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Sanctify the Waters

by the Very Rev. John Breck

On January 6, Christians of Western tradition (Roman Catholics and Protestants) commemorate the Epiphany or manifestation of the newborn Christ to the Magi. To Orthodox Christians, this day celebrates the Theophany or revelation of the Holy Trinity, not at Christ's birth, but at his baptism in the Jordan River. It marks a significant interruption in the sequence of Scripture passages read at this time of year, by inserting the baptismal scene between the circumcision and naming of the child Jesus on the eighth day after his birth (Jan 1; Luke 2:21) and his presentation in the Temple (Feb 2; Luke 2:22) shortly thereafter.

St. Mark begins his Gospel not with Jesus' birth, but with his baptism at the hands of his cousin John. This is the true "epiphany," the moment that represents the manifestation to the world of the eternal Son of God. For before his baptism, as St John Chrysostom notes, "he was not known to the people."[1] As both Scripture and the iconic tradition of the Church attest, that manifestation was a Trinitarian theophany, in which the baptism of the Son was accompanied by the voice of the Father and the appearance of the Holy Spirit "in the form of" a dove, or more precisely, "coming down [upon Jesus] like (ôs, ôsei)" a dove.

When we, as Orthodox Christians, attempt to explain the significance of this feast, we normally stress two closely related themes. On the one hand, God reveals himself as a tri-unity of divine Persons, a revelation that will be repeated in modified form at Jesus' Transfiguration. Thereby Jesus is revealed to be "one of the Holy Trinity," the eternal Son of God who took upon himself fallen human nature in order to glorify that nature and to restore human persons to the life, the perfection and the beauty for which they were originally created. At the same time, Jesus by his baptism enacts and establishes the sacramental ritual by which believers can share in his death and rise with him "in newness of life" (Rom 6:3-4), uniting themselves to his glorified Body, the Church.

There is another aspect of Theophany that also needs to be stressed, today perhaps more than ever before. This is a motif that appears very clearly in icons of the feast but goes unmentioned in the Gospels. Its earliest formulation seems to be that of St Ignatius of Antioch, who died as a martyr in Rome between 110 and 117 AD. In his letter to the Ephesians (ch. 18), Ignatius makes a statement notoriously difficult to translate: "Our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to the plan (oikonomian) of God from the seed of David [cf. Rom 1:3] and [by] the Holy Spirit; he was born and was baptized so that by the passion (tô pathei) he might purify the water."

Without going into the difficulties presented by the language of this verse, we can note its basic theme. It is the same as depicted in icons and liturgical hymns of the Theophany feast. Christ descends into the waters of the Jordan not only to submit himself to the hands of John and to lay the foundation for the sacramental act of baptism. He also goes down into the Jordan in order to purify or sanctify those waters, and in so doing he symbolically (really, through this sign-act) sanctifies all of creation.

Theophany celebrates the baptismal renewal of God's people, members of the Body of Christ. But it also provides the perspective we are to assume with regard to the entire created world. Stated otherwise, it provides the foundation for a genuinely Christian "ecology."

Elizabeth Theokritoff has written a book that, hopefully, will soon be published by St Vladimir's Seminary Press. It is entitled, Living in God's Creation, with the subtitle "The Ecological Vision of Orthodox Christianity." I have had the privilege of reading the manuscript and can only hope that it will receive the wide and attentive reading it deserves.

One theme the book stresses is of particular importance in this time of Theophany. The author points out that our relation to the created world is less that of "steward" than it is of priest. We are called not only to preserve and care for the created order. Our vocation relative to the world we live in, both natural and human, is to make of it an offering to God, with the ongoing supplication that he bless, restore and make fruitful this planet over which he has granted us dominion. That dominion implies responsibility and respect toward all living things. But it means, too, that we recognize the "fallenness" of creation and its need for restoration, even redemption (Rom 8:18-23).

If that renewal is to be realized, particularly with today's ecological precariousness, it requires not only a thoroughgoing transformation in the way we see the world and make use of it. It requires above all that we, as baptized members of Christ's Body, accept our priestly calling to offer this world to its Creator and Lord, never ceasing to call down his blessing and grace upon it and upon each of its inhabitants.

Jesus submitted himself to baptism in order to identify with each of us, held as we are in bondage to sin and death, and to enable us to die and rise with him in newness of life, leading to life everlasting. Yet he also descended into the baptismal waters in order to bless and sanctify those waters. Thereby he demonstrated the truth that the Holy Trinity, manifest at his baptism, loves and cares for all of creation. And he calls us to assume the same attitude of loving concern, to acquire an "ecological vision" that scraps our habitual utilitarian exploitation of the environment in favor of an awe-filled wonder at the beauty and value inherent in the world that God has made.


Footnote:

1. "On the Baptism of our Lord," Discourse 37; quoted in Ouspensky & Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, Boston, 1969, p. 167.