moment!

    Please forgive me Chuck!

    And thank you Anonymo— your comment brought me to go back and reread this thread.

  30. Chuck, Dee, Fr. Freeman,

    Dee,
    I’m trying to undo the legal framework by pointing out it’s dependence on a denial of the Creator/creature distinction found in Creation Ex Nihilo – at least that is my tentative assertion/speculation – that it only works/fits most appropriately in a pantheistic world. The legal framework flows logically from here I believe. When you start with Original Sin / Original Guilt as your starting point for understanding what salvation is – it will end up “legal”. You have originally perfect Adam, originally perfect Eden, originally righteous humans (perfect again) – just like God is perfect, Heaven is perfect, God is righteous. Once man sins, he loses perfection, righteousness, and a perfect Earth. I’m stating what has been traditionally Western. Please consider when I try to represent the views of others (or their tradition) and when I try to represent what I think we should all consider Orthodox – which is, a very good Creation, man as innocent on a trajectory towards theosis/union, and that Eden would extend to the ends of the earth. The earth was not Eden, it was to be spread, righteousness was something to attain, theosis was/is the goal of man. But, what can you do with humanity – lacking these Eastern beliefs – when they have lost everything – including the capacity to will with God? Punish them. That’s it. How to undo this sad state of affairs? Punish someone else: Christ. But this only brings you to neutral – it doesn’t give you back the original righteousness in their view. How do you get it back? Either by imputing righteousness – a legality – or infusing righteousness – a legality. Punishment based, merit based views of salvation depend on a view of creation – this is my thesis – where Creation and the Creator – are more synonyms than antonyms. To me, if I’m right, this means there is not really a firm belief in a free, Creation, out of nothing – but more a forced, compelled, creation – out of God Himself. This would take pages to develop, but I want to throw it out there as Fr. Freeman takes pains to bring it up regularly.

    Chuck,
    You are the type of person I have in mind when I spend my mental energy – because I know personally – that without some sort of good reason to embrace Orthodoxy as Biblical, Apostolic, etc. – these sorts of questions can either leave you in limbo, or commend the Church to you. For me, realizing the dependence of the Western view of everything from atonement, predestination, what the Gospel is, what it does, what the Christian life will look like and where you think you will go or can go as a Christian -will almost entirely be determined by your starting points. Start with a free God, whose good creation is truly different from Himself, with very good Adam, with theosis/union – in other words, with the Bible, and Orthodoxy will click into place. And it will make other views of atonement feel like we’re trying to squeeze something into the story that doesn’t quite fit. God bless your endeavors…

    Fr. Freeman,
    Well, I don’t feel you agreeing with me, and to be honest, sometimes I try out my suspicions, but I really believe there is something here. Have you ever read Perry Robinson on Calvinism and pantheism? After having my own hard struggles with Calvinism – having been devoutly Calvinistic for over 10 years, I thought I found the Gospel for the first time – I had come across some articles by him. But after reading your post here a few days ago, it hit me (that and some interactions I’ve had with people who actually prefer pantheism to the early Fathers) that to make the legal framework viable, you may need to deny Creation from nothing even if you affirm it formally.

    Thanks,
    Matthew

  31. Matthew there is at least one person who appreciates your comments 🙂 The key idea of belief in creation ex nihilo distancing east from west had not occured to me in that simple form. Freedom of God in orthodox theology as opposed to the strict determinism of Calvinism is truly critical and a beautiful thing to behold.

    I am not surprised you have been devoutly Calvinistic for 10 years, seeing your thought on these matters. Where you raised as a child in a Calvinistic church though? I asked many good questions as a child/teen, but kept them to myself so through the years I struggled albeit in a different way to you. Eventually even had an existential crisis partly because of those theological beliefs I tried to hold onto despite at times severe cognitive dissonance. Recently was reminded that Carl Jung (he had a Calvinistic father as pastor) diagnosed problems with all of western christianity. He talks about how western theology does not provide healing to the soul from the snippet I heard from someone else. I was going to get into Jung before I found orthodoxy so I guess all roads lead to Rome.

  32. Anonymo,

    Thanks, I understand this not the ideal place for me to unload thoughts. Partly I think when we go after bad conceptions of God we do not hit the root. I was thinking about this last night, the similarities between pantheistic religions and deterministic religions. In many ways, it seems to me that Islam, Judaism framed the wrong way, Hinduism, Buddhism, deterministic Christianity all share legal frameworks in some sense. Although it seems Hinduism shares more in common with Eastern Orthodoxy, there is a way to read their path to salvation as merit based/law based. The personality of God is replaced with “laws of nature/physics/etc.”, but the path to enlightenment is by works/enlightenment/etc. Hinduism is still very deterministic and has elements of god choosing whom he/it wills for damnation or salvation. Islam is all about rule/law/etc. Buddhism derives from Hinduism. Monism and pantheism end up with the same conceptual difficulties: determinism, loss of freedom, loss of personality/identity in some way, salvation by merit, etc.

