“Fire Immersed in Water”

WE FREQUENTLY HEAR ABOUT the Fathers of the Church, those hierarchs and teachers who have made a lasting impression on the Church’s understanding of the Gospel. These texts offer us ample material on which to reflect despite, or perhaps because of, their antiquity.

On our greatest feasts we often proclaim the Fathers’ most lyrical discourses and poetic verses in the context of the Liturgy. The most noteworthy examples are the Catechetical Homily by St John Chrysostom, which is read on Pascha, and the poetic canons by St John of Damascus and St Cosmas of Maiouma, sung on Pascha and the Feast of the Nativity.

An important patristic text read on the feast of the Theophany is the prayer at the Great Blessing of Water by St Sophronios, who served briefly as Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638) but whose theological vision has inspired Eastern Christians ever since. The following is an excerpt from that prayer.

St Sopronios of Jerusalem on the Theophany

“Today the grace of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came upon the waters.

Today the unwaning sun has dawned, and the world is lit up with the light of the Lord.

[…]  Today the clouds refresh humanity with a rain of righteousness from above.

Today the uncreated One is by His own will touched by the creature.

Today the prophet and forerunner approaches the Master, but pauses in awe, seeing God’s condescension towards us.

Today the waters of the Jordan are turned into healing by the presence of the Lord.

Today all creation is watered by mystical waters. Today men’s sins are washed away in the waters of the Jordan.

Today Paradise is thrown open to mankind, and the sun of righteousness shines upon us.

Today the water that the people under Moses found bitter, is turned into sweetness at the presence of the Lord.

Today we are free of the ancient grief, and like a new Israel have been redeemed.

Today we are delivered from the darkness and are bathed in the light of the knowledge of God.

Today the world’s gloom is dispersed in the epiphany of our God.

Today the entire universe is lit as by a heavenly torch.

Today error is abolished and the coming of the Lord opens the way to salvation.

Today the heavenly joins the earthly in celebration, and that which is below holds discourse with that which is above.

Today the holy and vibrant assembly of the Orthodox rejoices.

Today the Master hastens towards baptism in order to raise mankind to the heights.

Today He who bends to none, bows before His own servant, so as to free us from bondage.

Today heaven has been deeded to us, for of the Lord’s kingdom there shall be no end.

Today the earth and the sky have divided the world’s joy, and the world is filled with gladness.

The waters saw You, O God, the waters saw You and were afraid. The Jordan reversed its flow when it saw the fire of divinity descending bodily and entering it.

The Jordan turned back, seeing the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove and hovering about You.

The Jordan turned back seeing the invisible become visible, the Creator made flesh, the Master in the form of servant.

The Jordan turned back and the mountains leapt, seeing God in the flesh, and the clouds gave voice, marveling at the One present, light of light, true God of true God, who submerged in the Jordan the death of disobedience and the sting of error and the bond of Hades, giving to the world a baptism of salvation.”

St Proclus of Constantinople on the Theophany

A friend and disciple of St John Chrysostom, Proclus would succeed him as Archbishop of Constantinople in 434. His Discourse 7, On the Theophany, is read in both Eastern and Western Churches on this feast.

“Christ appeared in the world, and, bringing beauty out of disarray, gave it luster and joy. He bore the world’s sins and crushed the world’s enemy. He sanctified the fountains of waters and enlightened the minds of men. Into the fabric of miracles he interwove ever greater miracles.

For on this day land and sea share between them the grace of the Savior, and the whole world is filled with joy.

Today’s feast of the Theophany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas.

On the feast of the Savior’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on today’s feast of the Theophany it is the sea that is glad and leaps for joy; the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.

At Christmas we saw a weak baby, giving proof of our weakness.

In today’s feast, we see a perfect man, hinting at the perfect Son who proceeds from the all-perfect Father.

At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at the Theophany the very source enfolds and, as it were, clothes the river.

Come, then, and see new and astounding miracles: the Sun of righteousness washing in the Jordan, fire immersed in water, God sanctified by the ministry of man.

Today every creature shouts in resounding song:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Blessed is he who comes in every age, for this is not his first coming.

And who is he? Tell us more clearly, I beg you, blessed David:

‘The Lord is God and has shone upon us.’

David is not alone in prophesying this; the apostle Paul adds his own witness, saying: ‘The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all men, and instructing us.’ Not for some men, but for all. To Jews and Greeks alike God bestows salvation through baptism, offering baptism as a common grace for all.

Come, consider this new and wonderful deluge, greater and more important than the flood of Noah’s day. Then the water of the flood destroyed the human race, but now the water of Baptism has recalled the dead to life by the power of the one who baptized.

In the days of the flood the dove with an olive branch in its beak foreshadowed the fragrance of the good odor of Christ the Lord; now the Holy Spirit, coming in the likeness of a dove reveals the Lord of mercy.”