From Bethlehem to the Jordan

WHILE OUR SECULAR, COMMERCIAL culture all but sees December 26 as the end of the Christmas season, for the Church the festive season is just beginning. We continue to observe the fabled “12 days of Christmas” – one day just isn’t enough to commemorate the presence of God among us.

The Feast of the Nativity is observed for the rest of December, culminating with the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ on the eighth day (January 1). Then we begin the time of preparation for the Feast of the Theophany.

In our Church this period from Christmas to Theophany is a festive time, free from fasting in contrast to the previous weeks of fasting. And as the “last and greatest day” of the paschal feast is Pentecost, so too the last and greatest day of our festival is the celebration of Christ’s epiphany at the Jordan: the holy Theophany of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.

In highlighting the birth of Christ the Church focuses on the Word of God setting aside His divine glory to identify with us. He “…made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). At the Theophany, however, we see the power of God manifested at Jesus’ baptism. In His emerging public ministry we see that power at work, bringing healing and forgiveness as a sign of the ultimate healing of mankind which will be brought about at the cross.

The Gospel portrays John the Forerunner as promising the coming of One who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” He will not simply come; He will act. And so while our Christmas celebration focuses on Christ’s coming in the flesh; the Theophany celebrates His coming in power. The Scriptures call it an epiphany: an appearance or public manifestation before the people of Israel. Christmas sets forth for us the incarnation in the flesh: God becoming human in Christ, and His self-abasement in doing so. The Theophany highlights His presence in power among sinners, to take away the sin of the world.

Our Church has come to call this event a theophany – a divine epiphany – because it was the first public appearance of Christ’s divinity. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, is affirmed by the voice of the Father and the Spirit in the form of a dove. This event, a manifestation of “the grace of God that brings salvation to all” (Titus 2:11), is the first epiphany of the Holy Trinity.

The Theophany, as might be expected, was one of the baptismal feasts of the early Church: a day when newly-baptized believers would be initiated into the worshipping community. Since witnessing a baptism should always remind us of our own, the Church selects this passage from St Paul’s Epistle to Titus for this feast: “…according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit… that we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5,7). We are reminded that we have tasted the fruit of Christ’s coming in baptism and chrismation, and have become heirs of the kingdom to come.

Both of these feasts evoke yet another epiphany, one still to come: Christ’s manifestation in glory as Judge. While the Gospel readings for the season focus on the events surrounding Christ’s theophany, the Epistle readings point to its consequences for our life. St Paul affirms that Christ will give the crown of righteousness on that day “to all who have loved His appearing [epiphanean]” (2 Timothy 4:8). For this reason we are called, first of all, to live “soberly, righteously and devoutly in the present age” (Titus 2:12) – sophronos, kai dikaios kai evsovos.

First of all, our love for Christ among us is reflected in our living soberly. Sophronos does not mean morosely, gloomily, but moderately, with self-restraint. It is a human virtue prized by the ancients long before Christ. To live prudently is to be self-controlled, without excess or extravagance. Living in moderation speaks about the way we see ourselves in the world: not simply as consumers of goods and entertainment, but as people for whom the inner life predominates. It is a precondition, as it were, for living a Christian life.

To live righteously speaks of the way we conduct our relations with others. “Righteousness” in the Scriptures refers, not to justice in the legal sense, but to living in a manner that reflects God’s way for us. It is the path of those who keep the commandments, whose actions reflect the love for neighbor preached by Christ.

Finally we are reminded to express our relationship to God by living devoutly. From its earliest days – based upon earlier Jewish practices – Christians have been enjoined to mark the passing of each day with the worship of God. If circumstances allow, we are to join with others in worship; if they do not, we can and should worship alone. Such regularity in worship reminds us that we are being blessed by God our Creator and Redeemer “at all times, at every hour.”

We respond to Christ’s coming in the flesh and in power as well as His ultimate coming in glory by a life of moderation, of love of neighbor and of honor to God in all things.

Leaving Bethlehem in spirit, and turning to the Jordan with Christ, come, all you families of the nations, let us sing to Him with a pure heart and lips. Let us say in faith, “Blessed is Your coming, O our God: glory to You!”
Radiant was the Feast that passed – and more radiant yet is the Feast that comes.
An angel announced the first; a Forerunner preaches the second. In the first, Bethlehem weeps because of the blood poured out as it was deprived of its infants; in the second, the waters are blessed and the baptismal fonts bring about the rebirth of countless children.
Formerly, a star revealed You to the wise men; now the Father reveals You to the world. O Savior who took flesh and now comes to manifest Yourself, O Lord, glory to You!
Vespers, Sunday before Theophany