    Anyway, I will pursue this further, but regardless, Creation from Nothing – our pan-entheism – in many ways is the antidote to deterministic/fatalistic or conceptually impossible views of God where free will matters but God is all will at the same time. Our choices supposedly have some determinative power but God has already chosen our choices. This view o f God, I believe, sets us up for legal thinking. Not just the normal line you hear about honor being denied the deity and this being restored through the atonement.

    Thanks,
    Matthew

  33. Matthew,
    I think that part of the attraction of legal/juridical models is that they give a sense of control to people. If I do this – then this is what happens. Thus the appeal of laws, principles, etc. It helps people deal with the shame of their impotence. It leads down roads that never seem to reach the proper goal. It is a route that keeps asking the wrong questions.

    Creation ex nihilo grounds our being in the act of thanksgiving and gratitude. It is probably the most fundamental aspect of our true being.

  34. Michael Bauman,
    Sorry to respond so late to your comment made three days ago. It is difficult growing up with a juridical view of the Christian faith. In the southeastern United States it is difficult to find anything else. Like you, I was blessed with good parents who practiced kindness, mercy, and love to others. They liked to work at jails and missions and treated the people they knew with dignity and generosity. Once they brought a convicted felon home to live with them for about a year. The folks at church thought they were crazy! I am thankful that I had them in my life. They, more than anyone in my life taught me who Jesus is and I will be forever grateful. Doubt and shame are part of the juridical life, and sometimes are used by its leaders as a weapon. I am seeking a better way. Since I have been reading this blog I have taken up the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He never disappoints with His answer.

    Dee,
    You may call me Cliff! I have been meaning to order that book for some time. Years ago I read in Ephesians 2:6 that we are “raised up in him and seated with him in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”. Up to that time I thought you were “saved ” and then you died and went to heaven. The idea that I was seated with him – right now – in heavenly places was so new to me. Perhaps that is what Father Stephen means when he speaks of a single story. I need to read the book and find out.
    Thank you for blessing me and my wife. May the Lord bless you as well.

  35. Fr. Freeman,

    Yes, there is a settled aspect to a “done deal”. I’ve often said that the Gospel in much of Protestantism is the same thing as assurance of final salvation. This is only possible in a transaction model. And this contradicts the Biblical/Apostolic view of proven loyalty. A bad dog who runs away often, often makes a mess of things, but who returns home again and again with overall fidelity, who would ultimately give its life in defense of the family – just seems a more Biblically realistic picture than a “declared righteous dog. ” I keep thinking though, that again, the motif of non-being/chaos that is all over the Bible – starting in Genesis 1 – is denied in some sense. You don’t regress toward chaos/the abyss/primordial disorder/the nothing in the legal view. You just become bad. And in another sense you don’t progress towards a goal, you go to perfect, which is what God is. When badness is what you are, what can you do but punish it? You cannot really reorder it, redirect it, heal it – it’s full corruption – it will take a monergistic overhaul to undo it. And when you’re perfect by means of Christ’s vicarious righteousness – you’re back to perfect. There is no spectrum to gauge loyalty with proven over time. So, we have hope in God’s mercy towards our place on the spectrum – or we cry out for monergistic salvation. The monergism for us is Creation, Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension. We didn’t ask for this necessarily and God did it all. We contributed nothing – except in the Incarnation. But Pentecost (which is the start of another type of incarnation – the making of Temples to the Holy Spirit by Holy Baptism and the Presence of the Holy Spirit in those temples) also requires a “be it done unto me.” Our monergism makes synergism possible. Their monergism makes synergism practically impossible. Anyway, thanks for your comments. Always appreciated!

    Matthew Lyon

  36. Chuck, my priest in his sermon Sunday preached on “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” He pointed out that repentance is NOT getting down in my own awful muck and being sorry, even less being guilty. All that crap is there and there are times it has to be addressed but that is not what repentance is. Repentance is accepting God’s gift of mercy through Jesus Christ in spite of all that.
    Frankly, it is the only way the Jesus Prayer makes sense.
    My heart rejoices for you. May our Lord bless and keep you in His mercy.

  37. Deep in my being I have been constantly experiencing a state of gratitude. I have a lot to be grateful for as I have moved mountains by God’s grace last year. Not sure how long this spiritual consolation will last but I am grateful for it!

    Michael understanding what repentance really is has been one of the most critical things I have learnt from Orthodoxy. Thanks for writing about it. If repentance is accepting God’s gift of mercy through Jesus Christ then it makes sense the unforgivable sin is not accepting God mercy (e.g continually not repenting). Makes sense when forgiveness is not understood as a removal of legal guilt. But I can’t quite put my finger on what the Orthodoxy understanding of forgiveness is in contrast to Protestant conceptions, help me out if you can. Mercy instead of justice would be simplistic as Orthodox understand justice as pedagogical instead of retributive.

  38. Anonymo,

    I think the concept of well-being, Shalom/peace, is part of what repentance is or accomplishes. Death in the OT is synonymous with sinful though dying is not immoral, but it is corruption. There is the corruption of the body, corruption of the mind and will, corruption/disruption/disunity of our relationship with God, etc. Miracles in the Bible are not the temporary suspension of natural laws – God overriding nature to get things done. They are restorative. Death is undone, sickness undone, Satan’s activity undone, etc. It’s going back to normal, the way God intended. So, repentance is the return of the heart, at least in intention, to this state. Repentance is acknowledging unbelief and mourning it a bit in hope. We should never live in such a way where we show we do not trust God, that’s what sin is. Repentance is the return of the heart to faith/fidelity/loyalty accepting with assurance of the kindness of God. At this point, though our sins may require earthly justice or they may not, what is God to do with us? Punish us? No, the restoration – the back to normal – is already here, and God is moved to forgiveness – He lets it go. God blots our our sins when we repent – He lets them go – He cancels the debt – He makes null the debt. Just as in Acts 17:30 – the times of ignorance God overlooked… but now He calls all to repentance. Sin’s debt is paid. Not in the sense of you should have been punished but Christ instead is punished. But the only “payment” for sin is repentance. The repentance is paid/completed. It make me think how the opposite is something like, “the sin of the Amorites is not yet full.” At this point there is no mercy because there is no possibility of repentance. Mercy triumphs over judgment, or people are hardened to the point they refuse mercy/repentance permanently.

    But you cannot receive mercy if you refuse it. And you cannot receive mercy if you are proud because God resists the proud. Returning to humility, and since I’ve been talking about it, to Creation Ex Nihilo – where you realize your contingency, realize the trajectory of your life has been ultimately selfishness (missing the mark – possibly you were never aiming at it), realize your idols, fears instead of faith, and go back to being a child. The Law’s exposition of sin reveals not so much that we are rule breakers, but that we are selfish and faithless. In many ways the obedience to the law and the commandments are just ways of expressing, “I know you’ll take care of me no matter what.”

    Another point again with death in the OT. Death was a liability for entering sacred space, it made God more dangerous. So, you had the entire sacrificial system to ensure you could have your death covered so that you would be safer, and ready (with repentance) to be in God’s presence. Much of the preparation was for things you were exposed to that had nothing to do with sinning. If a woman is in her cycle, if you touched a dead body, if you had relations and life left the body, etc. – you either came in contact with death or death is exposed in you through the lack/emitting/losing life in the body. But what the body was lacking -life- was temporarily provided for in grace through the sacrifices. Though the sacrifice alone without repentance was worthless. The blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin/death – they could only cover it up. Repentance/mercy is more primary than sacrifice. But even still, the death liability remained. But the Resurrection changed all of this. The death liability is gone as it relates to uncleanness of the body restricting you/your body from entering, rather becoming, sacred space, temples of the Holy Spirit. The restoration of the body, us being incorporated/united to Christ’s death and Resurrection means the body is no longer a bar to accessing God. The healing/Shalom of the body had been accomplished for us. I’m just trying to give a clear example of a theme, that death/sinful/exclusion from God’s presence — these are undone not by retribution, but by Christ’s defeating death. Life swallowed death. No one is unclean anymore by virtue of anything related to death (uncircumcision, being outside Israel, not having the Covenants, etc.). So, what is left for us is repentance, which is another healing. It’s obvious in this example that the sickness of death is healed in the Resurrection. There is a substitutionary aspect because you are contingent, Life must come to you, you cannot generate life on your own. Life must be given to you, for you. This could turn out quite long as when you start thinking about these things you realize you can’t come close to exhausting what is going on. But the healing/Christus Victor motif/Biblical model (I don’t like using the word model) fits with healing. The Edenic vision of human imagers who interact with non-terrestrial imagers in one family, moving towards perfection, and being perfected in perfection throughout eternity is still under way.

    I know that wasn’t solicited, but I hope it’s worth something.

    Thanks,
    Matthew

  39. Matthew,

    Thanks a ton for sharing. The first two paragraphs were very clarifying.

    As we grow in virtues we value them more. Positive reinforcement loop when the humble receive mercy then pursue greater humility. Or substitute humility for any virtue and mercy with grace. God delights to show us mercy, but as in Matthew 13:12, “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away,” we must be willing to humbly receive.

    I had somewhat of a spiritual awakening or enlivening when I did experience what you say here: “realize the trajectory of your life has been ultimately selfishness (missing the mark – possibly you were never aiming at it), realize your idols, fears instead of faith.” I suspect most of us stumble a lot early in life before we embark on a significantly more faithful pursuit of the life of Christ.

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